Shifting Again

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Anthology - Shifting again

Alpha by B.A. Tortuga Hide by Cat Zheng The lost tiger by Sean Michael Plums by Camilla Bruce Rescuing Ryan by Sara Bell Seal skin by Kara Larson Singing up the moon by Angel Who will know? by A. Steele

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.

Shifting Again edited by Rob Knight Cover copyright Cat Zheng, used with permission. Alpha copyright © 2006 by BA Tortuga; Hide copyright © 2006 by Cat Zheng; The Lost Tiger copyright © 2006 by Sean Michael; Plums copyright © 2006 by Camilla Bruce; Rescuing Ryan copyright © 2006 by Sara Bell; Seal Skin copyright © 2006 by Kara Larson; Singing Up the Moon copyright © 2006 by Angel; Who Will Know? copyright © 2005 by A. Steele.

All rights reserved. No part of this eBook may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Torquere Press, PO Box 2545, Round Rock, TX 78680.

ISBN: 978-1-934166-23-9, 1-934166-23-5

Printed in the United States of America.

Torquere Press electronic edition / October 2006

Torquere Press eBooks are published by Torquere Press, PO Box 2545, Round Rock, TX 78680.

table of contents Foreword by Rob Knight - 4 Hide by Cat Zheng - 5 Rescuing Ryan by Sara Bell - 38 Who Will Know? By A. Steele - 81 The Lost Tiger by Sean Michael - 94 Plums by Camilla Bruce - 154

Singing Up the Moon by Angel - 174 Seal Skin by Kara Larson - 201 Alpha by BA Tortuga - 229 About our Contributors - 284

foreword by rob knight

One of my favorite things in the world, literary or otherwise, is the shapeshifter. You might have noticed that, since I edited Shifting and Shifting

Too. The great challenge behind Shifting Again was to find still more amazing tales of animal attraction and bring them together for a third book.

Luckily for me, some of the best writers out there were willing to give it a go. The stories in Shifting Again go well beyond the wolf. They explore the cruelty of an animal in captivity, the myth of the selkie, whose seal skin is hidden away to keep him on the shore. Oh, if you're a werewolf fan, there's still plenty for you here.

The one thing all of these stories have in common is the struggle for someone who is more than human to love, and love, in a human world, bringing out the vulnerability behind being different. Well, that and the heat factor. They're all about love, after all.

I hope you'll give in to your primal urge and read Shifting Again today. And that you'll enjoy these stories as much as I did.

Rob Knight, October 2006


by cat zheng

"Watch out!"

Startled out of a daydream, Vonne flung himself to the ground. The metal drum report of gunfire rattled in the distance and glass struck down around him like violent hail. He swept the ground around himself clear, cursing.

"Why can't the throwbacks stick to claws and jaws, eh?" His savior moved into the space he'd made and returned fire. Vonne rolled onto his side and grinned: recognition came at sound of the Northern accent as much as the sight of conflicting cowboy boots and hat. His buddy James Hewitt had spent more time on fishing boats than ranches growing up, but that didn't

keep him from following his fashion muse even in the middle of war.

"Wish they'd really go primitive," Vonne agreed. "It'd be easy huntin'."

Gunfire rattled again, but it sounded farther away this time. Vonne glanced down at the ammo counter on his rifle. Hewitt followed his gaze.

"We could use any advantage right about now." Hewitt gave Vonne a broad, close-lipped smile. Vonne grinned back, flashing teeth that closed together crookedly, and moved as Hewitt braced himself on the broken window ledge. Hewitt sighted his gun, finger in the trigger until he was reassured. He ducked back under cover. "What are you doing up here, anyway?"

"I was hoping to get a better view. Just got too damn close down there, sitting and waiting. Plus, well--" Vonne had the decency to look slightly embarrassed. "Needed a private moment."

Hewitt's laughter filled a lull between bursts of gunfire. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

"Did you see the contraband Lewis had--?" Vonne was cut off by an eruption of sound below them, so violent and so close that the building trembled. The moment of safety vanished; the looks they exchanged were all furrowed brows and tight lips as more explosions sounded below them. Hewitt lunged to his feet, fury in his face, like he was ready to rush down to investigate with guns blazing.

Vonne seized his friend's elbow and shook his

head, ignoring the tightening feel in his belly. He chanced a quick look out of the window; smoke was pouring out of the lower floors. Sound drifted up: shouting, gunfire, and worst of all, screams. His traitorous gut lurched again, and Hewitt's face became a mirror of his own as the bad news sunk in.

They stood simultaneously, Vonne shouldering his gun, Hewitt keeping his at the ready. Vonne cocked his head toward the back of the room. "We could probably get down that old fire escape in the back--"

"No fucking way!" Hewitt scowled, breaking into motion. "Everyone's down there! We have to get back to them." Without waiting for a response he made for the door marked "STAIR" and Vonne hurried to catch up to him, cursing. As soon as Hewitt opened the door smoke frothed out, obscuring everything. Instinctively, Vonne recoiled, lashing out to pull Hewitt back with

him--it was lucky, too, as gunfire split the air where they'd been standing only a moment before.

Before either of them could even think of returning fire, the enemy lunged out at them, haloed by smoke like some hell-beast. Hewitt gave a strangled shout despite himself, stumbling back into Vonne, and their world filled with the pungent, musky reek of the creature.

Startled as he was, Hewitt loosed the several rounds into the Primitive, knocking it back. Shaking its head like some giant shaggy bear, it threw aside its weapon in favor of claws as it lunged for Hewitt, and Vonne got his gun up in time to let off four shots of his own. He was lucky: thick hides, bony plates and relentless will still couldn't protect it from a bullet through the eye. Vonne thanked his lucky stars when it toppled over inches from reach of Hewitt's throat, dead.

He could hear Hewitt's breathing, sharp and jerky, but leveling out quickly. At last Hewitt said: "Guess they still haven't grown bulletproof skulls yet, eh?" He turned to Vonne and smiled, lowering his gun. His hand shook so slightly Vonne wasn't sure if he'd just imagined seeing it.

"Jesus, if they come up with that, I'm going over." He coughed, lungs feeling raw, and waved futilely at the smoke. Hewitt was coughing too. Vonne scowled and tipped his head toward the fire escape in the back. When the latch on the window that led outside wouldn't open, he shattered the glass with a few fierce strikes of the butt of his gun and wrapped his jacket round his arm to clear the glass away.

The fire escape was holding, but just barely. Glancing down through the grated floor,

he could see where some of the supports drilled into the brick sides of the building were beginning to twist and buckle from the heat pouring from inside. There was black smoke, so much of it. He couldn't see any flames, but he could feel the hellish temperature. Despite that, he plunged down the stairs, the clunking sound of his feet ringing in his ears. He stopped when he noticed Hewitt wasn't immediately at heel.

His friend was coming down more cautiously, pausing to sight through the scope of his rifle every few steps, scanning, Vonne knew, on multiple levels. Vonne shook his head. "Don't fuck with all that, Hewitt. It's gonna be a hit and run, guarantee you," he shouted up.

Hewitt frowned, but he came down after Vonne more quickly. "Think you're right," Hewitt said. "Whole building's gonna come down soon. Fuck, you feel that heat, yeah?"

Vonne paused to peer over one side. Hewitt didn't even bother looking. He swung a leg over one side of the fire escape railing and hung a moment, muscles standing out in his wiry arms, before dropping to the ground. It was a long fall, but he didn't seem hurt when he hit ground. Vonne sucked in a deep breath. He wasn't fond of heights to begin with--wasn't fond of jumping off fire escapes with two floors worth of air still between him and the ground. But the fire escape was already beginning to creak and shift under his feet. He closed his eyes, counted to ten, and vaulted over the side.

He was sure he'd break something, being not so skinny or agile as Hewitt, though there was probably something to be said for being shorter and stouter and more compact. But the worst of it was the impact knocking the breath out of his body; his legs weren't a hundred percent, but nothing was sprained or broken, as far as he could feel. Hewitt shoved a hand in his face, lips

stretched over his teeth in a grim smile.

"Better get a move on, eh?" Hewitt hauled him up.

They moved as quickly as they could toward the nearest cover, a wooded patch behind what used to be the Ministry's parking lot. Hewitt paused as soon as they were out of the open, looking back at the building.

Vonne gave the area around them a quick naked-eye search, putting his back to a tree before glancing at Hewitt. "Come on. Greater Jersey squad is based maybe a mile off--we can get reinforcements, be back by morning--"

"Nothing's gonna be left by morning." Hewitt

seemed to remember himself and dropped down into a crouch behind some low growth next to Vonne. "Jesus, Vonne, you think anyone else got out?"

"Of course, yeah, I mean, Captain had Jack the Cat on watch--he never misses any fucking thing, so they had to have warning, right?"

"All the fucking screams--"

"Maybe not everyone got out on time but--"

"Why didn't they fucking warn us, then?" Hewitt yanked his radio off his belt; it was a slick, tiny but sturdy metal capsule, once upon a time for civvie comm, long since converted for the resistance's cause. He thumbed through the

channels; there was nothing, dead silence, not even the awkward blip-and-gone of an inconsistent digital channel.

"Radio's probably damaged," Vonne reasoned. "You should at least be able to raise GJ squad's comm if it was a-ok. Apes probably got jammers on."

Hewitt said nothing, only putting his radio back on his belt. His whole face was tight, drawn, pale.

"They're fucking alive, all right?" Vonne had to stop himself from shouting, managed to wrangle his voice down to a whisper. "So we better get moving and bring help." He didn't give Hewitt time to think or answer; instead, he moved forward quickly, scanning every few steps. Whether out of habit or intent, Hewitt fell

into his place in the movements, reverse mirroring some of Vonne's movements, covering the openings in others. Vonne grinned, recognizing what they called "two man Stealth-and-Stalk." Early in the sixteen months of war they faced together, they'd worked out the best method to cross terrain stealthily and quickly with each other. Hewitt had insisted they give it a hokey name, like a kung-fu move or some elite evasive military strategy. Originally it had been three-man S&S, but that loss was one Vonne did his best not to think about, banishing it to lurk only in nightmares and his deepest subconscious.

Like most of the resistance, neither of them were elite forces, no military training, not even makeshift boot camp. They learned by watching those few men who did have training, squeezing in knowledge in the long, awful waits between attacks, and by making mistakes. Vonne was from a family who liked to go on the occasional deer hunt, so he knew a gun well enough. Hewitt had been a park ranger, so he had some working knowledge of guns and forestry. Unlike most of

the resistance, they had managed to survive these sixteen months intact, and more importantly, with their humanity intact, and Vonne was sure it was because of Stealth-and-Stalk--because they watched each other's back, learned together and cooperated to move the most swiftly and efficiently.

They crossed through the small wooded buffer between the Ministry of Forestry building and the winding black snake of a long-abandoned road. The pavement was already beginning to break down under the force of nature, small weeds and grasses overtaking even a hint of a crack. Across the road was more forest. Hewitt crouched a moment in the perimeter of their section of trees, flipping his scope cap off and scanning the area across from them. He lowered his gun and shook his head.

"All clear," he muttered softly, "But I still don't like it."

"What's not to like? Hit and run, like I said." Vonne plunged forward, old habit making him look both ways before he set foot on the paved road, straining for some hint of cars coming. Nostalgia hit him out of nowhere: memories of crossing roads much like this to get to the tobogganing hill across from his house, back when there was enough snow to toboggan. He'd been really young, then, and there had been a handful of really cold winters before they disappeared entirely.

"Apes don't leave survivors if they can help it."

"Maybe they can't help it because our guys are out there kicking their asses, all right?"

"Then where's the fucking gunfire, Vonne?"

"I don't fucking know, Hewitt!" Vonne scowled at Hewitt and hurried them back under cover; but this was good a sign as any that there weren't any Primitives around. Their voices would have provoked a human enemy out, never mind one with hearing as good as a dog or a cat's.

Without another word, they fell back into their partnered movement; they made good time, going until the sun baked the temperature so high that they had to seek cover and stop. Noontime was a good time--heat was so bad nothing mammalian liked to be out of the shade. And far as anyone could tell, Primitives did the same as any man and found a cool, quiet spot to sleep until temperatures let up.

Hewitt and Vonne didn't have much more refuge

than the shade of the trees, but to stop moving helped a great deal. Vonne stripped off his heavy canvas jacket and bundled it up between a few large roots, resting his head on it. Hewitt shed down to his bare skin and silver cross and dog tags and dropped down in the wedge of roots next to Vonne.

"Jeez, man, body heat," Vonne protested, though he kept his voice low. He elbowed Hewitt and laughed. Hewitt checked his gun and tucked it against his elbow, replying in an equally low tone.

"You won't be complaining about body heat when I peg one of them throwbacks coming straight for your throat."

"Any throwback stupid enough to run around in this heat can have it." Vonne snatched Hewitt's

hat off his head and put it over his face. The brim hid his smile at Hewitt's appropriate response.

"Fuck you, that's my pa's hat--"

"--Bullshit!" Vonne said, placing a hand firmly on it and fighting off Hewitt's half-serious attempts to get it back. "Weren't you always bragging how you ordered it out of some catalogue for all those box-tops?"

"Fuck off," Hewitt said, but he was laughing. "You mean, I won it off some jerk from the South who thought I was just some skinny forester's kid."

"Youwere some skinny forester's kid."

"Well, youwere some jerk from the South."

"South to you guys, maybe," Vonne agreed. He folded his hands behind his head, one elbow resting comfortably on Hewitt's thigh. "Shit, it's weird, thinking about that year. Dad moving us up north just about overnight, and then not even a few months later everyone else trying to do the same..."

"First Primitives that year too," Hewitt said, his voice weirdly even.

"Yeah," Vonne said. "I thought they were kind of cool, at the time."

"I told my dad I wanted to be one."

Vonne stared at Hewitt until the other man cracked a smile.

"To piss him off," Hewitt finished. "You gotta admit, they got all the advantages."

"Don't mean I want to be one." Vonne frowned. "That's why we're fighting this, right?"

Hewitt stared off into the trees. "I'm fighting this because they started it. Because they thought being better means getting rid of the not-as-good."

"But you wouldn't want tobe one," Vonne repeated again, fixing his friend with a curious look. Hewitt didn't notice.

"If I wanted to be one, I wouldn't be sitting here guarding your sorry ass now, would I?" He spoke without looking at Vonne, but when he was done he turned and smiled. Vonne realized he'd been gripping his gun hard, just out of sight. He forced himself to relax and let go. He made himself smile back, feeling a little angry with himself.

Hewitt slapped him in the shoulder and shook his head. "Get some sleep, you asshole. I'll be sure not to wake you when the throwbacks come for me."

"Shut the fuck up," Vonne said, but he leaned back and pulled Hewitt's hat down low over his eyes. Tree roots and rocks were no substitutes for

a pillow but his jacket, rolled into a bundle, did just fine. He couldn't help the hint of smile as Hewitt's weight settled against him, one hand brushing along his thigh and then coming to rest on his knee. It was sweaty and hotter than if they'd slept farther apart, but it was good, comforting, to have that hard, lean body against him. Things had gone bad, real bad, today; but they were still here, the two of them, and that made it something less than awful. He had learned long ago to take what small comforts he could find, and so he savored the coolness of the shade and the noises of a thriving forest, birds and insects singing him a peculiar midday lullaby, the feel of Hewitt against him.

As he drifted into dreams he had a thought he had too often: if it only was a different time, a different place... and then he was swept away from the forest and the war by the merciful arms of sleep.


"Vonne, wake up, come on..."

The butt of Hewitt's rifle prodded Vonne awake. Hewitt's soft, insistent words filtered into his awareness just before the other sounds: the silence of the forest, and then, the rapid staccato of gunfire somewhere in the distance. He jerked himself into a sitting position, fully awake now. His gun was in his hand quick as thought and he tilted his head to listen for the direction of the live fire. His stomach rumbled dimly; he willed it to stop and focused harder.

"That way," Hewitt hissed. He lunged to his feet and into motion, cutting his way through the undergrowth without hesitation. Vonne scowled at his buddy's recklessness but he followed. The sun was still high overhead, baking the air into a

hot, humid mass. Vonne felt moisture running off of him like he'd taken a shower. He scraped his sweaty hair back from his forehead and mopped his face with one arm.

The gunfire was close now, so close Vonne was surprised no one had noticed them crashing through the underbrush like elephants. He swiveled to his right when he heard shouting coming from a dense cluster of trees; but straining to see, he saw nothing, found nothing. When he turned back Hewitt was already gone ahead of him. "Fuck!" he said hard under his breath. He stilled and tried to hear Hewitt's progress, or more fighting, but the forest seemed to have quieted to mock him. Frowning, he tried to pick up the direction he'd been headed.

"Hewitt," he chanced a loud whisper. He figured their careless progress would have given his position away already. "Hewitt!"

He worked his way around a tangle of low, thorny bushes and emerged to see Hewitt standing, motionless, at the edge of a clearing in the woods. Tall grasses grew waist high in the clearing, lit a brilliant gold by the noonday sun. Vonne started to say Hewitt's name again, and then stopped, finally seeing what had frozen his friend in place.

Lost over three weeks ago, Curtis Dremel had disappeared during a raid on a Primitive supply center. His loss had been hard for Vonne, but Hewitt had been crushed. Hewitt and Curtis had been like brothers, grown up together, an inseparable duo before Vonne's arrival made them a trio. Sometime during the war the two of them became more than just friends--they never talked about it, but Vonne knew, heard them sometimes in the closeness of the tent. If he was ever envious he never said anything; and if he was ever a little glad for Curtis's disappearance, he would never have admitted it even to himself.

Vonne shook off his shock first. "Jesus, Curtis, you're alive!"

Dirt and blood smeared the dark soldier's face, but he seemed whole enough. His expression was more than a little bewildered as he stumbled toward them. His mouth worked as if he was trying to find words.

Hewitt shook off his paralysis at last, breaking into motion, shoving his gun behind him and cutting toward the standing figure in the midst of the tall grass. His words drifted back to Vonne across the clearing. "Curtis--Christ--Curtis..."

Curtis smiled and spread his arms, almost as if presenting himself, or beckoning Hewitt. Vonne

felt a momentary pang of emotion he'd long thought dead. He thrust it away: he was glad Curtis was alive, glad as fuck, thankful. He followed after Hewitt, plunging forward.


Curtis's voice rang out in the stillness, strange and harsh and somehow unlike himself.

"Curt, oh Jesus, it's me, Curt, it's me--" Hewitt was almost to Curtis now, stretching out one hand toward his friend, as if he could save him from whatever horrors were marked so obviously on his face. Curtis reached out as well, stumbling forward to meet him, fingers curling for a handshake.

Vonne fell back, stopped moving entirely. He wiped sweat out of his eyes. The heat was really fucking bad. He could see it distorting the air, bending Curtis's shape, making him look sort of blurred and wavy--slurring into something less human....

"FUCK!" Vonne burst forward into motion. "Hewitt, get back! Oh, fuck!"

A new trick, an old one they'd never seen, Vonne didn't know, but Curtis wasn't Curtis any more. Before Vonne's eyes Curtis shed his humanity, erupted fur and fangs and claws, muzzle like a stunted dog's and yellow eyed like a wolf. The inhuman reek of him hit Vonne like a wall of stench, that weird smell that wasn't revolting like garbage but almost pleasant, almost stirring, musky and strange and thick.

The forward motion of Hewitt and the thing that had been Curtis--or had taken on his face--brought their bodies together before Hewitt could react; they crashed to the ground in a grotesque parody of an embrace and even from the distance Vonne was from them he could hear the sick crunch of bone and flesh under teeth. Vonne heard screaming and he yanked his gun up to save Hewitt before he realized it was his own voice he was hearing. Hewitt was silent; from the twisted merging of man and beast there was only sickening sound of teeth on bone.

As soon as Vonne got a clear shot he took it, still shouting bloody murder. The sound of his gun was like thunder in his ears. His screams coalesced into words: "Get off him you fucking ape! You fucking throwback!"

At last he got the thing's attention enough to pull it off of Hewitt and toward him. When their eyes met he couldn't help but wonder how much--if

any--of Curtis was in there, or if they had only taken on the ability to mimic men they had seen or killed. It made him hesitate just long enough for the beast to close the distance between them. But as it filled his personal space, plugged his nostrils with its primal reek and his vision with its inhuman shape, he knew Curtis was no part of this thing and he moved just in time.

In most speed contests between Primitive and man the Primitive won, but this time Vonne was lucky. He pulled the pin out of a grenade and dropped it at the ape's feet, rolling away before it even registered what had happened. He covered his head against the resultant rain of dirt and pelt and blood and fur. The wave of the explosion hammered into him; he tried to roll even further out of the way, but he'd come to the edge of the clearing, and the blast hurled him into a tree. His breath was slammed out of him, and his consciousness followed.


Vonne opened his eyes. He wondered if he'd gone blind at first, it was so dark, but then he saw a few dim, pale shapes in the space around him.

"You're alive." Hewitt sounded so desperately relieved that Vonne reached out a hand and groped for him. He gasped when he laid his hand in something wet, and ragged-edged.

"Can't believe you're alive," Hewitt said, and Vonne felt a rough glove pat the back of his hand reassuringly. But Vonne heard something catch in Hewitt's breath.

"Thought it chewed your head off."

"Sure tried to," Hewitt agreed. "Got my arm, mostly." Vonne made out the bare shape of Hewitt's face, sweaty curls plastered to the high pale dome of his forehead.

It took him a moment to notice the obvious: "Where's your hat?"

Hewitt without his cowboy hat was as alarming as the blood Vonne had put his hand in. The other man shrugged. "Got stomped on, I guess."

Vonne gritted his teeth and scooted his ass until the wall helped him sit up. "Hewitt?"

Another shrug. There was more light now. It must

be turning dawn, Vonne thought, but Hewitt had somehow wrangled his mass to shelter. The pain in his head was beginning to dim, at least. In the growing light he could see that Hewitt was torn up badly. He'd carefully attended to himself, of course, but even the dirty bandages they all carried as field dressing hadn't been enough to cover all the scrapes and gashes. His well-loved jeans were purple and black with blood, his long legs a ruin.

Vonne scuttled toward him, hands hovering, unable to think of anything that might help but desperately wanting to.

"You think..." Hewitt whispered, "You think that was Curtis in there?"

Vonne let out a long breath between his teeth. "No," he said at last. "Don't think it

was. Why would Curtis try and kill you?"

"Why didn't that thing kill me?" Hewitt's right hand drifted to the wad of bandages wrapped around his left forearm. Blood glistened thickly through the layers of white. "Could have bit clean through my bones, if it wanted."

"I was shooting at the fucker, Hewitt. Don't you go reading shit into shit that don't got any meaning." He fumbled among the items strapped to his back, his belt, his waist. At last he found where he'd tied his canteen on last time. He pressed it into Hewitt's hands. "You better drink something." An odd smell clinging to Hewitt drifted up to Vonne--somehow cinnamon and musky and salty-sweet. Probably left from his grapple with the Primitive. Weirdly, Vonne felt himself go half-hard.

"Wish Curt was really back." Hewitt shook his head at the canteen. He opened his eyes, meeting Vonne's. "Better not. Got bit, right?"

Cold slammed into Vonne's belly, his odd dim arousal fled as quickly as it had come. How could he have forgotten that wretched scrape of teeth, wet sound of skin breaking? Hewitt noticed his expression with a quirk of his mouth. He reached out and touched Vonne's gun.

"You got a round for me?" Hewitt asked.

"Jesus, no!" Vonne shouted, jerking back. "No, I don't got a round for you, you son of a bitch!"

"You know you gotta."

"Fuck what I gotta!" Vonne yelled. But Hewitt was right. Any soldier bitten and not in immediate range of a med team was to be put out of his misery. Anything that got Primitive blood into a Human's meant threat of hostile takeover. The war on a microscopic level: Primitives winning there, too. Vonne crashed his fist into one side of the cave, swearing. "Goddamnit! I don't give a goddamn shit if theyare better, I just want my goddamn normal life back! I want you, and I want Curtis, and I want being out in the forest and not freaking out in some goddamn hole with my goddamn best friend asking to have a bullet in his goddamn head!"

"You tell 'em," Hewitt laughed weakly. His eyes were shut, his breathing shallower. His hand slipped off the muzzle of Vonne's gun.

He panicked, lunging forward to grab Hewitt's

shoulders and shake him. "Jesus, no, Hewitt! I'll find the corps, get you a medic...." Medic teams had anti-change agents, stuff culled from the Primitives' own research, retrovirals and anti-mutagens and that sort of thing--though Vonne knew sometimes even that stuff wasn't strong enough to stop a man going ape if that was what his heart really wanted.

That was the biggest difference between Men and the Primitives, after all. Primitives had been men once, who saw back to the old ways, blended them with the new--science and more arcane, inexplicable things come together. Viral agents and ritual, recombinant DNA and incense.

Hewitt didn't open his eyes, but his gloved hand slid up to squeeze Vonne's wrist. He mumbled something.

"What?" Vonne demanded, shaking him again.

"Said... stop it... you're giving me a boner and I need that blood elsewhere."

Impulsively, Vonne seized Hewitt's hand and squeezed and released it just as quickly. The heavy scent of him was stronger. Vonne tried to tell himself was just the smell of a man dying. But the evidence seemed against him. Hewitt seemed to be breathing more deeply again; he seemed more resting than dying. Vonne steadfastly ignored the part of him that suggested Hewitt's recovery wasn't necessarily a good thing. He stripped off his beaten up camouflage hunting jacket, loved and trusted since before the wartimes, and draped it over the other man, then handed him his best knife and his canteen and the little bottle of barracks' moonshine he kept for both antiseptic and alcoholic purposes. "Now, I don't give anyone that bottle, and I expect you to be returning it ape-cootie free," he schooled

Hewitt with a serious face.

Hewitt nodded and then coughed. Vonne didn't like his ashen complexion, but he didn't say so. "I'll be back any minute with the corps medic, so you just sit tight, keep quiet. Jesus, you're gonna shiver yourself apart." Vonne wished he had another sweater like he'd had when this all started, but it had ripped full of holes fast. He just had to hurry, that was all. If he was back soon, Hewitt's teeth wouldn't chatter through his tongue. The other man seemed close to losing consciousness again; his eyes were slits, the glimpse of hazel just enough to tell he was still watching Vonne. "Sit tight," Vonne repeated, feeling worse than ever about leaving. He patted Hewitt's shoulder and then moved toward the entrance of the small cave.

The low moan stopped him. He turned, but he was too far to see Hewitt's face. The weird smell had filled the whole space, thick and exotic and

somehow animal.

"Don't you worry," he whispered back even as his sense of panic deepened. "Don't you worry, I'll be back soon."

When he got no reply from Hewitt, he hoped his friend was reassured, and plunged back into the forest.


"Vonne! Jesus, man, how are you alive?"

Vonne pushed past the startled team leader sitting outside the command tent and went inside. It had

been a full day of pointless wandering before he found the relocated base camp for Unit GJ, and he wasn't in any mood to be friendly. He ignored the perimeter guard completely, some greenie that didn't shoot him down as soon as he broke the camp line, and made a beeline for command.

"Throwbacks are getting too close," Captain Holdren was saying, indicating a diagram on a portable screen. "Cho's faction has been hoping to pre-emptive strike, take over this area before the Primitives and turn it to human causes but--" the captain frowned. He stopped abruptly as he noticed his men staring toward the tent entrance, following their gaze to Vonne. "Excuse me, son, but you can't be here."

"Sir, I need--" Vonne began. A medic, barely distinguishable from the grungy, civilian-clothed ranks, rushed in behind him with a scanner to read him.

"Scan's clean; he's not throwback," the medic announced, and then colored when he noticed what he had intruded upon.

"'Course I'm not a throwback! Stop that," Vonne said gruffly, batting the medic's intrusive instrument away. "Hewitt's back there--between here and Outpost 54. We need help."

"'Captain Cowboy' Hewitt?" the medic said with some dismay. Vonne winced. It was a stupid nickname that Hewitt had loathed, but it stuck within the ranks.

The captain stared at Vonne, his effort to scrape up some recognition obvious. "You were with Sixth Corps, weren't you?" The captain's face went that automatic blank of a man who'd had to

deliver bad news too many times. "Doubt your friend's alive by now, apes brought down the old Forestry offices--Outpost 54. We got reports."

"No, we got out," Vonne protested. "He's bit, we gotta get a medic--"

"Bitten?" The captain's face turned serious. "How far?"

"'Bout a day's walk southeast--"

The captain's face darkened. "And you didn't do your duty to see him off intact?"

"You were supposed to be three hours away, not

a whole fucking day!" Vonne shouted. "So no, I didn't 'see him off intact’, you heartless piece of shit!"

"You are out of line--!" One of the other officers stood, but the captain raised a hand and gestured him down. The expression on his face warred between annoyance and pity.

"We were forced to move base when Outpost 54 failed to hold off a Primitive aggression. If you're lucky, your friend's dead, son. So let him go."

Vonne opened his mouth to protest, but the captain shook his head warningly. His hand landed on Vonne's shoulder, squeezed it hard before he turned away.

"Medic, would you mind escorting this soldier out of command? Why don't you take him to the mess? Food does a man favors."


The medic obediently took Vonne's elbow and gently steered him to the tent's exit.

"I'm real sorry to hear about Cap'n Cowboy. He was real good to everyone here at base. Always had a joke when you didn't expect it. I liked that." The medic hovered at Vonne's elbow while they walked. "I liked his hat. Bet he's still wearing it, wherever he's gone now."

Vonne said nothing. He had meant, upon being so completely dismissed by the captain, to go back

and look for Hewitt himself, but the mention of Hewitt's missing hat made his gut clench and his eyes prickle. He cleared his threatening sinuses with a great, noisy inhale, changed it into a hawk and spit. But he couldn't expel the wet, heavy certainty that the captain was right. Hewitt was lost to him now.

"Fuck, man, if things had been different," he muttered, scowling harder at the ground as if it were responsible for his pain. He pinched the bridge of his nose, clenched his eyes, then caught the medic staring at him with a concern and a pity that turned his stomach. "Can't a man sneeze in some fucking peace and quiet?" he growled, glowering.

The medic got the hint. He gave Vonne a half-hearted salute, tried an encouraging smile. "Why don't you do like the Captain says and get something to eat? Mess is right there." He gestured down one muddy path and then scurried


Vonne stared after the medic. He felt muddled. He'd seen men he grew up with, men he'd known all his life blown up, chewed up, shot to pieces, and he hadn't felt so muddled as he felt now. He hated the feeling. Hewitt was his best friend, sure, but Hewitt would have wanted him to keep a clear head. After all, he had no sure way of knowing that Hewitt hadn't somehow survived.

Around him life in the camp was going on as if nobody had died. Or maybe as if somebody died everyday so that nobody could give a shit any more. He wanted to get up on a high spot, start yelling that for fuck's sake, twenty five men were dead and didn't any one give a good goddamn?

But hadn't he been the same way when Curtis died? He hadn't had time for grief. All he had

time for was living and fighting as long as he could.

Vonne never wanted to be a soldier, but he was a soldier now. He couldn't go scurrying off on his own crazy suicide mission. Hewitt wouldn't want it that way. Told him to get the fuck out, didn't he?

He sucked in a breath, held it until the dim ache in his chest seemed to go away and his stomach rumbled at the smell of food drifting from the way the medic had indicated.

With a last glance back into the forest, Vonne hefted his gun against his shoulder and turned toward the makeshift mess tent.


The mess was crowded with more than Unit GJ's usual compliment, the line for lunch stretching clear to the tent entrance. Vonne joined the line and looked around himself with a frown. The man ahead of him caught his expression and said, "Refus like you, man. Reports say four outposts were taken down, everyone running to mobile commands like ours."

Vonne's frown deepened. "Are the apes working overtime? That's a big fucking loss."

The man shrugged, turning back to face the front of the line. "Everyone's got theories."


"I heard we finally got something to use against the throwbacks. Bet the apes heard it too and want to wipe us out before we get it in motion."

"Bullshit," another soldier chimed in from behind Vonne. "'S the apes who got a new thing to use against us, faking us out. You GJ boys hiding here don't know nothing. But us on the front line seen it. Wearing our guys' faces like fucking party masks."

"Intel says they always could do that," a third man quietly interjected.

"Intel's full of crap!"

The first man broke out of line to shake a finger at the second. "Look, genius, apes' whole fucking thing was that they turn into whatever they want. 'Adaptation of self instead of anti-natural tech' and all that bullshit whatsherface that Doctor was spouting. Of course they could always do that, they just didn't want us to know!"

"They were waiting." A tired looking woman standing two down from the first man turned and looked at them. "They were waiting so that when we were all fucked up and tired they could show us what they really were and tempt us. That they're not subhuman, they're human and beyond."

"That's fuckingtraitor talk, bitch!"

"Hey, cool off," Vonne said, laying a hand on the first man's shoulder. But he didn't do much good,

just found himself in a sandwich between the first and second man as they continued to argue.

"No, it ain't. I seen guys walk up to the apes with open arms when they seen their friends' old faces."

"That's just 'cause they're tricked."

"No, that's 'cause they seen what's what and they seen what's better and they fucking run into the enemy's arms like some hot fuck. I seen 'em, don't even fight the throwbacks when it's chewin' right on 'em. Traitors, all of 'em."

"That's bullshit! It's fucking bullshit and you better shut up before I feed you those goddamn words!"

No one was more startled than Vonne to realize he'd been the one to shout those words. He colored, ducking his head and mumbling an apology before he fled the line. He heard men coming to his defense, sounding off agreement, but he didn't go back. He snagged a man and begged a bunk and directions to the barracks, and sought out solitude.

The barracks were thankfully quiet, only one man inside, sprawled on his bunk napping. Vonne followed his lead, dropping to an empty mattress, covering his eyes with one arm. When he couldn't sleep he deliberately rolled off the mattress, wedged himself between it and the barracks outer wall. He imagined the steel support against his back was bark and moss, that the nylon wall against his leg was Hewitt's weight leaned up against him. The pretense held for only a little while, but he stayed, comforted by the enclosed feeling. He thought about Curtis and he wondered

for the billionth time if there wasn't some sign, why there hadn't been any tip off from intel, why the thing had only chewed Hewitt's arm and then looked at him with Curtis's eyes. Why Hewitt had been so silent when the throwback attacked him.

Was that soldier right to call Hewitt a traitor?

Vonne struck his fist against the bunk mattress. "No fucking way," he growled under his breath.

But then why didn't Hewitt resist? Or had he? Was Hewitt rotting back in that cave?

Not for the first time Vonne wondered what made a man give himself over. Sure, there was the virus, the physiological takeover, but it had been

proven that the change had more than that involved. If there were instances of men getting antivirals in time and still changing, why weren't there stories of men being bitten but resisting?

And when the body changed... What made the man into a monster?

Vonne let his head sag against his arms, as if he could bury his head and the truth in one motion. Eventually, he drifted off into a wretched, uncomfortable sleep.

He was jerked back to consciousness by someone clearing their throat.

"Was sleeping on the ground common practice in your unit, Mister Vonne?"

Vonne blinked in confusion until he saw the Unit Captain perched on the edge of his mattress, regarding him with a cool expression. But a smile seemed to play on the corners of his mouth.

"I'll hope, at least, that your unit was rather lax in enforcing rules for where and when an officer might enter unannounced."

"In an emergency, sir," Vonne said, frowning a little.

"It's the same here. At ease, soldier. I realize you've just suffered a great loss."

"No offense, sir, but I been suffering those since the war began. If I can't take 'em and keep going I might as well lie down and die."

"Quite true. All the same, what right do we have to call ourselves human if we cease to grieve for our lost ones?" And the Captain got a faraway look in his eye; like everyone else, Vonne knew, he was surely speaking from experience. But Vonne had no sympathy to spare. So he said nothing.

Eventually the Captain stopped waiting for Vonne and spoke again. "So, Mister Vonne, how'd you like to get a bit of revenge on the bastards who did this to you?"

Vonne looked up at the captain, confused by this sudden change in subject. "Sir?"

"After yesterday's losses, command's decided we need more drastic measures. We've been working on a new technology that needs good, driven men like you to try it out. Men who won't balk at putting themselves in harm's way to deal the Primitives a little of their own medicine."

"You mean men who don't give a shit if they live or die. Sorry, sir, but--"

"No, Vonne, I don't mean that. I mean men who know who they are, what they are, and are pissed off enough that someone's stomping on their God-given humanity to do somereal fighting back for once. Men who've seen others raped and turned into thosethings and who know that they would rather die than become that. Men who want to show the Primitives that you don't fuck with us, because we'll fuck you back twice as hard."

The Captain was fairly young, so it was easy to forgive his expression, which seemed to expect Vonne to lunge to his feet, pump his fist in the air, and volunteer. Instead Vonne leaned against his knees, staring at the far wall, considering. At last he said, "I don't know that I'm that sort of man, sir, but Iwould like to take out some throwback for what they did to my buddy."

The Captain clapped him on the shoulder, enthusing. "Good man. Report to south medical unit--ask anyone, they'll point you to it."

Vonne watched him leave, shaking his head.


"What's a fuckin' traitor lover like you doing here? Or is it true that you're just all worked up cause yer boyfriend turned furry?"

Vonne frowned as the loudmouth he'd yelled at in the mess elbowed his way in position beside him. "Fuck off." He resisted taking stronger action, but just barely.

The man wrinkled his face up and grabbed his crotch. Vonne caught a dark look from the mission leader, a bespectacled man in a lab coat, so he merely shrugged down into his seat again.

"Deklin, Vonne, will you chatterboxes shut up and listen?"

"Yessir," Deklin snapped off smartly. Vonne just nodded.

The mission leader frowned, but began speaking. "All right! I'm gonna be honest with you all. This ain't a scouting mission or a holding mission or some pansy shit like that. You're all welcome to get up and walk away after this briefing if you like."

Vonne heard murmuring around him. The mission leader gave a hard look around himself before continuing. He held up a vial. It was full of something that looked like bad water.

"This is what you will be carrying. Any of you that accept this mission will be injected with this and sent into known enemy territory. What intel hopes is that this not only keeps you from getting

changed, but it's going to make your body become immune after you are bitten. And if you come back alive with that immunity in your system, intel hopes that it can take this shit back out of your blood and share that immunity with anyone who wants it."

He paused, looking around as if daring anyone to go on muttering. He set the vial down and crossed his arms. "We're also hoping it'll have a reverse effect on Primitives. Give them a little payback for all those good men they perverted. This was originally developed as a potential viral weapon against the Primitives before its secondary benefits were discovered. So if you see your attacker get sick, keel over and die, you report it to intel over radio, because if we can use it as a weapon, that is its primary goal."

"Like poisoned meat," the man next to Vonne scowled. "You want us to go out there and be poisoned meat."

"We don't deny that if we can use you to kill the Primitives, we will. After all, isn't that why you joined us?"

"Not to be some goddamn plague rat!"

"Your primary mission is not to be a plague rat, Mr. Simmons, your primary mission is to bring back immunity for everyone here. If should happen that this defense can also be an offense, we want to know about it. But if you don't like the idea, you're welcome to turn down the mission and leave."

"What about guns?" someone yelled. "Throwbacks could just pick us off a mile away. Bitin's just their CQC."

"Current reports seem to indicate the Primitives are changing tactic from elimination to conversion. This is why it's of the utmost importance that we learn if this immunization is successful. You all don't want to spend the rest of your lives scratching your balls in some tree, do you?"

Deklin elbowed Vonne and muttered, "You think he's full of shit?"

Vonne shrugged.

"Whaddya wanna bet they ain't even tested that shit on humans before? Probably make your eyes pop and run out your nose."

Ignoring him, Vonne raised a hand. "I'll do it." He shouldered his gun and stood up.

"The briefing isn't finished--"

"You need some jackasses to get shot up with this shit, go out there, get bit and hopefully not die long enough to come back. That right, sir?"

The mission leader blinked, coloring deeply and adjusting his glasses as if that would give him cover against Vonne's scorn. "Yes, but--"

"You're a crazy motherfucker," Deklin snorted, and he stood too, slinging an arm around Vonne's shoulders. "Sign me up too. Let's go down as men

who who saved the world!"

The mission leader squinted at them both. "If you two are joking...."

Deklin started to grin and accede that he was, but Vonne shook his head. "Ain't joking, sir."

Looking caught between his pride and personal sense of preservation, Deklin swallowed and then straightened up. He visibly weighed things for a moment, and then said, "What the hell, I ain't joking either."

The sarge looked pleased and relieved. He turned back to the others. "All right, we got two real men here! Anyone else got balls in this roomful of monkeys?"


"Jesus, man, what the hell were you thinking, man?"

They were moving at high noon, when it was too hot and activity in both camps would be low. They'd been given coordinates of known lone patrol teams near camps; the thought was, if they met only one Primitive, chances of surviving were better. Vonne wanted to keep quiet, keep moving until they got there, but Deklin liked the sound of his voice too much to keep quiet for long.

"Wasn't thinking," Vonne said, hoping to shut Deklin up.

"Fucking obvious! Jesus, you think this shit will really work? My arm fucking hurts. Goddamn medics are shit, man."

Vonne just shrugged. He wasn't really concerned with intel's new secret weapon working. What he really wanted was to see a Primitive up close again, look it in the eye. Maybe put a bullet through it--he wasn't sure. Maybe let it take him down instead.

His fingers tightened on his gun.

Deklin hurried to keep pace with him and struck him in the arm to get his attention. "Hey, so you really see a Primitive change? I seen it once too. Some fucked up shit, man. That's how I know

only a traitor wouldn't fucking turn tail and run."

Vonne bit down on his anger and only grunted, eyes ahead, pausing as he looked for the next cover.

"One minute I see Joptur, this guy I went to school with? He was in shop class with me. I fucked his cousin once in the tool shed behind school--gawd, she had an ass like a fucking peach. Anyway, I know Joptur went lost to the enemy but I figured maybe he got away. Maybe they don't eat people like some say they do."

Something cold and unpleasant began curling in Vonne's gut, dancing over his skin. He hissed, "Don't really have time for your bullshit, Deklin." Skirting the edge of a dangerous clearing, he kept low, didn't think of Hewitt, of how his palms were sweaty on his gun grip. Didn't

like that, so he reached in his pockets, found his fingerless gloves and pulled them on. When he paused, Deklin started speaking again.

"Joptur, he's limping, like he's hurt bad, so I go to help him, yelling his name, relieved and shit... and then his whole body starts breaking. Sick shit, bending and full of knots, like some tree, and hair sprouting, and I was like Jesus H. Christ on a handbasket! Then he was on me so fast I could barely get my gun up--"

"Maybe he was just tryin' to give you a hug," Vonne muttered.

"Death hug, maybe, crush me like a beer can. All I'm saying is that thing jumped on me and I screamed bloody fucking murder 'til I blew its head off. Not like those guys I seen, quiet as a fucking mouse, like some cunt waiting to get her

cherry picked."

Vonne shook his head and kept them moving. He scanned the area for signs of a patrol, of Primitive activity. But Deklin's words chewed on him, wouldn't let him go.

"Thing I used to wonder is even if your body changes, why ain't it Joptur still in there? But I got this theory. Primitives got animal brains 'long with their man brains, you know, that's why. People ain't meant to be like that. Makes you crazy."

Vonne shrugged and repositioned his gun so it hung better, gave him more freedom.

Deklin lunged forward, caught his arm, eyes

bright. Vonne felt his entire self go on alert, jerking his gun in hand, scanning around them. But Deklin had only had a thought. "You think we'll see your boyfriend out here?"

Without thinking Vonne jerked his fist back and slammed it into Deklin's abdomen, throwing the other man off. "You better shut the fuck up about shit you don't know nothing about!" Vonne snarled, not noticing his voice had risen substantially.

"Jesus H.," Deklin replied, just as loud, getting to his feet and dusting himself off. "You wanna re-lax? I'm just yanking you."

"No, I don't wanna relax," Vonne said, quieter now. They were standing, he abruptly noticed, in the middle of a broad clearing. The hairs on his arms stood up, and he jerked his head toward a

more covered spot, trying to indicate urgency by widening his eyes. Hopefully they were far from anyone who could have heard, seen... Their mission was to be bitten, not killed.

"Everybody 'cept idiots like us is asleep," Deklin sneered as he came to crouch by Vonne's side. "'Specially the furry types."

"Wouldn't they just change their skins?" Vonne pointed out, but Deklin shrugged and spit.

"Probably reminds 'em too much of who the real men are."

Vonne scowled. "You don't have a fucking clue what you're talking about, do you?"

"I think I do, but maybe you don't."

But they had only gone ten minutes more when it became obvious to him that they'd got something's attention. Whichever it was, human or Primitive, was choosing haste over caution. He could hear the rustle of it moving behind them, taking no care to cover the sounds of its passage.

He caught Deklin's eye, put a question in his look. Deklin looked slightly panicky, whites showing all the way around his irises. He was sweating. Vonne was surprised he could smell the reek of the other man amidst the myriad smells of the forest around them. Sneaking and camouflage wasn't all that much good with Primitives when you forgot to cover your damn smell like Deklin obviously had. He scowled and tried to find his spray while he led them ahead faster. Fingers closed on the canister twice, but his hands were so

sweaty he lost it in the pack a moment later.

And then a stupid, hopeful thought: what if it was Hewitt?

It was followed immediately by the memory of Curtis, and more irritatingly, Deklin's stupid story about his friend Joptur.

"Mission success," he muttered.

"Jesus H., stop talking to yourself, they'll hear you!" Deklin hissed.

Funny coming from the man who couldn't stop yammering earlier, Vonne thought blackly. He

gave his feet free rein, pushed himself as fast as he dared without going so fast he'd waste his energy. The rustling behind them quickened. Vonne was reckless now, not careful where his feet fell. They sounded like a pair of bulls crashing through the underbrush.

"It's on us. Ooh, Jesus God, it's on us," Deklin was gasping. Vonne felt Deklin's elbow catch him in the side, intentionally or unintentionally he didn't know. It knocked him off his pace just enough to send him careening into a stump, his knee bending the wrong way too far, so that he twisted and fell to the ground, screaming. He got his head back quick, pulling his gun forward, feeling and taking count of his various other knives and small pistols, making sure none were lost. He took the safety off his gun and checked it, glad to see he had most of a clip.

"Deklin, you asshole!" he muttered under his breath, keeping still and waiting, wondering if he

might be lucky and their pursuer would pass him by. He listened for it, for the rustling, for some sound of its breathing; but even holding his breath it seemed too quiet.

That was when he noticed the eyes, green-gold like a cat's, watching him through a concealing lattice of leaves and branches. It was above him--the fucking thing had climbed above him. The Primitive. No human eyes, those. He slowly raised the muzzle of his gun, tightened his finger on the trigger.

"Hewitt?" he said, but just voicing his hope out loud made it ridiculous.

He moved to pull the trigger--

The Primitive was quicker than he imagined, on him in a second, swiping the gun from his hands. He shouted again as the metal tangled with his fingers and bent them backwards, slamming his hand full into the ground with it. It was impossible to know if the thing was just going to bite him or kill him; it was impossible for him not to fight for his life. He fumbled for one of his knives, slashing at the thick hide of the monster, but his attacks seemed to do no good. It pried the knife from him and then stabbed him through the palm, effectively pinning him to the ground. The pain made him scream again and he cursed himself for being such a goddamn pansy. But caught like he was there was not much to do but scream; the monster straddled his chest, crushing weight holding him down as much as the knife through his flesh and bone, musky smell surrounding him.

The soldiers might have nicknamed the Primitives "apes" but every time he saw one of these damn things up close he remembered how much they weren't apes. None of them seemed to

look quite the same. This one had a thickened brow-ridge like an ape, but its muzzle was longer, the teeth were cartoonishly big, something wolfish about the way the canines set together. The ears were set too far back and too high, could swivel, were vaguely catlike. The muzzle was scavenger-naked, but there was downy fur over its cheeks and brow that thickened over the skull and neck, covered the rest of the body. The hands were too slender, too agile, on the ends of powerful arms and tipped with short claws for gutting and killing. It wore no clothing; the massive cock and low hanging sac draped shamelessly over Vonne's chest and belly as it crouched over him.

"You nasty motherfucker," he muttered, gritting his teeth and yanking at his pinned hand, doing his best to ignore the pain.

The throwback showed his teeth, and then emitted eerily human laughter. Vonne wondered

how he could have ever thought this monster might have been Hewitt. The Primitive reached over and gave the knife a cruel twist. Vonne had to bite his lip to keep from shouting. When he made no sound it pulled the knife free and stood, watching him with its yellow-green eyes. For a moment Vonne was stunned, and then he was lunging away, scrabbling on his belly. The Primitive let him get three meters off, and then leapt on him, grabbing his shoulder in its oversized teeth and tossing him off like a cat playing with a mouse. The bite didn't penetrate all the way through Vonne's newly issued ill-fitting army jacket, but tore ragged holes in the outer fabric.

Vonne rolled over and crawled, then ran as soon as he could get his hands and feet under him. Pain radiated from his bruised shoulder--from every bit of him, really. He felt and heard the Primitive land hard just behind him, lashing out with one hand and pounding him back into the roots and undergrowth and dirt. The ragged pseudo-claws had opened up lacerations even through his thick

jacket and breathing became agony. He was certain he was going to die; the creature must know what he was carrying, was going to simply rend him limb from limb rather than infect him.

"Deklin, you asshole!" he mouthed, but he was unable to make much more than a ragged wheeze come through all the pain. "You goddamn asshole, get my back, goddammit, someone get my back. Ooh fuck, get my goddamn back!"

"I got your back," the Primitive growled, and the words made Vonne's blood go cold, because they were said so clearly, so humanly, not words that should have come out of the mouth of a B-movie monster. It picked him up by his neck in those huge jaws and he closed his eyes and sucked in a breath, waiting for it to shake his spine in pieces, put him out of his misery. But instead there was only a slow breaking of skin, a delicate prick of teeth and then the dull throb of puncture wound; Vonne moaned as he realized what the thing was

doing--not killing him but recruiting him, and savoring every moment of it. This had been what he was after, wasn't it? But the loathing crawled up in him, the urge to thrash, lethally impale himself; he had to force himself to keep still.

He dangled from the throwback's mouth like a kitten grabbed up by the scruff of its neck. At last it dropped him; and then it licked his wounded neck with one long, sensual sweep of its tongue, smacking its lips after it tasted his blood.

As he collapsed, exhausted, he was aware of gunfire, of Deklin's voice. He tried to find the voice to tell Deklin he was alive, but somehow the words didn't come. What came out was in a wheeze so low it was obliterated by the sound of gunfire anyway: "Don't kill me."


Dully, he was aware of Deklin kicking him over, booted foot inconsiderately rough. Without thinking he held his breath, tried not to twitch. Deklin was too stupid or lazy to feel for a pulse, and eventually Vonne heard his footsteps moving away. Still, he held his breath until his lungs felt fit to burst, and then he exhaled.

As he relaxed, blackness swallowed him. Dreams mixed with what reality he could still pick up. He was--

--walking. He sometimes had the sensation of being clothed in layers of thick, scraped hides and furs, but when he reached up and touched his chest he only felt his familiar t-shirt and the dog tags around his neck. His vision seemed tunneled some how; he sensed more than saw the thing walking beside him, padding on soft, leathery

feet. When he caught glimpses out of his eye, straining like he couldn't turn his head, he only got impressions--lion, tiger, wolf, dog, bear, ape. Man. Primitive.

A nameless feeling welled up in him, made him blow air through his clenched teeth. He tried, as all men do, to name it. Fear. Awe. Wonder. Arousal. Joy. Terror. But words didn't do it justice. He fisted his hands at his sides and fought to control it. Tendons and muscles stood sharply defined in his forearms from the effort. The bite on the back of his neck burned.

(Let me in,)the beast walking with him said, and this time it was an animal walking on its hind legs, a man crouched on all fours. The words made him shudder, but the sense of arousal, of hunger, doubled inside of him. His stomach rumbled and his cock grew hard and his blood heated. He rubbed his arms as if he was cold and his skin seemed to burn under his hands. Vonne walked

forward faster, almost breaking into a run, heart pounding in his ears. The beast seemed to fall behind; but then he could feel its presence on his heels, the sheathed claws brushing his calves.

(Let me in,)it said again, gentle but firm. And then its weight was on him, crushing him down, and he could feel its unsheathed sex press against his back. The scent of it, wild and musky and somehow delicious, settled down over him like a cloud. It was potent, familiar. Vonne groaned with the need that ignited through him, crouching under the beast with his chest against his knees. As only in dreams he simultaneously felt and saw it on him, lean and lithe and powerful, at once tiger and man, beast ghosting behind the man-shape and vice versa. Teeth scraped against his neck, at once flat man teeth and long sabre fangs nearly half a meter long. It pressed its rampant phallus into the small of his back and he hissed air between his teeth, feeling his cock pulse against his belly. He tipped his hips so that his ass was in the air almost against his will.

(Let me in,)it said a third time, and he wondered how he could be any more compliant, open himself up to it any more. He wanted to be fucked more desperately than he could ever remember having wanted. His fingers dug into whatever soft ground he had been walking in; grass? No... handfuls of fur.

"Fuck," he groaned, "I'm trying."

(Let go your shape,)the beast beckoned, humping against his back now, as if teasing him. But he didn't know how; his cock ached so bad he reached between his legs and began jerking himself off, but it didn't seem to help.

(Let go.) The beast was riding him now, clinging to his back. He was no longer crouched, though

his cock was still hard and pulsing and needy; he was running instead, a knife in his hand, a fleeing shape before him. A rabbit, an elk, a deer--he felt his mouth water and his stomach rumble. His feet caught on something tangled and he fell, cursing in frustration as his body screamed for food. Against his naked thighs, the beast's tail lashed.

"I can't," he heard himself say. "You're too heavy."

(Let me help you.)

But all he could feel was the crushing weight of the beast on him, and the thought that he had to get free of it. The warmth and need for it of moments earlier dried up; now the fear was dominant, real, tangible. He screamed as he felt the beast raise up to kill him at last, but instead it

opened its mouth and consumed him--

--He opened his eyes, slamming into reality as hard as he slammed into the ground. Twigs and unforgiving bits of ground raked greedily into any exposed bit of him. "Motherfucker!" he swore, scrambling to his feet. He'd been running without the benefit of consciousness. Now that he was awake, he got to his feet and kept right on running without the benefit of understanding why.

His boots felt like rocks tied to his feet--without thinking and almost without breaking stride he reached down and unlaced them, kicking them off and leaving them behind him. His socks went next; the forest floor wasn't kind on soft human feet, but somehow to the stings and the tears and the pain only made him feel more alive. He slowed. Something just wasn't right. Was this what it was, to become one of those things, become a throwback? He felt like he could smell everything, see everything, hear everything. He

knew his heart was pounding and his temperature was too high and he was feverish and delirious, but he couldn't stop. Like he could just let go of the ground and fucking fly--

The echo of the dream-thing's words was like a slap in the face, throwing off his pace entirely. His foot snagged a third time and sent him face first into a tangle of low, thorny plants hidden in the waist-high green. As he struck the ground he felt every little ache and throb and stinging cut on his body. He rolled over and a wicked pain lanced up his legs. How long had he been running? What was he running from, anyway? Or running toward? His body ached like it had been hours. Shit, that was a joke. He'd never been able to keep up a hard run more than a few minutes, never mind an hour.

He struggled to his feet but his thighs felt like masses of fire. He had to ignore it, go above it. If he was gonna turn into a goddamn Primitive he

might as well let some of their more sensible ideas apply--he closed his eyes, counted to three, tried to go beyond his physical being.

"Not letting go," he muttered to himself. "Just getting over it."

He took a deep breath.

And then he heard it.

"Vonne." Low, almost a whisper, the sound seemed to come from everywhere around him at once, not just behind him. "Yvon." His skin crawled, not just at the sound of his real name, but at the sound of the voice that said it. He spun, straining to see anything in the dim play of shadow and light in the forest.

"Fuck you!" he shouted, as if he could drive it away by pissing it off. "Goddamn apes, learn to fight like goddamn men!"

He saw it at last, then, a hulking shadow blended among the shapes of the tree trunks. He squinted, trying to make out some detail of it; sweat trickled in his eyes and he mopped at it and cursed.

Without thinking, he took a step toward it.

"Don't," the thing said, and he was amazed again at the sheer normalcy of its voice. "Don't."

In his throat he formed a name, but he couldn't seem to make it come out.

Soft, familiar laughter that began to breach the dam he'd built up against his grief. He wavered, his foot half-lifting before he stopped himself.

"Don't," the thing said again.

Vonne's hands found his gun, started to raise it. The fever heat was crawling under his skin, writhing in his stomach, burning his eyes. "Fuck's sake, say what you mean!"

"Don't run," it finished, and it stepped toward him, and into the light.

It was horrible, and fucking beautiful. His heart hammered in his chest as the smell and sight of it struck him: the vicious teeth and the slavering muzzle, the swiveling ears, the too-human eyes. The strong, long-fingered hand that stretched toward him, wicked claw crowning the opposable thumb.

"Oh fuck," he said, "Oh Jesus, shit, fuck."

The horror melted away like an illusion broken. He saw it was Hewitt standing there, arm stretched out, calling him, naked as the day he was born. Vonne could see the light dusting of red-gold hair on his arms and down the narrow line of his breastbone. His defenses broke and Vonne stumbled toward his old friend, knowing he was probably down the monster's gullet and not really caring. He knew he shouldn't go, but jesusgodchristalmighty it was Hewitt it was goddamn Hewitt! The bite in the back of his neck

began burning--fuck, his whole body was burning and he was already fucking delirious anyway, what was one more insane idiot action? Maybe this was all just that, all just delusion while his body overheated trying valiantly to drive out the superior Primitive infection. Maybe he was still lying on the ground. Maybe he was dying. Maybe--

--Their hands touched, and it was like touching a live electrical wire. Vonne felt and saw and smelled and then

he let go

their hands came apart and Hewitt smiled at him and everything was fucking grand, oh yeah he

he shed it all

"Vonne. Yvon."

Vonne coughed, hard, feeling the sweat all over him, tasting blood on his tongue. "Fuck--was dreaming," he said, as someone propped him up and held a canteen to his lips. He drank greedily, allowed his hands to be guided up to take hold of the bottle himself. When he had taken four deep swallows, he gave it a second look. "Hold on, this is--"


It was too dark to see, but he knew Hewitt's voice. His nostrils flared, and there it was again--musky, cinnamon, wild smell. The smell of the beast in his dream, the smell from the cave where Hewitt had been dying. He started to turn, to try and squint out Hewitt's face, but strong fingers stopped him.

"Don't look at me. Not yet."

The smell grew stronger, and then suddenly weakened to almost nothing. Vonne couldn't help himself; he twisted to look again.

"It's really you," he said at long last, reaching out to clasp Hewitt's hand. "Thought I was dreaming. You even got your hat back." He

flicked his fingers along the brim. "Only it ain't you, is it?"

Hewitt didn't reply, only helped Vonne to sit up.

"Deklin said the animal brain takes over," Vonne said. "But you don't seem crazy animal to me."

Hewitt frowned. "Don't know about crazy, but wouldn't be welcome back at base camp no more, if that's what you mean." He took the canteen from Vonne's hand and capped it back up. "But not you, neither, you know."

Vonne was quiet for a moment. "So what, no hello kiss, no Jesus-it's-good-to-see-you?" he said at last.

He was startled when Hewitt actually seized him and kissed his mouth. Vonne thought he felt fur against his skin, whispers, claws--almost thought he'd started his fever dreams again. But it was real, real as Hewitt was real, sitting back and wiping his mouth off on the back of his hand.

"You're fighting it," he said.


"You should just--"

"Let go?" Vonne finished for him, scowling. He mopped his brow with his arm. He was wet with sweat. A fever ache had set up permanent camp in

his joints. "Hewitt, I knew never would have said that."

Hewitt crossed his arms over his chest and looked away. In the feeble light of the moon Vonne saw the whisper of another shape ghost over him, like a radio with bad reception overlaying two channels. "I'm still me," he growled at last, reaching up and pushing his cowboy hat low, scowling. Vonne had a foolish image, one he wasn't sure his eyes saw so much as his mind: a fierce, nasty Primitive with a smallish cowboy hat perched on its domed, furry head, triangular ears jutting out on either side of it. He laughed, and then felt sick.

"You're the enemy now," he said.

"So're you." Anger reddened Hewitt's pale cheeks, atypical anger that made him launch to his

feet and pace. Vonne could almost imagine the Primitive's tail lashing behind him. But more like his usual self, instead of shouting or raging or releasing his temper, Hewitt only pressed his lips together and said nothing.

"If you'd'a just held out--I was gonna bring a medic--"

"Held out for what? You never came back, and I didn't want to fucking die!" Hewitt snapped. He collapsed to all fours, raked the ground with his all-too-human nails. "I'm a coward, I'm a fucking yellow bastard, okay? And all I want is for you to be a coward with me so I don't have to be like this alone--!"

"You're the one that bit me?"

Hewitt shook his head, not quite meeting Vonne's eyes.

Vonne said nothing. Some part of him wondered if this was more trap, more temptation. The tiger-thing in waking moonlight. Curtis. Deklin's Joptur. But it was Hewitt before him, bent and sad like he'd never known Hewitt to be, except when Curtis had passed away. Even then Captain Cowboy had come back with a vengeance before long.

He knew he ought to say something about his mission, about the weapon he was carrying in his blood; but he didn't. Hewitt was a dead man walking, he told himself. He was a dead man, too. Maybe it was better that way.

"Well, I'm a coward too," he said at last. "Ought

to kill you." Sweat running down his brow, chills so deep they hurt; he wondered just what that shit they'd stuck him with was doing. Was this the way it was meant to be? Or was intel's plan a failure? Wouldn't be the first. Adaptability was the Primitive's first weapon, after all. Who was to say they wouldn't just incorporate intel's strategy into their systems too?

Hewitt turned away. His shape seemed to waver like the rest of the shadows, transient. "Wish Curtis was here," he said in a low voice. "Then it'd be the three of us, just like old times. Maybe he coulda shown us what's up and what's down."

Dying--or whatever he was doing--seemed to loosen Vonne's tongue. "Just the two of you and me, you mean. What do you want me to say? 'Sorry I killed your boyfriend?'" He sounded like Deklin--like an idiot--even to his own ears. He should have apologized, but he didn't really want to. He could still feel Hewitt's lips on his own,

and that pissed him off.

"Don't be stupid, Vonne. Ain't nice to say it, but he's been dead to me for some time now."

Vonne stared at Hewitt, not believing his words. He startled at the weight of a hand on his knee, heavier than he expected.

"I know you'd rather pretend it was nothin', but I always known how you felt about me."

There was dirt under his friend's fingernails; he didn't know if it was weirder that he'd noticed or weirder that it was there. Vonne pulled away from Hewitt, unwilling to meet his eye. "So what? Don't care if you or everybody knew."

Hewitt moved quick as a cat, quicker than Vonne could react, crouching in front of him. Both his hands cupped Vonne's knees, fingers gently curled, nails softly scratching Vonne's thighs. Their faces were so close together that when Vonne finally got hold of his senses he jerked backwards. The thick, weird smell of Hewitt settled down around Vonne, stirring something to life in him. His nose worked out why: under the earthy scent was the smell of spent sex, full of guilt and familiarity. Vonne had spent so many nights trying not to notice the heady reek of it when Curtis and Hewitt's bedroll would finally stop moving late at night. He swallowed thickly, leaning back as far as he could without physically twisting himself away, weight braced on one arm behind him.

"Hewitt," he said huskily. "This ain't you--"

"You're wrong, Vonne. I'm more myself than I been for years," Hewitt told him, crouching lower. In the darkness, feverish as he was, Vonne's eyes played tricks on him; he swore the shadows came to life behind Hewitt, that the ghostly shape of some monster overwhelmed him for a moment. And then he was just Hewitt again, so goddamn close and so goddamn good smelling and looking as alive and happy as Vonne remembered him before the war. Hewitt reaching for him like he'd always wanted--Hewitt leaning in, brushing lips against his, tentative.

Vonne was never certain when his fear became something else entirely, but he thought it might have been the look he saw on Hewitt's face right then, like a man finally released from some burden he'd borne too long, so long he'd forgotten he could stand straight if he really wanted. Whatever it was, it made him throw away his own fears and reservations, if only for that short while.

He grabbed Hewitt like he'd always wanted and he kissed him like a starving man attacking a ten-course meal. He was gripping Hewitt's shoulders too hard, he knew--hard enough to crush, hard enough that he imagined no living thing could have pried this man out of his fingers.

Hewitt didn't seem to mind, gave as good as he got: yanking and grabbing double handfuls of Vonne's shirt at the small of his back, grinding stomachs and cocks together. Clothes couldn't survive that kind of vicious assault for long. Vonne opened up Hewitt's trousers from waist to mid-thigh with one over-eager jerk and Hewitt's handful of shirt became all that he had while they both broke into laughter.

It wasn't how he'd imagined, not the way he expected Hewitt to be, not the way he remembered Curtis and Hewitt in their stealthy trysts in the barracks. It was urgent and brutal and

dirty, like the fucks Vonne had before and after battles--as if this were their only chance, their last chance, thank god for living and thank the devil for fucking. His skin burned in long swatches over his neck and shoulders from Hewitt's stubbled cheek, teeth leaving deeper marks than that. Bruises were already forming on Hewitt's pale skin from Vonne's rough groping. Vonne couldn't help but kiss the marks, suck them and scrape his teeth against them, until Hewitt groaned and rolled them, slamming Vonne back into the ground.

Vonne growled somewhere in the back of his throat, shaking his head. He wrapped his legs around Hewitt's waist and wrestled them over again, grabbing for Hewitt's wrists and pinning him down. Hewitt struggled, but it mostly for show--Vonne was by far the bulkier, if the shorter. A kiss turned into a bloody collision of mouths, leaving them both laughing; and then as if the taste made them hotter, they came together even harder, Vonne shoving his tongue deep into Hewitt's mouth, feeling Hewitt both inviting and

fighting him, giving way at last only when he'd had his fill. He fucked Hewitt's mouth with his tongue and then he took his cock in hand and asked to be let in lower; the wet twitching shaft of Hewitt's cock pressed against his stomach and the velvet pucker of Hewitt's ass against his cockhead making a half-step from crazy.

And then he was inside and everything--

--exploded in that first moment of pushing himself into that tight hole, stretching Hewitt's body as Hewitt's hands clawed the ground at his sides and arched and spread himself wider moaning--

--got condensed into one purpose one mindless animalistic black world filled with scent sound sight everything making him alive alive alive on fire he reared his hips back and he slid backwards

and out and his teeth were clamping down and Hewitt was bucking under him hand jacking himself off arching rippling fur and skin and claws and the smell of something primal and blood and semen and the scent of heat and arousal coiling changing dissolving him he--

--was coming oh god he oh yes fuck hewitt he

--opened his eyes FUCK he


--"Oh, Jesus," Vonne said, before he collapsed, senseless.


Deklin was famous for Stupid, but taking this mission had to top all his other Stupid by the height of Mt. Everest.

Half-chewed and filthy, he was beginning to think the jungle would get him despite intel's fancy-pants dope when he ran into Vonne three miles from Unit GJ's mobile base camp. Both emerging from opposite stands of wood into a wider clearing, Deklin had to admit he had his finger in his trigger no slower than Vonne had his. He knew he looked like shit--he could feel the remnants of saliva all over his chin, powdery dried flecks of foam. He was sane, though, at least now he was, and he could prove it. But he might not have said the same for his compatriot, muddied from head to toe, blood down his back and something clutched in his restless hands.

Then Vonne spoke.

"Hey," was what he said, and he sounded exhausted, but otherwise normal.

"...Hey," Deklin returned, if a little suspiciously. But after that first look the other man didn't act out of the ordinary; so Deklin didn't shoot Vonne, even if some part of him still thought he ought to. "Mission success?" He nodded to the crust of blood on Vonne's back. Vonne didn't answer, but Deklin shrugged it off. "Found my ape doing a good impression of worm food when I finally pried my face out of the dirt this morning. Intel'll be happy, yeah? Think we'll get a bonus? Leave and hot chicks down in Hudson's Bay?"

Vonne shrugged. Deklin stared at him, and then

shrugged back, and resumed walking. "More for me, if you're not interested."

More silence. Deklin fucking hated silence. "I mean, if we still fucking got the bay, yeah? But even if we lost it now we got this weapon and if those fucks think they can change us we're totally gonna fuck their shit up--"

Deklin stopped abruptly when Vonne turned and looked at him. Later he'd tell stories of a 'wild look in his eye', but at the moment, he only thought Vonne looked like a man trying to work something out for himself.

"Hey," Vonne said, "That thing bit you, you think you were gonna die? I mean, really, truly, gonna die?"

"Maybe for a minute... but then I remembered I got intel's shit in me, yeah?"

"I... There was this moment, I was sure, that was it for me--and then I just knew I woulda done anything to live..."

Deklin frowned. "Yeah, well, heat of battle, yeah? Survival instinct?"

Vonne blinked, slowly; he turned the thing he was clutching around in his hands, and Deklin saw that it was a crushed cowboy hat.

"Survival instinct," Vonne agreed, and he nodded.

Deklin gave him a disgusted look. "So?"

"So...." Vonne repeated. Deklin scowled, but Vonne had only paused. "I've decided I'm gonna live, yeah? Fuckinglive . And nothing's gonna stop me." His hands tightened on the hat. "Took me a while, but that's what I've decided." The corner of his mouth twitched, like he was working up to a smile, or a hysterical fit of laughter.

Shaking his head, Deklin muttered, "Well, good for you, eh?"

"Yeah," Vonne said tranquilly, and in that moment Deklin felt an odd sort of protective brotherliness toward him; he slung an arm around Vonne’s shoulders and put them back on the path to camp. Obviously, he figured, the immunization

didn't work perfectly yet--Jesus fuck, after some of those dreams he'd had? Couldn't blame a man for losing his mind.

"Hoy!" A man called, diverting Deklin's attention. It was the perimeter guard. Deklin recognized Joon on sight and excused himself a moment, went ahead to heckle his friend a bit. Eventually he heard Vonne behind him. He turned to introduce his buddy, feeling unusually civilized after all he'd managed to survive.

"Joon, this is Vonne, one crazy motherfucker like me--"

Deklin stopped when he saw there was no one behind him, all too aware of Joon's penetrating look.

"Fuck, no, I swear, he was right there, he was right fucking behind me--"

"You mean he was one of those things," Joon said, hefting his heavy long-range rifle and sighting it just for good measure, "but luckily he got an eyeful of me and Lucy here."

"No man, no, we got this immunization, this shot, him and me and six other guys, and... FUCK." Deklin began moving back toward the forest, searching for some sign of Vonne, certain the fucker had just lost his mind and wandered away; Joon hooked a hand in his elbow, shaking his head. "He said he was cool, man, said he was all live life to the fullest now or some shit, I mean, he can't be fucking gone--" Deklin shook his head. "I mean, fuck, I mean, FUCK, do you think he was a ghost or Jesus H. fucking Christ those fucking APES--!"

Joon gripped Deklin's shoulder and gave him the barest hint of a shake. There was a glimmer of warning in his eye. "Chill, man. Those apes get under your skin and in your head and you'll never get 'em out." His fingers tightened. "So let it go."

Deklin stared at Joon, and for once, said nothing.

rescuing ryan by sara bell

"I can't believe you actually wanted to live out here." John pulled a box from the back of Ryan's SUV and set it in the driveway before grabbing another. "I get that the mountain air is supposed to be good for you and all that, but living twenty-miles from the closest town?" He shuddered. "How can you stand it?"

Ryan gave his younger brother a pained eye roll. "It's not like I'm living on an island in the middle of the freaking Pacific."

"Might as well be." John stacked up the last of

the boxes and then shut the hatch. "No offense, but this place is the butt crack of civilization."

"You just can't imagine living so far from the nearest Starbucks." Ryan limped over to where John was standing. "This all of them?"

John nodded. "Let me help you carry them inside."

Ryan was shaking his head before John even finished. "You've already done more than your share by helping the movers get the furniture settled in. I've got the rest."

John opened his mouth to argue, but he must've thought better of it, because he closed it again a second later.

Ryan clapped him on the back. "Thanks for all your help. You got time to share a quick beer with me?"

"I wish I did, but I promised Marcy I'd be home in time for supper." John smiled. "The closer she gets to her due date the more nervous she is about staying alone."

"Smart woman, my sister-in-law." Ryan grabbed a box from the top of the stack and balanced it against his good leg. "Give her a kiss for me."

"I will." John started for his truck only to stop a second later and turn back around. "Hey, Ryan?"


John hesitated for a full minute, then said, "If you're doing this because of Pete--"

"Pete doesn't have a damn thing to do with my decision." Ryan's gut clenched as he fought to keep his temper from rising to the surface. "I made the choice because it felt right."

"Uh-huh." John's tone said he knew better, but he didn't push it. "Just remember, I'm only twenty minutes away."

Ryan snorted. "More like ten, the way you drive."

"Whatever it is, if you need me, you'd damn well better call." John pointed one finger in Ryan's direction. "Don't think because of that bum leg you got that I won't kick your ass."

With that warning hanging in the air, John left, and Ryan was grateful. He loved his family, but what Ryan most needed right now was some space. Time to heal, his mother called it. Ryan made a face as he shouldered the box and headed into the house. More like time to hide.

An hour later, after the last of the boxes had been piled into the living room, Ryan was wishing he'd taken John up on his offer of extra help. Ryan's leg was aching like the devil, and the still-healing scars on his chest were itching like crazy. Still, he was glad he'd taken on the task himself. Chalk one up for the cripple.

As soon as the thought popped into his head, a picture of Pete sprang up. Pete, the golden boy, the man Ryan was certain would stand by his side no matter what. He shook his head. Amazing the things a man learned from almost dying.

"Okay. Enough of the self-pity shit," Ryan said into the empty room. He caught a whiff of his pits. "Right. Time for my stanky ass to shower."

He headed down the hall then, an odd sensation prickling his spine as he walked past the uncovered glass doors leading onto the two-story deck. He told himself he was being silly. He was nestled in the foothills of a remote mountain chain, and he himself owned over twenty acres of private forestland. No way would anyone be watching him.


Humans.Soren padded across the deck where he'd been sitting, watching the new arrival talk to himself. He said a silent prayer of thanks that he'd been born part of a superior race, then jumped onto the soft grass beneath the wooden structure. Time to head back to Kyran and report that their new neighbor posed them no threat.

Soren glided back into the woods. The spring breeze engulfed him with the scents of the forest, and Soren allowed himself a long, grateful breath. With his enhanced sense of smell, he caught a whiff of fox and an underlying hint of rabbit. He was just considering whether or not to give chase when his nose ferreted out a more sinister odor. Shifters, at least four, headed straight for him. And if the fragrance of arousal hanging in the air was any indication, they meant him no good will.

Soren's first thought was to hide, but almost as soon as the notion came to him, he discounted it. He was a member of Clan Thorn, a group of proud warriors who served the Alpha Kyran and his consort. If Soren was the target of these shifters, he'd go down fighting. His Alpha would expect no less of him.

Bracing himself for the coming confrontation, Soren crouched beneath a wide oak and waited. Less than a minute later, five wolves--four black and one gray--broke through the clearing.

Soren faced them down, baring his teeth and bristling the hair on his back to send a clear message:don't fuck with me .

The wolves took a collective step away from

him, and Soren thought at first they were going to back down. Before he could rejoice in his good fortune, a tall human dressed all in black stepped into the path the wolves had made for him.

The first thing Soren noticed about the man was that he had no scent. Normally Soren could smell a human from miles away, but this man's scent was lost amongst the fragrances of the forest and the other wolves. He was still puzzling over it when he realized the stranger was holding a rifle in his hand.

Soren was frozen in place as the man lifted the rifle, took aim, and fired a bullet into the dead center of Soren's chest.


Ryan woke to the feel of sunlight spilling across his face from the uncovered bedroom windows. He grumbled over the intrusion and climbed out of bed. His leg was killing him, and he felt groggy and disoriented as if he hadn't slept.

What he needed was coffee and aspirin--in that order. He was halfway to the kitchen when a blinding pain lanced through his chest. Ryan's leg buckled and he went down hard.

He lay with his face pressed against the hardwood floor. At first he thought one of his old chest wounds had broken open, but a careful check proved nothing was bleeding. The pain faded as quick as it came, and Ryan struggled to his feet.

Help me.

Ryan fell back against the wall, barely remaining upright this time. His eyes darted up and down the hall, but he saw no one.

He pressed a hand over his racing heart. Of course no one was there. Hadn't he bought this place over the promise of solitude? Ryan took a deep breath. Maybe he was more tired than he'd thought.

With one hand braced against the wall for support, Ryan made his way into the kitchen. He started the coffeemaker he'd filled the night before, then rummaged around in one of the boxes until he found the aspirin. He grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge, popped the pills into his mouth, and took a long swallow.

Help me.

Water and aspirin spewed from Ryan's mouth. The open water bottle slid from his fingers and splashed all over the tile floor, but Ryan paid it no mind. He was too busy focusing on the voice in his head.

"Who's there?"

No one answered, not that Ryan really expected them to. He wasn't a believer in the supernatural--not by any means--but he was too self-aware to deny the truth: someone was speaking directly into his mind.

Ryan closed his eyes.Where are you?

Again, no answer. Ryan scrubbed a hand across his face. Maybe that shrink he'd fired was right. Maybe he did need therapy.

In the woods. Five hundred yards from the back deck.

Ryan froze. In the woods? What the hell was somebody doing on his private property?

Don't...don't let me die.

Ryan waffled. Only a fool would go charging into the woods on the say-so of a disembodied phantom. Scenes from every

serial-killer-in-the-basement flick he'd ever watched came rushing back to him, and he was about ready to discard the whole episode as some post-traumatic breakdown when the voice sounded again.

Too much pain. Not long now.

The words were weak, as if the speaker was fading. It was that tone--the tone of a man who's two steps away from death--that pushed Ryan into action. Danger or not, he couldn't sit still while someone died. Not after he'd sworn to do no harm.

Even so, Ryan wasn't fool enough to go charging in blind. He hopped over to the living room to the boxes he'd placed there last night. A quick scan of the labels yielded the one he was looking for, and Ryan experienced a brief moment of triumph

when he located his bag. He pulled it free before going to the hall closet and grabbing the loaded .12 gauge he'd stuck in there yesterday morning.

Navigating the back steps with a bum leg and full hands wasn't easy, but Ryan managed. He took a second to catch his breath at the bottom, then forced his leaden feet onto the overgrown path leading into the woods.

The dense canopy overhead made it darker inside than it should have been at eight a.m., but that wasn't what gave Ryan a case of the chills. No, what bothered him was the utter lack of sound. No birds chirping, no insects humming, and no small animals scurrying for cover. Ryan was enveloped in a cocoon of silence.

You're close.

Ryan swallowed.Give me something to go on.

Keep to the path.

Ryan did as he was told. The trail wound around a clump of struggling elms, then emptied into a narrow clearing. Ryan stepped into it, and his blood went cold.

Not ten feet in front of him lay the biggest wolf Ryan had ever seen. A horrific comprehension came on Ryan, then. The injured man he'd come to help must've been attacked by this monster. He'd have to shoot the thing before he could help the guy.

Ryan's fingers were shaking as he eased his bag onto the ground at his feet. With short, jerky movements he lifted the shotgun to his shoulder.

The wolf opened one eye.

Did you come to help me or to finish me off?

Ryan dropped the gun. No way was this possible.

Human, either get over here and help me or pick up that damn gun and put me out of my misery.The wolf sank back into himself as if the very act of thinking had exhausted him. His breathing was labored and erratic.

They were running out of time, and Ryan knew it.

Leaving the shotgun to lie in the dirt, Ryan picked up his bag. He crouched into what he hoped was a non-threatening position and knee-walked the short distance to the wolf. Ryan's leg wasn't going to thank him for it later, but he had bigger things to worry about now, like not getting his face bitten off.

"Nice wolf. Good wolf." Ryan stretched out a trembling hand and placed it on the wolf's back. "Easy now. I promise I won't hurt you."

Ryan wasn't sure, but he thought maybe he'd been given the mental version of an eyeball roll.

"Right then, you know I'm here to help you." He ran his fingers up and down the wolf's silky pelt. "You aren't going to like this, but I have to see where you're hurt."

With concentrated effort, the wolf rolled sideways so that his stomach was visible.

Only years of experience kept Ryan from blanching. He knew a gunshot wound when he saw one, and this one had done a number on the wolf's chest. Blood pumped through a gaping hole in a steady rhythm that should have already killed the animal.

Ryan pulled a penlight from his bag and shined it on the wound. A silver glint shone back at him. The bullet was still inside.


"The bullet's lodged in your chest wall." Ryan wasn't sure what startled him more, that he was beginning to get used to having someone else inside his head, or that the wolf had sensed his tension. "It has to come out before the wound can be repaired."

So take it out, already.

"I'm a human doctor," Ryan said. "I don't know enough about animal anatomy not to kill you with my efforts."

The wolf lifted his head just enough so that his luminous green eyes were boring into Ryan's.

Move back.

Ryan scooted away, the hair on the backs of his arms standing on end as a humming energy swept through the clearing. The wolf's form seemed to shimmer for a minute, and then pink flesh took over where black fur used to be.

His first thought was to run, but Ryan seemed to be rooted to the spot as he watched the wolf morph into a full grown, naked man. The guy was tall and rippling with lean muscle, but that wasn't what got Ryan's attention. What hit him was the wound. It looked ever worse from this angle, and Ryan was certain he wouldn't be able to save the man without a full surgical team to support him.

No hospitals. Not for my kind.

Ryan was back at his side in an instant. "You'll die if you don't get some help."

"Then help me." The green eyes closed.

Ryan swore under his breath, but he didn't argue. He knew what he had to do, and there was no use postponing the inevitable.

He pulled a pair of rubber gloves and a scalpel from his bag. "Under normal circumstances I'd take you back up to the house, but I'm in no shape to do it by myself, and you're too weak to make the trip on your own steam."

He got only a slight nod in response.

Ryan gritted his teeth. "This is going to hurt like hell, but I don't have the stuff to knock you out."

Do it.

Ryan took a deep breath and went to work. His patient didn't make so much as a sound while Ryan dug and prodded. The bullet was firmly implanted in the wall of muscle, and it seemed like forever before the thing finally sprang free.

"I've got it," Ryan said. "Looks like it missed all the major arteries, but you've lost a lot of blood."

The man didn't say anything, and Ryan realized with relief that he'd passed out somewhere during the process.

That made the rest of Ryan's job easier. With a skill born from years of practice, Ryan stitched together damaged tissues and torn skin. When at last he was done, he slathered the man's chest with antibiotic cream and then wrapped him in a thick layer of bandages.

The patient came awake just as Ryan was finishing up. He said nothing, just watched Ryan with those too-big eyes of his.

Ryan put the last piece of tape in place. "That'll hold you until I can get help."

"My people..." The voice was raspy and thick. "We have a doctor."

Ryan got the gist of it. "How do I get in touch with him?"

A slight shake of the head and then the man closed his eyes again. Ryan knew without having to be told that he was sending a silent message.

The stranger's eyes popped open, again. "Coming."

Ryan nodded. Nothing to do now but wait.


He didn't know who or what to expect, so Ryan was greatly relieved when four normal looking men stepped into the clearing. He rose on shaky legs to great them, then extended one hand to a man of about seventy who seemed to be in charge.

"You're the doctor?"

"Yes." The doctor took Ryan's hand in an iron grip. "How is he?"

"Stable, but he's lost a lot of blood and his pulse is thready."

The doctor watched Ryan closely for a minute. "Somehow I get the feeling I'm in the presence of a colleague."

"I'm a surgeon," Ryan said. "Or I used to be, anyway. Name's Ryan Hightower."

"Paxton Elliguard. Delighted to meet you, Dr. Hightower."

It had been over a year since anyone called him that, and the title sounded strange to Ryan's ears.

If Dr. Elliguard noticed Ryan's discomfort, he didn't let on. Instead, he said, "On behalf of Clan Thorn, I want to thank you for taking care of Soren for us."

Soren. Ryan looked back at the man lying still on the ground. The name suited him.

Ryan directed his gaze back to Elliguard. "So're all..."

One of the men who'd come in with Elliguard growled low in his throat. Ryan backed up a step, certain he was about to be attacked.

"Peace, Roderick." Elliguard held up one hand. "Soren has obviously decided to trust this human with his secrets, and so should we." Elliguard turned back to Ryan. "Soren was wolven when you found him?"

Ryan nodded.

"Damn." Elliguard's face lost some of it's color. "That means there's no way we can safely move him back to the village."

Ryan was about to ask Elliguard to explain when the tall, burly man on the other side of Roderick came forward.

"What Dr. Elliguard means," he said, "is that Soren had to use most of his energy to complete the change. Moving him all the way back home would deplete the rest of his energy stores--energy he needs to heal himself." The man looked Ryan over with near-black eyes for a full minute, then stuck out his beefy hand. "I'm Jacques de Beck. Soren is my brother." His eyes fell on Soren, and Ryan caught a glimpse of emotion before Jacques blinked it away. "I owe you a great debt."

"You don't owe me anything." Ryan shook with him. "I'm only sorry I can't do more for him."

"Actually," Elliguard said, "there's one more favor you can grant us."


"You live in the house just beyond the trees, correct?"

Ryan wasn't sure if Elliguard knew this because Soren had told him during their silent communication, or if something more sinister was going on. Either way, Ryan had a bad feeling he'd

stuck his neck out only to have it stretched across the chopping block.

Elliguard was watching him closely. "Dr. Hightower?"

"What? Oh, sorry. Yes." Ryan wet his lips. "I mean, yes, I just finished moving in there yesterday." Recognition hit. "You want to move Soren to my place."

Elliguard nodded. "It should be safe enough to move him such a short distance." Something dark twisted across his face. "I dare not leave him here should our enemy return."

"You know who did this to him?"

"Not yet," the one named Roderick said, "but you bet your ass we're going to find out."

Ryan shivered despite himself.

Jacques caught the movement. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll post sentries at all points around your house. I swear to you, you'll be well-protected if the man who did this to Soren comes back."

Maybe, but Ryan couldn't help but wonder who'd protect him from the sentries themselves.

"You don't have to do this," Soren's rasping whisper broke into Ryan's thoughts. "Not if you're scared."

Ryan stared a moment at the dark shadow of Soren's jaw. Racked with pain as he was, it was hard to get a firm hold on Soren's features, but it was clear to Ryan that the man was proud and struggling badly with the notion he needed help. It was a good sign that Soren was once again conscious, but he was far from being out of the danger zone.

Ryan bit back a sigh. He might not be a practicing physician anymore, but the oath he'd sworn to do no harm still held. He took one last look at Soren, swallowed hard, and said, "Follow me up to the house and I'll show you where to put him."


Soren woke by degrees, his eyes so heavy it took him a moment to work the lids open. A familiar smell filled his nostrils, the mingled scents of the fresh outdoors and a warm odor Soren could only describe as home.Jacques.

Soren managed to open his eyes the rest of the way so that he was looking up and into his brother's face. "What happened?"

Jacques frowned down at him. "You don't remember?"

Soren willed his fogged brain to clear. He was in an unfamiliar bed, in a strange room, and it took him a minute to remember how he'd gotten there. "I was shot. Damn. I'd hoped it was all a dream."

"I wish." Jacques pushed a lock of hair off Soren's forehead. "You scared the hell out of me, little brother."

Soren almost smiled, but then the rest of what happened came rolling back to him. "The hunter, he--"

"You were shot by a hunter? You mean this was all some weird poaching accident?"

Soren shook his head as best he could, considering he felt as if he had twenty pounds of sand weighting down his skull. "The guy who shot me was human, but he walked in the company of weres."

Jacques froze. "You're sure?"

"Yes. You have to warn Lord Kyran and the others."

"Shh. I'll take care of it, but you have to calm down before you tear something open." Jacques smoothed a hand over Soren's chest. "That human doctor did one hell of a job patching you up. It'd be a shame to waste his handiwork."

At the mention of Ryan Hightower, Soren went cold. "The doctor...dear God, he knows what we are. The others--"

"Aren't going to touch a hair on his head," Paxton Elliguard said as he sailed into the room. "Sorry. I couldn't help but overhear."

"I don't care about that, but I have to know that Hightower won't be harmed." Soren felt a mingled stab of guilt and pain as he struggled to sit up. "I dragged him into this. He deserves our protection."

"And he has it." Jacques put his hands on Soren's shoulders and eased him back down to the mattress. "Lord Kyran has marked Ryan Hightower with the full protection of the pack. No one's going to come after him, Soren." He was quiet for a minute. "You took quite a risk, calling out to him."

"It was the only choice," Soren said. "You and the others would never have gotten to me in time. Besides, I knew I could trust him." The minute he'd peaked into Ryan's head, Soren had known his secrets would be safe with the man.

"I'm just glad you were able to communicate with him." Jacques paused. "You know that should have been impossible, right?"

Soren closed his eyes. He didn't want to think about that. Not now.

Jacques seemed to get the message. He patted Soren's shoulder, then stood. "I'd better get back to the village. Mother and Delia are worried sick."

Soren didn't say anything, just allowed his ravaged body to slide back into sleep.


When next he woke, morning light was creeping through the window. Soren blinked himself awake, then turned to find Ryan Hightower sleeping in the bedside chair. Yesterday he'd been too focused on survival to give Ryan more than a cursory glance, but this morning Soren took a long, hard look at the man.

He was handsome in a classical, human sort of way, with a messy mop of short brown hair crowning his angular face. Average height, not nearly as tall as Soren himself, but well built. Ryan wasn't wearing a shirt, exposing a muscular chest and the same kind of tight, firm stomach that really flipped Soren's switch.

He made a face. No way was he going to start ogling humans. Instead, Soren refocused his gaze,

his eyes landing on the patch of scar tissue over Ryan's heart.

Soren spared the man a moment of sympathy. His own chest was aching like a son of a bitch.

"Mine doesn't hurt." Ryan opened his eyes and looked directly into Soren's. "Not anymore."

Soren cursed under his breath. "You were reading my mind."

"Don't blame me." Ryan stretched. "You started it."

"Yeah,'s amazing how desperate a man

gets when he's been shot in the chest."

"Speaking of, I'd better check your wound." Ryan stood on noticeably stiff legs. "Be right back."

Soren watched him limp out of the room. The movement was infused with an odd sort of grace, and Soren couldn't help but feel a grudging admiration for a man who'd been so injured, yet remained so strong.

If you want to know what happened, all you have to do is ask.

Soren bit back a growl. "Stop speaking into my head," he yelled out.

Ryan came back in with a medical bag in his hand and a grin on his face.

"Sorry, but it's a novel experience for me." He set the bag on the foot of the bed, then came to stand closer to Soren. "Can all of your people do it? The mind-speak thing, I mean."

"Telepathy is just like any other talent. Some have it, and some don't." Soren jumped as Ryan began working loose the tape on his chest. "Damn, that hurts."

"Quit being a baby." Ryan peeled away the layers of bandages. "Looks like it's healing well." He prodded the neat row of stitches with one finger. "No sign of infection."

"My people heal fast." Soren pushed his hand away. "Stop poking me."

"If you have the energy to be this surly, I know you'll make a full recovery." Ryan pulled a roll of clean gauze from his bag. "I'll bandage you back up, then give you a shot for the pain."

Soren shook his head. "Human painkillers don't work on us."

"Elliguard told me. That's why he brought some supplies over last night."

The last thing Soren wanted was to be doped up. "Thanks, but I'll be fine. Unlike you humans, my

people heal fast."

"Suit yourself." Ryan taped the fresh bandages in place, then stepped away. "Did you know that your lip curls every time you say the word?"

Soren had no idea what he was talking about. "What word?"

"Human." Ryan closed his bag with a snap. "You've got a serious prejudice going for my kind."

"Are you calling me a bigot?"

"I'm not calling you anything, just making an

observation." Ryan grabbed the bag and headed for the door. "Try to get some rest. I'll be back in to check on you later."

Soren watched him go, a mixture of righteous indignation and anger percolating in his gut. How dare Ryan insinuate that he was some kind of humaphobe? It wasn't Soren's fault that he'd been genetically blessed. And why did he care what Ryan Hightower thought, anyway? So what if the doctor was one of the most intriguing men he'd ever met? It wasn't like Soren was attracted to the guy. No way would he ever let himself fall for a mere mortal.

Soren argued himself to sleep.


Three days. Three days of Soren in his house, grousing and snapping like the wounded animal he was. Three days of living with the knowledge that his house was under guard by creatures who weren't even supposed to exist. Three days of being under the same roof with the sexiest man he'd ever seen, a man who thought Ryan's entire species was three steps down on the evolutionary chain.

If Ryan didn't get out of the house--and soon--he was going to go out of his mind.

He carried a breakfast tray into the guest room, where Soren was already awake, sitting up in bed. He looked pale, and for a minute Ryan was afraid he'd reopened his injury.

"Are you all right?" Ryan plunked the tray onto

the dresser, then rushed to the bed. "Are you hurting?"

Soren gave a quick shake of his head. "I'm fine. Just...just had a dream is all."

"A nightmare?"

Soren turned his gaze away from Ryan's face. "Something like that."

"I'd say that's normal, under the circumstances." Ryan went back to fetch the tray. "God knows I had more than my fair share of bad dreams after my accident."

Soren was quiet for a minute, studying him. Finally, he said, "You told me all I had to do was ask if I wanted to know about the accident."


"So, I'm asking," Soren said. "Unless you've changed your mind and don't want to talk about it."

"It's okay." Ryan placed the tray on Soren's lap, then sat down at the foot of the bed. "I've made my peace with it." He sighed. "You've already figured out that it's been a while since I stopped practicing medicine, right?"

Soren nodded.

"It's been over a year and a half since I stepped foot in a hospital." Ryan waited for the pain that usually came when he thought about his lost career, but oddly enough, it never materialized. He cleared his throat. "I lost a patient."

"Your first one?"

Ryan shook his head. "I practiced medicine for nearly six years. I lost several, I'm sorry to say, but this one was different." The twisted, scarred face of the gang-banger he'd tried to save flashed into his mind. "This kid was a drug dealer, had been shot twice in the head at point blank range by a rival. His brain was already scrambled when they brought him in."

Soren folded his hands over his stomach, ignoring

his untouched breakfast. "Doesn't sound like there was anything you could've done."

"There wasn't, but I had to try. The minute I opened him up, I knew it was a lost cause, but the other members of this kid's crew..." Ryan's breath hitched as he thought back to the shouts of anger and denial that had filled the waiting room that morning. "Let's just say they weren't so understanding."

"In other words, they needed someone to blame besides the actual shooter, and you looked like as good a fall guy as any."


Soren's dark eyes softened. "What did they do to

you, Ryan?"

"Sabotaged my car." Ryan scrubbed a hand over his face. "Cut the brakes."


"I guess they figured a life for a life and all that." Ryan shook himself. "I ended up plummeting off a rocky shoulder into a ravine." The doctor in him sought the cool detachment of a medical explanation. "Shattered my knee and broke both my femur and my tibia in more places than I care to count." He managed a weak smile. "I have more pins and screws in me than Ace Hardware."

Soren didn't laugh. Instead, he pointed to Ryan's chest, to the jagged scars marring his skin. "And

those? Did that happen in the accident, as well."

"Yes and no." Ryan struggled with the memory. "The guy who rigged my car...he followed me home from work to make sure he'd done the job right."

"Don't tell me he--"

Ryan nodded. "When he realized I wasn't killed in the accident, he pulled me out of the car and stabbed me three times for good measure."

Soren's handsome face became an angry mask. "Say the word and my people will hunt him down and feast on his entrails."

"Uh...thank you, but no. The cops nabbed him and his buddies. Got a life sentence each after the DA tacked on some of their other crimes."

"They deserved worse." To Ryan's surprise, Soren reached out his hand and clasped Ryan's arm. "You're a strong man. You wouldn't have survived it, otherwise."

Ryan hadn't felt strong--then or now--and the compliment embarrassed him. He stood up. "I came in here to tell you that I'm going to run into town for supplies. I should go." He turned to leave, then stopped and pivoted halfway back around. "You need anything?"

"No, thank you."

Ryan gave one nod, then made to leave.



"Thank you for telling me."

"Thank you for listening." Ryan gave him a hesitant grin. "Who'd have thought you were so good at it?"


Who'd have thought you were so good at it?Two hours after Ryan left and the words were still ringing in Soren's head. Amazing that a backhanded compliment from a mere human could please him in such a way.

Soren cursed under his breath as he paced the length of the guest room and back again. Ryan Hightower was no mere mortal, and he damned well knew it. First the mind-speak, then that damn dream. Soren went hot all over as the sleep images came back to him, he and Ryan locked together with Soren's cock buried in that tight ass. More than sex, the dream had been about a claiming, and Soren was half scared, half hopeful that the dream had been nothing less than a prediction of the future.

He kicked at the bedpost. Damn the man and his heroic story of survival, anyway. From the minute Soren had heard all that Ryan had endured, an

odd, protective curtain had fallen into place. Soren, who made it a point to avoid humans like the plague, was actually aching to take Ryan into his arms and kiss it all better.

"Careful, little brother. Your soft side's starting to show."

Soren jumped as Jacques sailed into the bedroom. He pinned his brother with a withering stare. "It's bad enough I've got Ryan playing around in my head. I don't need you there, as well."

"Couldn't help it," Jacques said. He set the suitcase he was holding onto the floor. "Your thoughts were all but screaming at me."

Soren ignored that last comment and pointed to the suitcase. "What's that?"

"Clothes, dumbass." Jacques pointed to Soren's nude form. "Wouldn't do to greet Lords Kyran and Saxton bare assed, now would it?"

"They're here?"

Jacques nodded. "In the living room."

"I'll be dressed and out in two minutes."

"Gotcha." Jacques went out to wait.

Soren made quick work of grabbing some jeans and a t-shirt from the suitcase. Nudity was no big deal amongst shifters, but it felt good to be wearing clothes again. He'd been half hard so many times around Ryan that it would also add an advantage the next time he and the doctor were alone together.

Once dressed, Soren stepped out into the living room. Kyran and Saxton were sitting on the sofa, the two of them managing to look regal despite being crowded in amongst cardboard boxes and packing crates.

"Soren." Kyran stood up to shake Soren's hand. "You're looked a damn site better than I expected."

Saxton rose. "I'm sorrier about this than I can


Soren arched a brow. "You've no reason to apologize to me, Lord Saxton."

"I'm afraid I do." Saxton gave a weary sigh. "I have reason to believe the hunter you encountered in the woods is here because of me."

Soren sat down hard in the chair across from the sofa. "You're going to have to explain that one."

Kyran and Saxton reclaimed their seats. Soren noticed for the first time that Jacques had made himself scarce. He got a bad feeling that whatever Saxton had to tell him was one hell of a bombshell.

Saxton opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again as if unsure what to say. Kyran wrapped one arm around his lover's shoulder.

"Easy, love. Just take your time and tell Soren what he needs to know."

Saxton leaned into the embrace for a moment, then pulled back and took a deep breath. He looked at Soren. "You know about my powers?"

Soren nodded. Saxton's talents were no secret amongst their clan. He had the power to transmit pain from one mind to another--a rare gift that made him a man not to cross.

"Unfortunately," Saxton said, "the elders of my former clan--the one I fled long before I met Kyran--knew of my powers, too. They'd hoped to harness them for their own use."

Soren could see that. "You told them to go to hell, I'm guessing."

"Yes, but here's where it gets tricky." Saxton drew in a deep breath. "There was a member of the clan, a human named Mercer, who wouldn't take no for an answer."

"A human." Soren's eyes went wide. "What was a human doing amongst a clan of shifters?"

"Mercer was married to our alpha's daughter," Saxton said. "Because of Mercer's standing in the

community surrounding the clan, the marriage was approved."

"It's not unusual for shifters to marry humans." Kyran looked Soren in the eye. "You above all others should know that."

Soren looked away. The last thing he wanted was to be reminded of his past.

Saxton must have sensed Soren's reticence, because he changed the subject. "From the description of the hunter Jacques took from your memories, I'd say he and Mercer are one in the same. It's been a while since I've seen the man, but the resemblance is too close to be a coincidence."

"But how would Mercer have known where to

find me? I made certain I wasn't followed while I was here, scouting out Ryan's house."

"I knew it. You were spying on me."

Soren turned to see Ryan standing in the doorway, face flooded with color.

He swallowed. "Ryan, I--"

Ryan ignored him, making his way instead to where Kyran and Saxton were sitting. He stuck out his hand. "Ryan Hightower. In case you missed it, this is my house."

"I know." Kyran stood and shook with him.

"Kyran Durand, Alpha of Clan Thorn." He gestured to Saxton, who'd also risen from the sofa to shake Ryan's hand. "This is my consort, Saxton Talcott."

"A pleasure," Saxton said. "Kyran and I are in your debt for saving Soren's life."

"He wouldn't have been here if you hadn't sent him to spy on me in the first place."

"Ryan." Soren came to his feet. "That's enough."

Kyran held up one hand. "Dr. Hightower is right. We owe him an apology." He met Ryan's accusing eyes with a level gaze. "My only excuse is concern for my clan. When we realized a stranger had bought this property, we felt it wise to take


Ryan was quiet, watching Kyran with an intensity that made Soren nervous. After a tense minute, Ryan nodded. "I can accept that." He took a step back. "I'll leave you to your meeting."

"There's no need." Kyran slipped his hand into Saxton's. "We were just leaving." He looked to Soren. "As for your last question, I have no idea how Mercer knew to target one of our men here, or why he went after you, specifically. All I can promise is that I won't rest until I find out." He straightened. "Until I do, we're adding extra patrols around the property. You and your ... Dr. Hightower will be protected."

Soren bowed. "Thank you, my lord."

Kyran returned the bow, then he and Saxon took their leave. As soon as they were gone, Soren turned to Ryan.

"Do you have any idea who you were just talking down to?"

"The alpha of your clan." Ryan shrugged. "Big fucking deal. He never should have sent you here in the first place."

Soren was fast reaching the end of his patience. "Now listen here, human--"

"No, you listen." Ryan closed the distance between them, pointing one finger in Soren's face. "I'm sick and tired of hearing about what a

superior species you are, as if that gives you and your kind sovereignty over the rest of us." He lowered his hand to push the finger against Soren's still-healing chest. "You may think you're top dog because you sprout fangs and a tail by the light of the full moon, but to me you're just another bigot. I've dealt with your kind before, and damned if I'm going to let you make me feel inferior in my own home. You don't like it, you can pack your injured ass up and get out."

The torrent was so unexpected coming from the staid doctor that Soren was struck speechless. Before he even came close to thinking up a reply, Ryan walked away and Soren was left standing with his mouth open like an idiot.

"I'd say you've met your match with that one, little brother."

Soren turned to find Jacques leaning against the same door Ryan slipped into unnoticed a few minutes before. He scowled. "What is it with the people around here eavesdropping and sneaking up on me?"

"We shouldn't be able to sneak up on you, lackwit. Your senses should have picked us up before we even made it into the room." Jacques frowned as if thinking. "Guess your mind is somewhere else, huh?"

Soren looked away. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Uh-huh." Jacques walked by him. "You and I both know it's a certain doctor that's driving you nuts." He shot Soren a wink. "You've screwed yourself royally with the guy, and now you don't know how to fix it." He started to leave the room,

and Soren panicked.


Jacques stopped. "Yes?"

Soren bit back his pride. "What do you think I should do?"

"Start with the truth, little brother," Jacques said. "Always start with the truth."


Three hours later, Ryan was in the kitchen, contemplating the merits of nuking a frozen pizza when Soren came in.

"What are you doing?"

Ryan barely spared him a glance. "Cooking supper. What does it look like I'm doing?"

Soren snatched the pizza from his hand. "That is not supper." He stuck it back in the freezer. "That is a frozen cocktail of chemicals and fat."

Ryan crossed his arms over his chest. "I'll have you know I lived off those things when I was in medical school."

Soren rolled his eyes. "In case you haven't noticed, you're a grownup now." He rooted around in the fridge. "At least you have some decent dinner makings in here." He pulled out a head of cabbage and a pound of ground beef. "Maybe you aren't a totally lost cause, after all."

Ryan shrugged. "My mother insisted on stocking the fridge and cupboard when I moved in."

Soren pulled some fresh tomatoes from the crisper. "Smart woman, your mother." He set the items on the counter, then grabbed some onions from a wire basket on the center island. "Are the two of you close?"

"Oh yeah. It's been just her, me, and my brother since Dad died ten years ago." Ryan visibly relaxed as he talked about his family. "My

brother, John, he's a cop with the city force. He and his wife are expecting their first child any day now."

"You're looking forward to being an uncle." Soren rooted around in the drawers until he found a knife. "I can hear it in your voice."

"Oh yeah. Since I'm not going to have children of my own, I plan on spoiling John's kids rotten."

That brought Soren up short. He turned to look at Ryan.

"Why can't you have kids? Was it the accident?"

Ryan shook his head. "Nothing like that." He hesitated. "I'm gay, Soren."

The news shouldn't have been a relief to Soren, but it was. He went back to looking for the knife, his heart ten pounds lighter.

"Well?" Ryan said. "Aren't you going to make some pithy comment?"

"Nope." Soren held up a knife in triumph. "Your mother must've bought these for you, too." He went to the island's cutting board and started work on the onions. "They're top of the line."

"Oh, come on." Ryan walked to the other side of the island so the two of them were facing. "You've been throwing insults at me ever since

you got here. I just gave you a golden opportunity to hurl all kinds of zingers and slurs my way, and you're just going to ignore it?"

"Yep. Hey, hand me a saucepan, would you?"

Ryan didn't move. "Why?"

Soren bit back a sigh. Jacques had warned him to go with the truth. Might as well start now. He laid the knife aside and looked at Ryan. "I won't insult you for being gay. I admit I've been a first-class asshole since the minute I got here, but I'm no hypocrite."

"Hypocrite?" Ryan's eyes went wide. "You mean..." He closed his mouth, opened it back up, then closed it again. "Oh."

"Yes, 'oh.'" Soren went back to the onions. "Now, would you please hand me that sauce pan?"

Ryan did as he was told, and the two of them lapsed into silence. Soren went about his prep work, and not until he'd slid a heaping pan of stuffed cabbage rolls into the oven did he break the silence.

"I'm sorry."

Ryan, who was sitting at the table in the breakfast nook, looked up from the magazine he'd been reading with surprise. "For what?"

"For treating you like a lesser species." He pulled out the chair closest to Ryan's and sat down. "I'd like to explain if you'll let me."

Ryan only nodded.

Soren wet his lips. "Like you, I also lost my father." Soren looked down at his hands. "Only mine didn't die."

"What happened?"

"My mother, she married a human from one of the towns on the other side of the mountain."

"A human?" Ryan sounded surprised. "Is that normal amongst your people?"

"It happens." Soren swiped a hand over his face. "In this case, though, it shouldn't have. My mother knew nothing about the guy, and he sure as hell didn't know about her."

"You mean--"

"She didn't tell him she was a shifter until after they were married. She was already pregnant with Jacques when she broke the news."


"You can say that again." Soren laughed, a humorless sound. "Needless to say, my father was less than thrilled when he found out." He glanced up, half-expecting to see pity in Ryan's eyes. Relieved to find only keen attention, Soren continued.

"At first it looked as if my father was going to split, but eventually he seemed to accept my mother's abilities--even to embrace them."

Ryan folded his hands on the table. "I'm sensing a 'but' coming."

"Damn right." Soren took a deep breath. "My father, he had a plan, you see. A plan to make himself rich. And if he had to sell out his wife and kids to do it, then so be it." He swallowed. "My father waited until after my mother had given birth to me and my younger sister Delia, then

turned us in to a human doctor willing to pay big bucks to run experiments on real live werewolves."

The color leached from Ryan's face. "Dear God."

"We were lucky, I guess." Soren kept his voice flat and even. "Morgan Durand--that's Lord Kyran's father--found out what my father had planned and rescued us. My father, he's been locked up in a remote, clan-run prison ever since." He sighed. "Thank God Morgan got to us before we came to any harm."

"No harm." Ryan stood up, then started pacing the squat length of the nook. "How can you say that when your own father betrayed you that way?" He stopped pacing, running a shaky hand through his hair. "No wonder you hate humans the way you do."

"It isn't like that. Not really." Soren came to his feet. "For years I told myself that I hated them--never mind that I'm part human myself--but then I met you and..." He went forward so that he was standing directly in front of Ryan. "You're the bravest man I've ever met, human or otherwise."

Ryan swallowed. "You're wrong."

"The hell I am. You didn't so much as flinch when I called to you. You just went charging into the woods to save my life." He reached out with one tentative finger, trailing it down Ryan's hot cheek. "That should have been impossible, by the way."

Ryan leaned into the touch. "Huh?" Soren doubted he even realized he was doing it. "What's impossible?"

"Mind speak between a human and a shifter." Soren leaned in, ready to take Ryan's mouth with his and damn the consequences. "You never should have been able to hear me."

They were almost touching now. Ryan parted his lips. "What does it mean?"

"Damned if I know, but I'm ready to find out." Soren closed his eyes and was just about to claim the kiss when the oven timer went off. He pulled back with a curse.

"Talk about rotten timing." He scrubbed at his

cheeks. "You okay?"

"Yeah." A slightly trembling Ryan sank back into his chair. "Before we take this any further, there's something I should probably tell you."

"Hold that thought." Soren went to the oven and removed the pan. The fragrance of stuffed cabbage covered in homemade tomato sauce filled the air. He set the pan on top of the stove, then turned back to Ryan. "What were you going to say?"

"I'll tell you after dinner." Ryan was already at the cabinet, removing two plates. "If that tastes as good as it smells, I'm afraid I'm going to have to keep you."

Soren was honest enough with himself to admit he found that thought damn reassuring.


Half an hour later, Ryan pushed his plate away and leaned back with a groan. "Damn. Where did you learn to cook like that, anyway?"

"My mother." Soren grinned. "She insisted all three of her children learn how to cook and keep house. Said that just because Jacques and I were men, that didn't give us an excuse not to cultivate our domestic talents."

Ryan laughed. "Your mother sounds like a real pistol."

"She is. You'll have to meet her some time." Soren colored as if realizing the significance of the invitation. "I just meant--"

"It's okay. I'd like to meet your mother."

"Okay." Soren relaxed. "Now what were you--" He broke off, suddenly tense again.

Something in Soren's expression put Ryan on alert. "What is it?"

Soren pressed a finger to his lips.Where's that shotgun of yours?

Hall closet. Why?

Soren got up, waiting until Ryan did the same and falling in behind him.Go get it.

Ryan hesitated, and Soren clamped a reassuring hand on his shoulder.I'll be with you every step of the way. Just make as little noise as possible. We've got to get out of here.

Ryan complied and within seconds he had the shotgun in his hand. Soren pointed to the back door.We'll slip out that way.Can you make it down the steps?

Ryan nodded.I did last time, but we'll have to go slow.

No problem. Just stay with me, and whatever you do, don't let your guard down.

Ryan still had no idea what they were running from, but the sound of Soren's voice had convinced him to haul ass now and ask questions later. They'd just made it to the back door when the front windows exploded.

"Son of a bitch." Soren grabbed Ryan's free hand and all but pulled him through the French doors and onto the deck. They got halfway down the steps before a tall man with an automatic rifle strapped to his back came from the shelter of the trees.

He grinned at Soren. "You escaped me the first

time, wolf, but I've got you now."

Ryan heard Soren swallow, but he kept his voice even as he faced the gunman down.

"What do you want with me?"

"What do I want?" The guy pretended to think about it as he moved the rifle into position. "I want your filthy hide nailed to my wall, of course."

Soren's grip on Ryan's hand intensified.It's me he wants. On my signal, I want you to run.

Hell, no.The thought of leaving Soren behind

was so appalling, Ryan actually gritted his teeth.I have a better idea. And before Soren had a chance to stop him, Ryan threw all his weight onto his injured leg and toppled forward.

The gunman was unprepared for the assault. Ryan careened into him, knocking the rifle out of his grip. They hit the ground hard. Fighting off waves of pain and nausea, Ryan tossed his own gun to Soren.

Soren caught it mid-air. He pointed the shotgun barrel at the man lying next to Ryan and said, "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't blow your head off and be done with it."

"I'll give you three." Their would-be assassin smiled in a way that cut through Ryan's agony-fogged brain and gave him chills. The bastard looked Soren dead in the eye. "If you kill

me, you'll never see your brother, sister, and mother again."


The next hour was a haze of frantic phone calls, broken mind speak, and damage assessment, but Ryan knew little of what was happening outside the bedroom where Soren had rushed him the moment their attacker was tied up in the kitchen.

Not that Ryan minded. The tearing sensation he'd felt when he jumped the bad guy told him he'd put a major hurt on his gimpy leg. There was nothing to do now but live with the consequences. He lay for a solid hour drifting between piercing agony and blessed unconsciousness.

The next time he awoke it was to find Dr. Paxton Elliguard sitting beside him on the bed. Ryan struggled to sit up, but Elliguard pushed him back down.

"Easy, Dr. Hightower." He laid his hand on Ryan's arm. "Let me see what you've done to yourself before you try moving."

Ryan shook his head. "Soren's family...are they--"

"We're fine," Jacques said as he stepped into the room. "Whatever those bastards had planned for us failed at the last minute." He moved from the doorway, allowing a woman with Soren's eyes and a fragile, gracious beauty to come in after him. "Ryan Hightower, may I present my mother, Allisande de Beck. Mother, this is Ryan Hightower, the man who saved Soren's life. Twice."

Allisande must not have needed an introduction. She was already across the room, peppering Ryan's face with kisses.

"Oh, my dear boy." She brushed trembling fingers across Ryan's face. "Somehow ‘thank you’ doesn't seem like enough." She grabbed Ryan in a bracing hug, much stronger than her slight build betrayed.

Ryan bit back a groan as her attentions jostled his injured leg. Just when he thought he couldn't take it another minute, Allisande was gently pulled away, and Ryan could breathe again.

Soren was standing behind Allisande, his hands on her shoulders. "Careful with him, Mother."

Soren's eyes glittered with emotion. "The damn fool nearly tore his leg off trying to protect me."

Ryan would have objected had the worry and concern in Soren's voice not gotten through to him. Instead, he lay back against the pillows, conserving his energy to deal with the pain.

Elliguard took over. "Speaking of Dr. Hightower's injuries, I need you all to leave while I finish the examination."

Allisande and Jacques left, but Soren didn't budge. "I'll stay," he said. "Ryan and I have much to discuss as soon as I know he's all right."

Elliguard looked as if he wanted to object, but Ryan stopped him. "I'd like Soren to stay with

me, Doctor."

Elliguard nodded. After instructing Soren to stand on Ryan's other side, the doctor removed a pair of scissors from the case at his feet and cut Ryan's jeans away.

Thirty minutes of gentle but excruciating poking and prodding followed. Soren held tight to Ryan's hand, holding him steady as Elliguard manipulated the leg and tested the muscles.

Ryan endured it as best he could, but it was torture. His body was bathed in a fine sheen of sweat and his throat was sore from choking back screams. Finally, when Ryan was certain he couldn't take another second, Elliguard pulled back.

"It's worse than I feared," Elliguard said in the same flat tone Ryan had once used to tell patients' families their loved one was dying. "You've re-broken the bone and hyper-extended the knee joint."

Ryan didn't have to ask what that meant. "Surgery."

Soren looked to Elliguard. "Can you do it? I don't want him languishing in one of those human hospitals."

Ryan almost smiled over the faint note of derision in Soren's voice. "I hate to break it to you, buddy, but I happen to be human."

"Maybe, but I'm in agreement with Soren on this," Elliguard said. "Our people have more advanced ways of dealing with your type of injury." He paused. "If you're willing, that is."

Ryan would sacrifice live chickens on the courthouse steps if it meant avoiding the knife, but Elliguard's tone warned him he might not like the man's methods. Ryan wet his dry lips. "What did you have in mind?"

"A blood transfusion straight from the vein of one of our people," Elliguard said. "Shifter blood has twenty times the healing properties of human blood. I'd be willing to bet your leg will be even stronger afterward than it was before you played the hero this night."

It was an incredible offer, but Ryan's doubts overrode the immediate temptation. "Would

I...would I become like you?"

"Most assuredly not." Elliguard smiled. "You're either born a shifter or you aren't, Dr. Hightower. No need to worry about joining the fangs and fur set." His smile faded. "You should know, though, that there could be side effects if you agree to this procedure."

Ryan sighed. There was always a catch. Pushing away the penetrating throb of his leg muscles, he said, "What are we talking about?"

"Enhanced hearing, possibly a temporary increase in heart rate and metabolism." Elliguard leaned forward. "For you the most startling result may be an intensifying of the psychic bond you share with Soren."

Ryan couldn't imagine the bond between the two of them being any stronger than it was now. He rolled his head to the side and looked up at Soren.

"What do you think?"

"If those are the only risks," Soren said with a squeeze to Ryan's fingers, "then I'd say they're well worth it." He brushed his thumb over Ryan's palm. "It has to be your decision."

The pain was making it hard to think, all the more reason for Ryan to do whatever it took to make the numbing agony go away. "Do it."

"Since blood type and disease risk don't factor into the shifter-human equation, I should have no

problem finding a suitable donor." Elliguard rose to his feet. "If you'll but give me a moment..."

"Not a chance in hell," Soren said. "If Ryan needs blood, I'll be the one to give it to him."

Elliguard shook his head. "I don't believe that's advisable. As I said before, the bond--"

"Is there for a reason." Soren pushed up his sleeve, then sat down next to Ryan. "It's going to intensify, anyway. Might as well help it along."

Ryan had no idea what Soren was talking about, but Elliguard seemed to understand. "You've decided to stop fighting it, then?"

"Oh yeah." Soren looked down at Ryan with something like a smile playing across his lips. "You ready?"

"Your injuries..." Ryan wasn't going to lie there quietly while Soren endangered himself. "You shouldn't be giving blood so soon after almost bleeding out."

"I examined Soren just after I got here," Elliguard said. "I assure you, Dr. Hightower, he's well able to supply you with what you need." He picked up his case, placed it at the foot of the bed, and began removing his supplies.

Soren stretched full out on the bed beside Ryan, their arms touching. "Won't be long now, and then it'll be all better."

Ryan wasn't certain which he found more reassuring: Soren's promise or the solid weight of the man himself lying next to him.


The transfusion went off without a hitch. Elliguard made quick work of leeching the blood from Soren's veins, and within moments he was done. Five minutes after Elliguard removed the needles, Ryan fell into a coma-like sleep.

Soren propped on one elbow, eyeing Ryan with concern. "Is that normal?"

Elliguard nodded, closing his case with a snap.

"Dr. Hightower's body needs time to assimilate the blood." He narrowed his eyes. "You should rest, as well. Give yourself a chance to remake the blood you so generously donated."

"Generosity had nothing to do with it." Soren settled back against the pillows, his head so close to Ryan's he could feel the other man's warm breath on his cheek. "What's mine is his."

"You owe it to him to tell him the truth as soon as possible, Soren." Elliguard picked up the case. "Dr. Hightower must understand the full implications of what's happening between you."

Soren swallowed. He knew Elliguard was right, but the fear that Ryan might not accept him--accept the truth of what they were--made him dizzy. He closed his eyes as Elliguard left, praying Ryan was more open minded than Soren

gave him credit for.

He must've dozed off, because the next time he opened his eyes it was to find a very sexy human leaning over him.

Soren looked up into those bottomless eyes and smiled. "Hi there."

Ryan grinned. "Hi, yourself."

"How do you feel?"

"There's no pain, but I haven't tried to walk on it yet, either." Ryan breathed deep, then rolled away and sat up. "Guess there's no sense putting it off."

Soren watched, the air frozen in his lungs, as Ryan came to his feet, allowing his full weight to fall on his bum leg.

His eyes went wide. "It doesn't hurt." He took one cautious step, and then another. "My God, Soren. It feels like it did before the accident."

Soren hardly dared believe. "Are you certain?"

"Damn straight." Ryan took long strides across the room, then back again. "I'm not even limping."

The constriction on Soren's heart and lungs dissolved. "Thank God it worked."

"God and you." Ryan took two steps back, and before Soren could guess what he meant to do, got a running start and made for the bed.

Soren had no time to prepare before Ryan pounced. He just opened his arms and pulled Ryan against his chest. "Careful, idiot, or you'll be right back where you started."

"Then I'll just have to take in some more of that magic blood of yours." Ryan flopped backwards against the pillows. "I hope humanity at large never finds out how potent werewolf blood is. You guys will be hunted down like rats."

"About that..." Soren cleared his throat, knowing it was time for full disclosure. "There's something

you need to know."

"Yeah?" Ryan turned on his side. "I'm listening."

Soren sat up, needing to put some distance between them. "Ryan..." He wet his lips, his mouth suddenly dry. "I need a drink."

Ryan rose up on his knees in front of Soren so that the two of them were facing. "Whatever it is can't be that bad."

"Not bad, but... damn this is hard." Soren screwed up his courage. "Shifter blood has powerful healing properties--the very reason shifters are immune to human diseases--but the healing you experienced ... it goes beyond the norm."


It was now or never. "Ryan, you and I...we're mates."

Ryan sat back on his heels. "Come again?"

"The human-shifter mind-speak, the power of my blood inside your body--none of that could have happened unless you were my true soul mate," he said. "I knew it the moment I put out a call for help and you were the one who answered." Soren went hot. "And then there were the dreams."

"What dreams?"

"We'll talk about that later. Right now, all you need to know is that you and I were fated to be together."

Ryan blinked. "Is this like the whole wolves-mate-for-life thing?"

"Not exactly," Soren said. "I mean, it's not like I've never had sex. And some of our people, they marry and divorce, then marry again just like humans. Some of the elders, though...they believe that each of us is born with one perfect partner." He looked into Ryan's eyes. "The other half of our whole."

Ryan was quiet for a minute, just watching him. Finally, he said in a voice so soft Soren could

barely hear him, "And do you believe in that?"

"No. At least, I didn't until I met you." He leaned in closer. "Now I know I was wrong."

"This mate thing ... what does it mean?"

"A lot of things." Soren took his hand. "For the rest of your life, you'll belong to only me. Amongst my people, we'll be considered as married, and you'll be afforded the same respect and privileges as any shifter in the pack." He brought his free hand up to Ryan's face. "If you agree to me mine, I'll spend the rest of my life making you glad you're my mate."

"And if I say no?"

Soren heart plummeted. He took his hands away and lowered his eyes. "Then I promise to go away and never bother you again."

Warm fingers caressed his cheek. "Soren, look at me."

Soren forced himself to meet Ryan's gaze. "Yes?"

"Could we live here, do you think?" Ryan smiled. "I like your people and all, but I get the feeling there isn't a lot of privacy amongst your pack."

A warmth unlike anything he'd ever known crept into Soren's limbs. "Whatever you want."

"And if I decide to go back to work, will you support that decision? Because if you're going to be one of those husbands who thinks he can boss me around--"

Soren cut him off in mid sentence, pushing him back onto the bed and coming to lie on top of him.

"You can do whatever you want, wherever you want," he said in a husky whisper. "Just say you'll be mine."

Ryan laced his arms around Soren's neck. "I think I just did."

That simple admission was all it took to unlock the floodgates on Soren's strained emotions. He claimed Ryan's mouth in a searing kiss.

Ryan was with him all the way, his lips and tongue invading Soren's with equal possession. How long the kiss lasted, Soren couldn't say, but by the time he pulled back, he was breathless and harder than he'd ever been in his life.

"I want to be inside you," he said as he peppered kisses down Ryan's neck. "Please tell me you want that, too."

"God, yes." Ryan's head fell back, exposing more of his throat to Soren's attentions. "And when you're done, I want to flip you over and fuck you senseless."

Soren had always been a top--had never allowed any man to take him--but the thought of Ryan's cock buried deep in his ass made him so hot he felt like he might come without even touching himself. "Hell, yes."

The next five minutes were a tangle of arms and legs as they struggled to get rid of the fabric standing in their way. In the end Soren lost patience and ripped the clothes off both of them.

Ryan put on a sigh as the remains of his shirt drifted to the floor. "I always liked that shirt."

"I'll buy you ten just like it," Soren said as he climbed back onto the bed, back on top of Ryan. He pulled away just enough to give a thorough appraisal of Ryan's body. "Has anyone ever told

you you're spectacular without your clothes?"

Instead of being pleased by the compliment, Ryan's face darkened, bringing Soren up short.

"What is it?"

"Remember before the attack, when I said there was something I needed to talk to you about?"

Soren nodded.

"Before my accident, there was this guy..." Ryan hesitated, seemingly gathering his courage. "His name was Pete, and the two of us...we were a couple."

Soren thought he understood where Ryan was going with this. "You're afraid I'm going to be jealous." He grinned. "Don't worry. It doesn't matter how many men you've had in your past as long as I'm the only one in your future."

"You will be, but it isn't that. Soren, Pete left me because of the accident. Said he didn't want to saddle himself with some useless cripple."

Soren was outraged. "Want me to hunt him down and eviscerate him for you?"

That earned him a tight smile. "No, but the thing is ... Pete's the last guy I was with, and that's been so long ... I just thought you should know."

Soren lowered his head, kissing Ryan quick. "In other words, be gentle with you."


He stole another kiss, then shoved himself off Ryan. "I know just what you need." He moved away. "Get on your hands and knees."

Ryan balked. "Huh?"

Soren stroked a hand down the curve of Ryan's shoulder. "It's been a while for you. We need to get you ready."

Ryan complied, and a moment later Soren was given full view of his amazing ass. The temptation to dive in and get started was strong, but Soren wasn't going to take a chance on hurting him.


Ryan half turned. "Bedside drawer."

Soren grabbed the tube and came back to the bed. "What about condoms?"

"Do we need them?"

"No, but I'll use one if it makes you feel better."

Ryan shook his head. "I want to feel you, and only you."

Exactly what Soren wanted to hear. He climbed in behind Ryan, his hands on Ryan's back. With one finger, he traced the arc of Ryan's spine.

Ryan shivered. "Feels good."

"If you like that, you're gonna love this." And before Ryan had a chance to protest, Soren spread his cheeks and started tonguing his hole.

Ryan's moan was raw, ragged, and the hottest thing Soren had ever heard. "Jesus."

Spurred on by the sounds coming from Ryan's throat, Soren made his tongue into a point and continued rimming him even as his hands were busy opening the lube. Soren spread the slick liquid onto his fingers, then brought his hand up to the place he was working with his tongue. Without breaking stride, Soren worked one finger inside Ryan's tight opening.

Ryan bucked against his hand. "More."

Soren was only too happy to give him what he wanted. He added a second finger, delighting in Ryan's husky plea.

"Fuck me now. Don't make me wait."

Soren glanced down at Ryan's cock, which was red, hard, and throbbing, much like his own. As Soren pulled away enough to slather his erection was the lube, he prayed Ryan was ready, because he couldn't wait another second. Lining himself up, Soren slid inside with one smooth stroke.

Ryan took every inch without so much as a whimper.

Soren allowed himself a brief moment to enjoy the heat of Ryan's fist-tight channel before he rocked his hips.

"God, yes." Ryan fell down onto his elbows, his head lolling to the side. "Just like that."

From there, Soren lost it. His mind and body melded into a series of thrusts and retreats. During one particularly enthusiastic shove, Soren grabbed hold of Ryan's cock and started pumping him in rhythm with his movements.

It was too much for Ryan. He let out something between a groan and a scream, then filled Soren's hand full of his seed.

The wet heat on his hand was just what Soren had been waiting for. Without another word he pushed all the way in and followed Ryan over the edge.


Ryan stood under the shower spray, the hot water going a long way toward easing the pleasantly sore places all over his body.

Pleasantly sore? You aren't complaining are you?

Ryan laughed.Not on your life, but you'd better get in here if you're after a hot shower.

"I'm after a lot of things," Soren said as he opened the glass door and stepped into the shower stall. "Believe it or not, hot water isn't even at the top of the list."

"Don't even think about it." Ryan swatted Soren's hand away from his ass. "Three times in one night is my absolute limit."

"Hey, you did me twice and I'm not complaining." Soren grabbed the soap from the dish and started washing Ryan's back. "I was a virgin, even."

"In some ways, maybe." Ryan leaned against the wall as Soren's fingers worked the stiffness from his muscles. "You keep that up and I'm going to get hard again."

"Much as I like that plan, I'm afraid it isn't going to happen." Soren moved under the spray and started washing himself. "We've been summoned before the pack council."

Ryan didn't like the sound of that. "What gives?"

Soren moved aside so Ryan could rinse himself off. "Last night the hunter said he'd sent someone after my family, remember?"

As if he could ever forget. "I assume this has something to do with how Jacques and the others escaped."

"Yes." Soren stepped out of the shower, then grabbed a towel from the rack and dried himself. "The three of them would probably be dead right now if my sister hadn't had a premonition that something bad was going to happen."

Ryan turned the water off and reached for his own towel before stepping out onto the bath mat beside Soren. "Your sister is clairvoyant?"

"Not exactly." Soren reached for the clothes he'd hung on the back of the bathroom door. "It's more like Delia gets a dark sense that something evil is coming her way. Last night she got the feeling that someone was after her, so she grabbed Mother and Jacques, and the three of them fled." Soren slipped into his jeans. "They made it out minutes before the house caught fire."

"Damn. I'm sorry, Soren."

"So am I, but it was just a building." Soren pulled his shirt over his head, then came back over to wrap his arms around Ryan's waist. "When I think about what almost happened to them-- and what could've happened to you--I realize just how much I stand to lose."

After only having just found Soren, Ryan refused

to let his mind take him down that road. Besides, he got the feeling that Soren wasn't finished.

"There's more, isn't there?"

Soren sighed. "The shifters who were assigned to protect this house were found bound and gagged but otherwise unharmed in the woods behind the house. It seems my family is the only real target."

"So your alpha's consort was wrong when he believed himself to be the cause of all this?"

"Not necessarily." Soren handed Ryan his clothes, then moved away for him to dress. "I believe there's a connection, but I can't figure out what it is. I'm hoping Saxton can shed some light on the situation."

Ryan pulled on his clothes, then turned so that he and Soren were facing. "Are you certain you want me to attend this meeting with you?"

"Damn right I do." Soren didn't hesitate. "Last night you agreed to be my mate. That means we're one now. What concerns me concerns you."

"But your clan..."

"What about them?"

"If they don't accept me," Ryan said, "it could cause you all kinds of problems."

"You don't get it. Ryan, they already accept you. Why do you think they were so wiling to lay down their lives for you? Amongst my people, you're a hero."

Ryan appreciated the sentiment, but he didn't share Soren's confidence that his initiation into the clan would be well tolerated by everyone. Even so, he finished dressing, then followed Soren out to the path between his house and the clan holding. If Soren wanted Ryan at his back, there was nowhere else Ryan was going to be.


Ryan wasn't sure what he expected, but Clan Thorn's village proper looked much like any small town. Plenty of shops, houses, and public

buildings. Soren led him to a square mansion on one side of the town square.

"The council building," he said. "Lord Kyran and the others will be waiting inside for us."

Ryan nodded, following Soren down a wide hall into a grand scale room paneled in what looked to be mahogany. A rosewood conference table dominated the room's center, around which sat twenty-five men--Lords Kyran and Saxton included--and one woman. All assembled rose as Ryan and Soren walked in.

"Gentlemen and Lady," Kyran said with a smile, "you already know Soren. Allow me to present his mate, Dr. Ryan Hightower."

Ryan gave Soren a surprised look.They know?

Of course. I called Jacques with the good news first thing this morning.The grin Soren gave him made Ryan hot all over.I'm proud you're mine. Had to do a little bragging.

Ryan swallowed down a wave of lust and turned his attentions back on Kyran.

"Councilors, please be seated." Kyran waited until the other councilors complied, then went around the table introducing them. The only one Ryan knew besides Saxton was the man named Roderick who'd been with Elliguard that first day in the woods.

Kyran instructed Soren and Ryan to sit in the two

empty seats on Saxton's right. Once they were in place, Kyran addressed the council as a whole.

"I realize it's unusual to invite non-members to a council meeting, but since Soren and his mate are directly involved, I thought it best to have them here while I relate the facts." Kyran took a drink from a water glass at the lectern where he was standing, then set the glass down and cleared his throat. "I have reason to believe that last night's attacks on the de Beck family home and Dr. Hightower's place were isolated incidents perpetrated by a madman bent on destroying us and our kind." Kyran glanced around the table, looking at each of them in turn. "Now that the person responsible has been apprehended, I feel safe in saying the danger has passed."

Ryan felt Soren's spike of surprise, and then his confusion. Even to Ryan, a virtual stranger amongst these people, Kyran's assertion rang false.

Following Soren's lead, Ryan kept his mouth shut, even when Kyran said, "I feel so comfortable that we have the right man, I'm calling off the guards and declaring this entire debacle finished."

A murmuring sounded through the council chamber, but Kyran was unrelenting. "If no one has anything further to add, I hereby adjourn this meeting. Any objections?"

If anyone had objections, they didn't voice them. A minute later, Ryan found himself again standing in the main hall with Soren.

"What the hell was that all about?" he said in a low whisper.

"I don't know, but I have a feeling we're about to find out." Soren pointed to red-haired man coming their way."

"I'm Nuncio Patrin." The man stuck out his hand, clasping Ryan's in a solid grip. "I'm Kyran's number one advisor."

"Ryan Hightower."

Nuncio nodded. "I know who you are." He looked back and forth between Ryan and Soren. "I suppose you're both wanting an explanation."

"That's putting it mildly," Soren said. "Nuncio, what the hell was Lord Kyran thinking, making an

announcement like that? It's crazy to think that one human hunter was behind this whole thing."

"Trust me, Soren, there's a method to Kyran's madness." Nuncio shook hands with Ryan again, and this time, Ryan felt a piece of paper pressed into his palm. "Be there in an hour and you'll have all the answers you need," he said in a low voice. Nuncio stepped back, then, heading in the opposite direction.

Soren led Ryan back into the council chamber. Once certain they were alone, Ryan unfolded the paper and showed it to Soren.

"I know the place." Soren made a face. "An hour's right. It'll take us that long to get there."

"Do we walk, or what?"

"We could," Soren said with a grin, "but I have a better idea."


Soren steered his dirt bike up the mountain side, with Ryan right behind him on the bike they'd borrowed from Jacques. At first Ryan seemed hesitant, but soon he'd loosened up and was now driving the bike over the rough terrain like a seasoned pro.

Murphy's Cave--named for the early shifter family who'd once lived there--lay just ahead. The sun was at its zenith as Soren and Ryan approached the cave's mouth.

Kyran and Saxton, with Nuncio in tow, stepped out of the cave as soon as Ryan and Soren laid their bikes down.

Kyran gave them a rueful smile. "I apologize for the cloak and dagger routine, but it was necessary to avoid rousing our enemy's suspicions."

Soren just looked at him. "You mean to tell me all that stuff you said in the council chamber--"

"Was pure bullshit," Saxton said. "Kyran doesn't lie often, but he's damn convincing when he does."

"What can I say?" Kyran shrugged. "It's a gift. In this case, lying was the only way to make the traitor show himself."

"Traitor?" Soren's heart skipped a beat. "You don't honestly think one of our own is behind the attacks on me and my family?"

"We don't just think it," Nuncio said. "The human hunter, Carl Mercer, confirmed it for us."

"Mercer." Soren remembered the name. He looked to Saxton. "So it was the human from your former clan?"

"Yes, but this time he wasn't here for me. At least, not directly, and not yet." Saxton locked eyes with him. "During our interrogation, Mercer

admitted that he was hired to kill you and your family."

Soren stepped back as if slapped. Only the solid weight of Ryan standing beside him kept him grounded. "For God's sake, why?"

"Think about it, Soren. Think about your family's position, your importance to me." Kyran turned to Ryan. "Soren may not have told you this, but he and his brother have acted as my most trusted protectors and personal sentries since I won the blood challenge that secured my place as Alpha two years ago."

Ryan raised one brow. "I had no idea."

"Soren probably didn't want to brag," Nuncio

said. "In addition to being one of the most important people in Kyran and Saxton's entourage, the job makes him a shitload of money. He's one of the richest--"

"Thank you, Nuncio." Kyran cut him off smoothly. "I think I can take it from here." He turned back to Soren and Ryan. "Nuncio makes a good point, however crudely it was put. The very reason why we're in this situation is because our enemy knows your value to me. Eliminating you and Jacques will make Saxton and me easier targets."

Soren swore under his breath. "You mean someone hired Mercer to take me and Jacques out so they could overthrow you?"

Kyran nodded. "Mercer confirmed as much."

"Unfortunately," Saxton said, "that's all he confirmed. Mercer swears he doesn't know the name of the man who hired him." He sighed. "I don't necessarily believe him, but no matter what we've thrown at him, Mercer still refuses to hand over the information."

"Making our little subterfuge all the more necessary." Kyran folded his hands. "By announcing to the council that we've caught our man, I hope to make the traitorous bastard show his hand."

"No offense, Excellency, but there's a major hole in your logic." Soren was close enough to Kyran not to fear speaking freely. "If this guy is on or has connections to the clan council, he'll see right through that phony speech you gave to the trap that it is."

Ryan backed him up with a nod. "I'm not even a shifter and I knew a crock when I heard one."

"Ah, but that's where my husband's true brilliance comes in." Saxton draped an arm across Kyran's shoulders. "Kyran 'allowed' a certain privileged communication between himself and Nuncio to be overheard by our suspect."

"You have a suspect." Soren's eyes widened. "I thought you said Mercer refused to give you a name."

"Mercer may not be talking, but a certain member of Kyran's guard has been acting a mite peculiar lately." Nuncio twisted his lips. "I'd wager all I own that he's involved in this somehow."

Anger began to pump through Soren's veins. "Give me a name."

Nuncio started to comply, but Kyran stopped him. "First, I'll have your promise you'll not act on this information until you hear the entire plan." When Soren hesitated, Kyran became insistent. "I mean it, Soren. This won't work without your full cooperation."

Soren's only answer was a single, tight nod.

Kyran took a deep breath. "We're almost certain Roderick is somehow involved in the attempt on you and Dr. Hightower."

Soren saw red. He opened his mouth to speak, but Kyran waved him to silence.

"Roderick was involved, but there's no way he masterminded this plot. To be frank, he isn't smart enough." Kyran shook his head. "The man we want has brains, cunning, and balls made of solid steel."

Soren crossed his arms over his chest. "And just how are you going to draw this genius out?"

"The message Roderick overheard was a simple one," Nuncio said. "Kyran told me he was going to announce to the council that the lone suspect had been apprehended, all the while setting a trap for the real culprits at Dr. Hightower's house."

"I'm guessing," Ryan said, "that this message has a part B."

Saxton nodded. "Kyran also told Nuncio that you and Soren were going to be safely hidden in the tower room of the Durand mansion. Roderick heard the whole thing." He gave a smug smile. "I know because I was hidden in a hallway alcove, watching as the son-of-a-bitch listened outside Kyran's door. He was hanging on every word."

"Does my brother know?"

Kyran nodded. "Jacques has already been briefed. He's given us his full support."

Soren had to admit, it was a damn well-thought

plan. "I have no problem acting as bait, but someone should have asked Ryan."

"Point well taken," Kyran said. "Well, Dr. Hightower?"

Ryan's smile was slow, sexy, and filled with a confidence that made Soren proud. "When do we start?"


When Ryan heard the phrase 'tower room,' he'd expected a dark, dank space like one would find in a castle. He wasn't prepared for a luxurious guestroom with the biggest, silk-canopied bed he'd ever seen.

"No doubt about it." Soren flopped back on the bed with a grin. "Kyran and Saxton have style."

"You're one to talk, Mr. Richest-man-in-the-clan."

Soren laughed. "Not even close, but I'm not exactly hurting, either." He sobered. "It's not a problem is it? Love me, love my money and all that."

"It isn't a problem, but I insist on pulling my own weight." He sat down on the bed beside Soren. "Thanks to you, I'll be able to work again now that my leg has healed." He went quiet for a minute. "I do, you know."

Soren looked up at him, his eyes shinning. "What?"

"Love you." Ryan had never said the words before, not even to Pete. "I know all this has happened so fast, but--"

Soren cut him off by pulling him down for a kiss. Once Ryan was breathless and panting, Soren moved his lips away. "In case you haven't noticed, the feeling is more than mutual." He smoothed a hand over Ryan's hair. "As far as you working, I'm all for it, but you don't have to." He pinched Ryan's ass. "I think you'd make a cute little housewife."

Ryan was just about to show him how unfunny he was when footsteps sounded in the hall. Soren reached over to cut the bedside light--the only one

burning--and then he and Ryan moved into position. Ryan said a silent prayer that the others were prepared as he and Soren waited.

They didn't have to wait long. A snick sounded as the lock gave way and the intruder stepped inside. It was too dark for Ryan to see the man's face, but the weak light spilling in from the hall gleamed off the knife the guy was holding.

Their assailant was halfway across the room when the lights came on and Kyran burst in, Saxton and Nuncio right behind him.

Not that Ryan was really looking at them. He was too busy staring into the face of the last person he'd expected to see: Dr. Paxton Elliguard.

Soren went stiff, and Saxton let out a low growl that prompted Elliguard to drop the knife. The man might be a cold blooded killer, but apparently he wasn't stupid.

Kyran came to stand in front of him, his face a pale mask of shock. "You? But why?" He swallowed. "You were one of my father's closest friends."

"When you took over this clan," Elliguard said in a dry, discussing-the-weather type voice, "I had high hopes that you'd turn out to be as strong a leader as your father." He sighed. "Those hopes were dashed the moment you started talking about making peace with the Northern clans." He tisked. "Your father never would have taken those weaklings into his fold. I knew the moment the peace talks began that you had to be eliminated." He sighed. "The only way to get rid of you was through Soren and his family, so I hired Mercer, shot him full of a chemical to mask his scent, and

told him which part of the woods Soren would be in that night."

"Politics." Soren took a step toward Elliguard, snarling as he went. "You're telling me you tried to kill my entire family as part of some political maneuver?"

"I regretted the necessity of killing you, but with you and Jacques alive, I knew Mercer and his men would never be able to get to you."

"And Roderick?" Kyran searched Elliguard's face. "Where does he come in?"

"I promised to nominate him for the Alpha position once you were gone." Elliguard laughed as if at some private joke. "Not that he had a

chance in hell of ruling this clan, but Roderick is stupid enough to believe most anything."

Ryan's head was spinning. "I don't understand. You saved Soren's life, fixed my leg. Why would you do that if you knew you were only going to kill us later?"

"I regret that you got involved, Dr. Hightower. Please know that." Elliguard wiped his brow. "As for the rest, I couldn't let Soren die without arousing suspicion. Leastwise, not then."

"I've heard enough." Kyran turned his back on Elliguard as Jacques and another man came in. "Take him away."

Saxton was at his side in an instant. "You

couldn't have known, Kyran. The bastard was too crafty."

Soren seconded the sentiment. "If anything, I'm the one who should've suspected. It's my job to keep you and Saxton safe."

Ryan rolled his eyes. "I think you're both acting like a couple of macho idiots." He softened the accusation with a sympathetic sigh. "The blame lies with Elliguard, and Elliguard only."

"You're right." Kyran gave him a small but genuine smile. "I like you, Hightower. I'm damn glad Soren is keeping you." The smile faded. "I suppose I'd better alert the council about what's happened."

Saxton nodded. "I'm right behind you." He clapped first Ryan on the back, then Soren. "From the bottom of my heart, thank you both."

Nuncio started to follow them out, then stopped and turned back to Ryan. "You know, Dr. Hightower, with Elliguard gone it seems we're short a healer. You interested?"

Ryan looked to Soren, who shrugged. "I'm all for it, but it's up to you."

"But shifter anatomy--"

"Isn't that different from a human's," Soren finished for him. He picked up Ryan's hand and brought it to his lips. "There's no doubt in my mind you can do it."

Soren's faith in him was humbling. To Nuncio, Ryan said, "I'll think about it."

"Fair enough. Why don't the two of you get some sleep? You've certainly earned it." Nuncio gave them a wink. "Be a shame to waste that big ol' bed."

Soren waited until Nuncio was gone, then waggled his eyebrows at Ryan. "What do you say? Want to try it out?"

"That sir," Ryan said as he looped his arms around Soren's neck, "is the best offer I've had all night."

Long hours later, as the sun was starting to rise, Soren turned in Ryan's arms. "I think I forgot to say thank you."

Ryan laughed. "For which part?"

Soren lightly frogged his arm. "I'm not talking about the sex, though God knows it was good." He stroked a finger down the side of Ryan's face. "I was thanking you for saving my life, for trusting me enough to become my mate. I love you, Ryan."

Ryan opened his mouth for Soren's kiss, enjoying the solid feel of the man he was to spend the rest of his life with. He loved Soren more than he'd ever thought possible, but even that kind of all-encompassing emotion didn't blind Ryan to the truth. Soren might think of Ryan as his savior, but

the man had it all wrong. Ryan may have saved Soren's body, but Soren had done something far more important: he'd healed Ryan's soul and given him back his heart.

who will know? by a. steele

He watched the sun peak above the ocean. Watched the sky turn from violet to blush and finally, to shining Grecian gold. White vapor rose from the cool water, dancing in intricate patterns over the waves. It was another glorious dawn and even knowing what was to come, Prometheus found he could still appreciate the solemn beauty of the rising sun.

He sighed and pulled himself up from his crouched position at the base of the boulder, stretching out stiff muscles. The Titan rolled his shoulders, flexing his chest and rippling the stacked muscle of his stomach. The heavy, honey light caressed his massive physique, sliding sensuously over smooth, nut-brown skin and dipping into sepia shadow at every sculptured curve. After one final flex, Prometheus turned his face expectantly up to the scudding clouds.

If Prometheus has been a mortal man, his body

would have looked like that of a blacksmith, or perhaps of an Olympic athlete. Perfect strength complimented by perfect form, but Prometheus wasn’t mortal; he was a Titan, blood of Cronus. He was a god, standing well above the mightiest of trees. His eyes were an inhuman, lightning-hued violet, and his body was entirely hairless except for fine arched brows, and an amethyst braid which trailed down his back to coil in the sand at his feet. It was because of this immortality that Zeus had chained him to this Hades-cursed rock, in the middle of the sea, in the middle of nowhere--utterly alone. A god who couldn’t be killed easily could, nevertheless, suffer. Suffer cruelly, and for eternity…

He sighed again, a deep, melancholy exhalation. “Eternity…” he whispered.

An eagle’s scream tore the morning air and Prometheus shuddered at the sound, his eyes scanning the sky while his breathing became

labored and panicked. His clay-red cock lengthened and swelled, arching proudly over the tense muscles of his stomach. It was a learned response, this quickening of desire, and one he had no control over.

There, coming in from the east. The looming shadow glided over the ocean swells, and an anguished moan rose in his throat.

“Please, Zeus... please, let me die.” Prometheus prayed.

As on every other day, there was no answer save for the swoosh of the giant eagle’s wings as it landed on the rock beside his shoulder. The bird looked at him quizzically, cocking its head to the side to regard him with one large, fiercely intelligent amber eye. If eagles could smile this one would be grinning from ear to ear.

Prometheus had to look away as the bird shimmered and twisted before him, seeming to turn itself inside out. The sight had been fascinating the first time, strangely beautiful, but now it only served to remind him of the torment to come.

“You ask for death daily, Titan, yet it never comes. Tell me, does the ritual satisfy some secret part of you? Is it a balm to your soul to have your captor ignore you day in and day out?”

The deep, husky voice held a distinct note of laughter. An erotic fission traveled up Prometheus ’ spine at the eagle’s words, despite the mockery. He so seldom spoke, this bird-man, and his voice was so rich, so satisfying. It had been such a long time since anyone had talked to him.

“Answer me, love,” laughed the bird as he slid down the rock to land directly behind the Titan.

Prometheus took a single step away, but then he was at the end of the chain, with nowhere left to go. The heavy, magical links cut cruelly into his ankle as his body refused to acknowledge the limitation.

“Does asking for death make you feel more in control?”

The eagle’s hands crept around his waist, sliding possessively over his stomach and up his chest.

Prometheus squeezed his eyes shut and fought

himself, keeping his hands balled into fists at his side.

“No,” he whispered.

“No?” laughed the bird-man. His mouth was against the sensitive skin of Prometheus’ neck and the burst of warm breath caused the Titan to tremble against him. “Then why do it?”

Prometheus had just opened his mouth to answer when the eagle took his teeth to the same skin his breath had washed.

“Oh, gods,” breathed Prometheus, his answer forgotten.

The bird-man chuckled and bit down harder. Prometheus pushed back into the firm cock nestled against the crease of his ass. His breathing had resumed the frantic panting that had greeted the bird’s arrival.

“Turn around, Titan.”

“No,” moaned Prometheus.

Talons raked across his nipples and Prometheus stifled a gasp at the painful pleasure.

“Turn around.”

With an air of surrender, he did. His pupils expanded as he once again beheld his tormentor.

The eagle smirked at him and stepped back to let him look his fill. Prometheus’ gaze wandered from the tawny locks, drifting in long tendrils around the man’s face, to his amazing eyes. The bird’s eyes were the same incandescent yellow as his eagle form, and his face retained the cruel, predatory edge of the king of all birds. High cheekbones framed a sharp aquiline nose, the harsh masculinity somehow serving to accent the sensual fullness of his lips. White teeth flashed as he smiled at the pole-axed expression Prometheus wore. Every morning the same response, it was quite flattering.

Unable to control himself, Prometheus’ gaze dropped lower. Broad shoulders led the eye downwards toward firm, square pectorals, and the tiniest brown nipples he had ever seen on a man. Smooth, alabaster skin graced the taut

stomach and hips, melding almost perfectly into the snow white feathers at the man’s groin. Nothing in the world was softer then the down feathers surrounding that thick, magnificent prick. Prometheus knew this to be so. He’d had his nose buried in them more than once.

The eagle smiled softly and crooked his finger at the dark-skinned god.

Prometheus shut his eyes against the exquisite beauty of his tormentor.

“Please, no more,” he begged.

“Forever is what I promised, love,” whispered the bird-man as he stepped in closer to the miserable Titan. He wrapped his fist around

Prometheus’ braid and tugged his head up. “Forever is what I plan to deliver.”

Prometheus knew that the talking was over when the bird-man swooped in to capture his lips. He’d tried fighting before. It only delayed the inevitable and made the punishments that much more severe, so he simply opened his mouth, and accepted the thrust of the other man’s tongue.

The bird-man moaned and angled his head to delve deeper into the Titan’s mouth. His hand pulled harder on Prometheus’ purple hair while his other hand wandered over his soft, velvet brown skin.

Prometheus grunted when sharp, long nailed fingers found the crack of his ass. That was the only response he allowed himself.

“Kiss me back, you fool. You know you want to. Why fight it?” hissed the bird-man against Prometheus’ parted lips.

Prometheus pulled his head back in shock. This was new. The eagle had never asked for his co-operation. First the uncharacteristic dialogue and now this, what had changed? He hesitated a moment before slowly wrapping his arms around the pale man’s shoulders and leaning back in to lick lazily at those amazing, full lips.

“What’s your name, bird-man?” he asked softly, between languid swipes of his tongue.


It was the eagle’s turn to be surprised. Doubt flared in his eyes. He had not been forbidden to tell the Titan his name, but he knew that hearing Prometheus say it, hearing him moan it, would make his job even harder. For years he had traveled to this rock to torment this stunning creature. The only rule was that the Titan could not come, not even once, not ever. At first it had been exciting. How thrilling it was to leave Prometheus night after night in erotic torment, while he himself was fully sated. How exciting it had been to make the giant go against every instinct of self-preservation he had, until the Titan was begging for his touch. Begging.

“Tell me your name, bird-man, and today…I won’t fight you.”

The eagle trembled as Prometheus bit at his lower lip. When had he started wanting the Titan to give himself freely to the pleasure? When had

the insidious desire to watch that beautiful face twist in ecstasy as he was brought to orgasm again and again infiltrated the eagle’s psyche? He honestly didn’t know.

“Tell me your name, and, for today, I’ll let myself touch you…” while Prometheus spoke, his palms drifted down the bird-man’s body, “and I’ll let myself enjoy it,” he murmured, lightly pinching the eagle’s tiny, pointed nipples.

‘Zeus, forgive me,’ thought the eagle, ‘it’s too much temptation.’

“Antoc,” he groaned, pushing into the Titan’s hands. “It’s Antoc.”

Prometheus smiled and pinched the nubs harder.

“Antoc,” he purred, as, for the first time ever, he willingly plunged his tongue into the bird-man’s mouth.

Antoc almost came at the pleasure of having Prometheus hungrily eating at his mouth while his thick, dark cock ground wantonly against his own rigid length.

“Oh, gods,” he gasped, tearing his lips away, “slow down, Titan.”

Prometheus threw back his head and laughed, probably startling himself as much as Antoc. There had certainly been nothing to laugh about since he’d been exiled to this gods-forsaken rock.

“Slow down, eagle?” he chuckled, bringing his head forward to look warmly into the bird-man’s eyes. “Why? Are you worried you’re not going to be able to stay in control?”

Antoc’s breath caught at the open, friendly look Prometheus was giving him. It was a look he had never expected to receive. His hands came up to frame the Titan’s handsome face.

“Perhaps I am,” he admitted. His grip tightened and he tugged Prometheus’ head to the side, lowering his lips to the silken, brown column of his throat. Antoc suckled at the taut flesh, moving slowly upwards until he reached the lobe of Prometheus’ ear. True to his word, the Titan allowed the moans to fall uncensored from his lips. Antoc moaned with him, biting lustily at the small piece of flesh, until it had swollen to twice

its normal size. He then traced the whorls of his lover’s ear, delving closer and closer to the center until he was flicking his tongue rapidly in and out of the sensitive hole.

“Ahh, Antoc,” cried Prometheus. He crushed the eagle back against the stone, “You know it drives me crazy when you do that.”

Antoc’s lips curved up. “You don’t say.”

Prometheus narrowed his eyes and unwound Antoc’s arms from around his neck, bringing them down to his sides. He held the bird-man’s wrists tightly.

“You’re not the only one with intimate knowledge, eagle,” he threatened playfully.

The bird-man’s smile widened, but he didn’t say anything.

Prometheus grinned with him for a moment and then sank to his knees.

Antoc’s lids fell half-closed as he beheld the god kneeling before him. The Titan had never freely taken this position before, had never willingly placed his mouth on Antoc’s cock. The eagle was shaking with anticipation.

Prometheus licked his lips suggestively before lowering his head--to Antoc’s hip.

“You bloody tease!” groaned the eagle.

Prometheus laughed as he nipped at the sharp ridge of bone. His mouth trailed over the pale skin of the bird-man’s stomach, alternating liquid swipes of his tongue with stinging love-bites. He paid special attention to the indent of Antoc’s navel, swirling his tongue eagerly into the shallow hollow.

“Prometheus,” moaned Antoc. His hips churned, pushing his erection against the Titan’s body. His shoulder muscles bunched as he tested the hold Prometheus had on his wrists.

Prometheus’ eyes rolled up to watch Antoc’s sexy undulations. His cock swelled impossibly harder at the potent sight, pre-come dripping steadily from its crown. He had always found Antoc extraordinarily attractive, his type exactly;

a fact of which Zeus was, apparently, all too aware.

“Spread your legs a little,” he commanded in a dark, husky voice.

Antoc whimpered, closing his eyes and resting his head back against the sun warmed rock as he shifted his legs further apart.

Prometheus’ mouth moved down the marble-smooth curve of the outside of Antoc’s right thigh. When he reached the knee he reversed direction, biting his way up the vulnerable inside until he reached the plump swell of the eagle’s balls. There he stopped, his mouth hovering a hand’s breadth above the prize. Antoc tried to thrust himself forward, that hot mouth was so blasted close, but Prometheus darted his head back like a snake. He blew gently on the tight sac,

and again pulled back when Antoc tried to increase the contact.

“Hades take you,” gasped the bird-man. His hands twisted around Prometheus’ and he started to haul him to his feet. Zeus had granted him strength far greater than the Titan’s. He’d had to for the punishment to be effective.

“Don’t do that,” rumbled Prometheus. Antoc hesitated at the purring order and his eyes sought out the Titan’s. “Just beg me, bird-man,” continued Prometheus. He exhaled along the length of Antoc’s cock. “Surely you know how to beg, Antoc…you’ve certainly heard me do it enough.”

The eagle bit his lips to stop the words from tumbling out.

“A simple ‘please’ would do,” coaxed Prometheus as his tongue teased the air just above the shiny, purple crown.

Antoc groaned again and shut his eyes in defeat.

“Please…please,” he begged.

Prometheus instantly took the weeping, plum head between his lips, sucking hard and lashing at the responsive underside with his agile tongue.

“Mmm, yes, like that,” grunted Antoc as he pumped into the fabulous warmth of the Titan’s mouth.

Prometheus swallowed convulsively as the eagle’ s cock slid down his throat; his nose tickled by soft, white down. Antoc growled above him and thrust harder, the powerful milking quickly pushing him to the edge. When Antoc felt his cock swell to release, the Titan let the slick, wet cock slip out from between his lips.

Antoc swore and ripped his wrists out of Prometheus’ grasp, grabbing the Titan’s tail of amethyst hair and jerking him to his feet.

“Alright, godling, you’ve had your fun. It’s time to play the game my way.”

Prometheus merely smiled and brought two of his own fingers to his mouth to suck and lick them as thoroughly as he had Antoc’s cock.

Antoc watched with hungry, golden eyes, momentarily forgetting his anger.

“But, Antoc,” said Prometheus, “I though you wanted me to enjoy myself.”

Antoc’s gaze followed the now soaking wet fingers down into the slight space between their bodies. He groaned and clutched at Prometheus’ shoulder when he felt the slick digits circle the entrance to his virgin ass.

“No,” he rasped, pushing the Titan back. He was always the taker, never the taken; it had to be that way.

Prometheus allowed himself to be moved back slightly, but only far enough to comfortably lower his head to the eagle’s chest. There he took one hard nipple in his mouth, laving it in the same small, hypnotic circles that he was using to trace Antoc’s puckered hole.

The bird-man was held almost paralyzed by the sensual assault. His talons dug reflexively into the Titan’s back. When Antoc hesitated, Prometheus carefully pushed one finger into the warm, tight orifice, using his teeth on the skin under his lips to distract Antoc from the momentary pain.

“Prometheus,” he moaned, his hips twitching him farther onto the unfamiliar intrusion. “I can’t…”

“Shhh,” rumbled the Titan. He let go of the nipple to kiss his way back up Antoc’s body. “We

can both enjoy ourselves, Antoc.” He smiled gently into the eagle’s dazed yellow eyes. His own eyes glowed eerily pale against his dark brown skin. They were mesmerizing. “Who will know?” he asked as he slowly, so slowly finger fucked the bird-man’s ass.

Antoc’s breathing was heavy and harsh; his chest jerked with each desperate exhalation. “Who…will…know?” he panted, pushing against Prometheus’ hand.

On the next upward thrust Prometheus added a second finger. Antoc cried out in pleasure, tugging the Titan’s head down to his.

“No one will know,” assured Prometheus, before sealing his lips over the eagle’s.

Antoc sobbed into Prometheus’ mouth when the god curled his fingers to rub against a previously unknown source of ecstasy.

“Come for me, Antoc,” moaned the Titan. His hand blurred as his fingers pounded into the eagle ’s spasming ass while his other hand wrapped itself firmly around Antoc’s iron-hard cock. He lifted his head again to look deeply into the lust filled eyes of his former tormentor. “But after you do, I want to have you.” His fingers crooked again, sending sparks of pleasure shooting through the bird-man’s body. “Just once, eagle. Just once I want to feel how good it can be, with you, in you…” he moaned again and rubbed his head against Antoc’s jaw. Both hands abruptly stilled.

“Say ‘yes’,” Prometheus said in a quiet, but ruthless, tone.

Antoc quivered on the brink, his whole existence focused on the orgasm being held just out of reach. He would have agreed to anything.

“Yes!” he cried.

“Your word on it, Antoc.”

“Yes, yes… my word on it. Please, Titan.”

Prometheus smiled and rammed his fingers in as deep as they would go while his other hand worked Antoc’s shaft. The bird-man bucked against him, his scream of release rending the air.

“Prometheus!” he hollered, shuddering helplessly as skeins of come unfurled in the tight space between their bodies.


Prometheus bit his lips in stifled desire and watched the sexy display as Antoc unraveled for him. As many times as he’d seen this gorgeous man climax, it never failed to quicken his heartbeat--no matter what lies he told himself each evening.

And now for the amazing part. The Titan eyed Antoc’s groin expectantly; every other time the eagle had come, it had taken only seconds for him to be ramrod stiff again. Antoc’s cock continued to shrink until it rested flaccid and somehow innocent seeming, against the white skin of his thigh.

The god’s gaze rose to clash angrily with the eagle’s. As well as being able to hold back Prometheus’ orgasm, Antoc also had the ability to stay erect, to continue to receive pleasure indefinitely. His softened state was a choice on his part.

“Do you think to get out of your promise so easily, bird-man? Do you think I care if you’re hard for me?”

Antoc’s eyes cut down and to the left as he straightened up. He didn’t answer.

Prometheus’ hand swept through the come slicking his stomach and he coated his cock with it. He watched the eagle watching him as he

slowly fisted his length, pulling the foreskin back so hard that the large mushroom crown shone like a jewel in the sun. He laughed softly at the sight of Antoc swelling once again.

“You’re right, I do care, eagle,” he said, using his free hand to tilt the other’s face up to his. “But I’ ll have you either way.” His thumb traced Antoc’s pouting lower lip seductively.

Antoc opened his mouth to suck the finger inside while his amber eyes tangled with Prometheus’ lilac ones.

The Titan withdrew his thumb from the eagle’s wonderful mouth and took his hand away from his own cock to grasp Antoc’s hips and lift him up high against his body. Antoc willingly wrapped his legs around Prometheus’ slim waist, but pulled back when the god leaned in to kiss him.

“I can’t let you come, Titan,” he reminded gently.

Prometheus nodded his understanding and tugged the bird-man’s head back down as he positioned himself at Antoc’s entrance. He’d tackle that hurdle later.

“Lower yourself onto me, eagle,” he groaned, “I don’t want to hurt you.”

Antoc’s eyes filmed with tears, he had never been so considerate of Prometheus’ comfort. Why was the Titan being so kind?

Prometheus gritted his teeth against the sensation of Antoc rubbing against his cockhead. With only a slight downward push, the large knob popped inside.

“Oh, eagle,” he groaned, tightening his arms around Antoc, “I’ve wanted this for so long.”

Antoc returned the crushing embrace and allowed his body to slide further down over the huge cock.

“Gods,” he whimpered into the Titan’s neck, “it hurts.”

“Shhh,” whispered Prometheus against his temple, his hands stroking down the eagle’s body from shoulder to knee in long, soothing sweeps. “I

know it hurts, but it only lasts a moment.” He turned his head to taste the beads of sweat rolling down Antoc’s cheek. “And then it feels…”his mouth moved over to the eagle’s ear“so good,” he breathed.

Antoc squeezed his eyes shut and thrust down, wanting to get the hurting part over with. He cried out in pain and his ass clenched spasmodically around Prometheus. The Titan’s breath left him in a rush as he was suddenly buried deep inside the fluttering heat of his eagle’ s body.

“Mmmm, oh, oh, Antoc,” he sighed. He held himself very still as the bird-man adjusted to his size.

When Antoc’s face had lost its fraught, pained expression Prometheus bent his knees slightly and

started to slowly, carefully, withdraw.

The eagle’s eyes flared open and his brows drew together. The Titan immediately stopped moving. “Are you alright?”

Antoc bit his lips and nodded, but the frown stayed on his face. Prometheus gave him a small, understanding smile. “Let’s try this,” he said patiently, as he sank to his knees still buried deep inside Antoc’s body.


Antoc gasped at the move and held on tight. He gasped again when the Titan gently laid him down on his back in the soft sand, pushing his knees up toward his shoulders. The angle of penetration

changed and while he suddenly felt somehow fuller, it didn’t seem to hurt as much.

“Is that better?” whispered Prometheus above him. Antoc nodded gratefully. The Titan’s smile turned sultry and he leaned back, changing the angle just a little more. Antoc looked down his torso to watch Prometheus’ dark form move against his own pale one. It was beautiful. He moaned at the sight of the Titan’s thick, terracotta prick emerging with agonizing slowness from the recesses of his body. When Prometheus was trapped by only his flared head he surged forward again, ramming against the bird-man’s prostate.

Antoc’s mouth opened on a silent scream and his body arched off the ground as if hit by one of Zeus’ thunderbolts. Prometheus grinned and withdrew once more, being just a tad gentler as he set up a fast, whiplash rhythm within his eagle’s tight, tight ass.

The eagle’s head thrashed from side to side and his lips skinned back from his teeth. “Ahhh, Gods…Titan” he screamed, “Gods…it feels so…”

Prometheus’ smile turned cruel.

“Good,” he supplied. “It feels so good, doesn’t it Antoc?”

Tears leaked from the eagle’s eyes. “Yes,” he groaned, “yes… good.”

The Titan slowed down until he was barely moving, he ran his palms up Antoc’s thighs, hooking the pale man’s legs over his shoulders.

“Just imagine…” he whispered, leaning in close to speak directly above Antoc’s mouth. The move bent the eagle in half beneath him. “Just imagine feeling that way and never being able to come.” One hand moved to stroke a tawny curl away from his lover’s clammy forehead while the other hand slipped down between their bodies to circle his straining erection. He wrapped his fist around Antoc’s cock and gently stroked his thumb over the crown. “Never,” he moaned, pressing a kiss to his eagle’s lips. “Can you imagine that?” he asked again before sliding his tongue into Antoc’s mouth.

Antoc groaned and wound his arms around Prometheus’ neck, returning the kiss passionately. Prometheus picked up the pace until he was once again slamming the eagle into the ground. He turned his head aside, avoiding the eagle’s seeking mouth.

“Can you imagine it?” he demanded.

“No,” grunted Antoc distractedly as his body buckled under the brutal assault, he was being driven mad by the pleasure. He was so close, and he knew that this was going to be the most intense orgasm of his life. His body strained toward it, riding the edge of a cataclysmic wave.

“Try,” hissed Prometheus as he abruptly pulled out and away.

Antoc lay stunned in the sand, his body splayed like a broken starfish, his heart pounding fit to burst through his chest. He looked incredulously at the Titan’s rigid back where he sat only a few feet away.

“You bastard!” he screeched, his voice breaking into the eagle’s shrill hunting cry.

Prometheus turned to look at him over his shoulder, one brow arched dramatically. “Welcome to ‘my’ world, bird-man,” he said in a soft, deadly voice.

Antoc sat up stiffly, and glared at him. “I could just take you, Titan, same as always. Just have my pleasure over and over again until night comes.”

Prometheus’ shoulder’s tightened, hunching in toward his body, and he drew up his knees to lay his head against them.

“Yes,” he said with a note of resignation, “and I expect that’s exactly what you’ll do…” he shifted his body so he could look directly at Antoc, “isn’t it…love?”

The eagle’s breath stopped in his throat at the endearment. It didn’t mean anything, intellectually he knew that, he used the word all the time, and yet… the sound of that particular word falling from Prometheus’ lips… He sighed in defeat and raised himself onto his knees, crawling over to wrap his arms around the god’s back. Prometheus’ flinched at the contact, and Antoc’s heart ached.

“All right. Just this one time, Titan. Just this once,” the eagle whispered into the Titan’s ear, mimicking their earlier conversation.

Prometheus gave a glad cry and twisted around

to pull Antoc into his lap.

“Truly?” moaned Prometheus, his face alight with hope.

Antoc moved to straddle Prometheus’ thighs and once again lower himself over that magnificent cock. His head fell back limp against his shoulders as he rode his Titan.

“Who will know?” he groaned softly. His balls drew up tight and painful against his shaft and he quickened the pace, gladly riding the shock waves of ecstasy.

The eagle released his magical hold on Prometheus’ orgasm and screamed with him as he felt the god immediately lengthen and swell to

explode in thick, liquid blasts deep inside his body. His own release spurted to once again coat both of their muscular chests.

Prometheus sobbed as he came, his body shaking with rapture. It had been so long. “Thank you,” he wept over and over again. “Thank you.”

“Oh, love,” moaned Antoc as he pulled Prometheus’ face up to his using the ever-convenient braid. He leaned his forehead against the Titan’s. “Don’t thank me, godling, don ’t. Nothing has changed. This can never happen again.” His own tears fell freely down his cheeks. “Never.”


Prometheus smiled gently and kissed his eagle, a long, deep, claiming kiss.

‘We’ll just see about that,’ he thought to himself when Antoc, moaned and rolled his hips against him.

After all…honestly…who would know?

the lost tiger by sean michael


Never been so hungry.

Not in the Bad Cage. Not in the Bad Ring. Not ever.

Torao stumbled through the streets toward the lights, bits of glass and tiny stones cutting his paws. Foots. Mam said Man-paws were Foots. Mam said lights meant Man and Man meant Trash and Trash meant Food.

He'd been running for days and days, hiding whenever the Keeper's voice got close. He could still see his Mam's body, her beautiful pelt matted with blood, Red on White. The Keeper still smelled of her dung and her blood and her death.

Torao knew that he would be next.

He heard voices, and he slipped around the side of a building into the heavy dark, crouching in the filth. The clothes he'd found hanging behind a quiet house were too big and dragged in the muck

on the ground, but they saved his skin from the Sun. The voices got closer and he swallowed back his growl, shaking and hiding. He knew the Outside Rules.

Outside, One must be a Man. Outside, One must hide in Clothes. Outside, One must not Feed on the Man. Outside, One must stay away from the Lights and stay away from the Man Dens, for they Ate Tigers inside.

He knew the Outside Rules. He would find the Trash. He would eat.

Then he would run into the Trees and be a Tiger and hide and howl and mourn and remember his Mam.

Two Mans walked close by, going down and then up again, passing very near where he hid.

"Oh, come on. There's obviously nothing here!" The voice was impatient, hard, but the one that answered it was different, gentle and warm.

"I tell you, I saw someone. And they looked like they needed help."

There was a snort, and then the first voice spoke again. "You and your causes. Really, when you said you'd left Second Harvest, I thought that meant you'd changed. It's the only reason I gave you another chance."

The answer was less gentle this time, exasperated. "If me helping people bothers you so

much, then you should just go, Duncan. That's never going to change, no matter what job I'm doing."

"It doesn't bother me, Greyce, itbores me terribly. You are such a lost cause with your humanitarian crap. We're officiallyover ."

The Man who had been speaking stomped away and the one who was left sighed and spoke softly, the words bitter like too green fruit. "I didn't think we'd ever really begun..."

The Man sighed and looked around, eyes narrowed, frowning. "Hello? Is someone there? I won't hurt you."

He curled up tighter, shaking, panting with his

fear. His belly was rumbling violently, and the more frightened he got, the louder it growled. No. No, he was Not There.

It wasn't working though because the Man was coming closer. Peering into the dark he'd found. The Man was dark-skinned and wore blue and red clothes. He was hairless with dark brown eyes. Not at all like the Keeper. Not at all.

He smelled better than the Keeper, too.

"Please, I won't hurt you. I know you probably don't believe me, but I won't." The Man stopped moving and held out his arms. "See? I'm not armed. Why don't you come out?"

Torao blinked, stared. The Man had Arms. Two

of them. He whined softly, nostrils flaring. "I am not hurting things."

His voice made the Man smile, arms lowering back to his sides. "No, I imagine you aren't. But you looked like you could use a bath. Some food? Maybe even warmer clothes?" The soft, deep voice spoke of Good Things. Necessary Things.

"Food." Hungry. He was so hungry. "They... they said I could find Food in Trash."

"Oh, you don't want food from the trash! It's dirty and nasty. Come with me. I'll find you something to eat." The Man took a couple of steps back, giving him room. "You don't even have to come in--I have a yard with grass and a little table with some chairs."

"Grass." Oh, he loved the feeling of grass on his muzzle, so green, so sweet. He'd felt it a few times, when the Keeper stopped. "Yes. Yes. Food and grass."

The Man's teeth were bright in his dark face, but it was not a grimace, nor a warning--it was a smile. "Come on, then. It isn't very far. Maybe a ten minute walk."

Torao stood, picked his way across the muck and moved closer. Sniffing. There was no Bad Angry Smell here, but the Man Who Left had carried one. "Your Companion?"

"My companion? Oh! Duncan." The Man shook his head. "Don't worry--he's not coming back. He was an asshole anyway, I don't know why I agreed to go out with him. Hope springs eternal, I

guess." The Man held out his hand. "I'm Greyson Jones."

He looked at the hand and held out his own as he'd seen other Mans do. "Torao."

The Man--Greyson--brought their hands together and shook them. The touch was warm and smooth, and kind. He had not felt a kind touch in too long with his Mam gone...

Then Greyson dropped his hand and turned, heading toward the road with the lights. "What kind of food do you like? I've got leftovers from last night, but if you're a vegetarian we'll have to stop somewhere for tofu or something."

"Any. Any Food." He could eat anything, so long

as he ate.


"Okay, Torao, leftovers it is. They'll warm quickly in the microwave." There was kindness in that voice.

Greyson led him along the street with the lights and lots of Mans. Many of them stared, but some did not. And soon they turned to another street, this one with fewer lights and fewer people, and then they were at a building.

"The yard's in the back. I usually go in the back door, anyway." They followed a small stone path around the side of the building, and Greyson opened a gate. There was a little patch of grass

beyond it, and a table and chairs and a tree. "Come on in."

He entered the yard, nostrils flaring, trying to scent a cage, a trap. The grass felt good on his torn feet, the quiet peace of the garden a balm.

The gate was not closed behind him, and Greyson moved toward the building. "I have to get the food and... Well, I'll start with food. You can sit if you like." The dark brown eyes looked at him for a long moment. "I hope you'll stay." Then the Man disappeared into the building, leaving him alone.

Torao plopped down on the soft grass, pulling a bit of glass from one paw before letting his fingers dig into the cool, damp green. This Man seemed to be a Good Man. His Mam had told him not all Mans were bad like the Keeper, just like all Tigers were not Good like them.

He'd asked her once if all Good Tigers were kept by Bad Mans, but she didn't know.

Torao hoped not.

The Man came back out again, with a flat board that carried things that smelled wonderful. Greyson gave him a chuckle and started moving things from the flat board to the table. "Come sit on a chair, Torao. I have roast beef, mashed potatoes with gravy, carrots and peas, a glass of milk and blackberry cobbler for dessert. I hope you like it."

Greyson sat in one of the chairs and looked at him expectantly.

Chair. He had seen those. He headed over, nose twitching and stomach growling as he got closer. Food. Good Food. He climbed up, perched on the chair and scooped a bit of food with his paw.


Oh, food. Good Man. Good.

Greyson watched, head tilting as he took two metal things from the wood and handed them over silently.

Torao took them, staring for only a second before putting them aside and scooping up another bite and another. Food. Good Food.

Greyson laughed softly. "Don't trust the knife and fork, eh? Well you aren't the first. Hopefully the food's not too hot." Sitting back, the Man watched him, though it was not obtrusive, more... friendly maybe. "When you've finished eating will you let me tend to your feet?"

"F...feet?" He followed the Man's eyes. Oh. Paws. "The ground here. Hurts." Then he ate another bite, hoping the Man wouldn't take it away.

The Man didn't, but he did keep talking. "That's why most people wear shoes of one kind or another. Something tells me that you're not from around here though."

"No. No. I... We... We went with the Keeper." There. That was Truth but not Too True.

The Man frowned. "The Keeper? Did you run away from him?" Greyson smiled just a little, eyes sad. "I won't send you back, I promise. But can you tell me where you've been? What happened?"

He finished eating all the food, licking his fingers clean. "We were in the Cage. Mam fought the Keeper, and she died. I runned. I came to the lights for Food."

Greyson went pale beneath his dark skin. "A cage? Oh, Torao... I'm so sorry." The Man reached out, hand touching his arm for just a minute. "That's not right. To be kept in a cage. To fight and die." Greyson shook his head. "You can stay here for now. I have an extra room with a bed. And I'd like to call the police, if you could

tell them about the place where you were kept, and about this Keeper, they'll look for him, punish him for holding you and for killing your mother."

"No. No." Police made cages, too. He knew this. The Keeper told them. Huge cages. "Okay, okay. It's all right--I won't do anything you don't want me to. This place is safe, you know? You can stay here, and no one will hurt you or make you talk to anyone. You don't even have to talk to me if you don't want to, though I hope you will." The Man had nice eyes. Not like the Keeper at all. He nodded, licking the juices off the plate, tongue dragging across the dish. The Man made a noise, but when he looked up, Greyson was only sitting there, teeth biting his bottom lip. Greyson smiled and met his gaze. "I

can get you more. Or maybe you'd like the dessert first, and if there's room, you can have another helping." The plate was gently taken from him, the bowl with purple in it handed over, and the glass of milk was pushed closer. His nostrils flared. Milk. Milk. He purred low, he couldn't help it. Milk was... Yes. Milk. The coldwetsweet flavor filled his mouth and he slurped and lapped and gulped. Good. This time he recognized the sound the Man made--it was laughter. Soft though, not cruel. "I think I'm going to need to buy another gallon."

He licked his lips, his paw where the milk splashed. Gallon. Milk came in gallons? Greyson laughed again--he thought he liked that sound a lot--and then stood. "I'll get you some more while you have dessert. I'll bring out the last of the roast, too, shall I?" "P...please?" He remembered that word. He thought he did, anyway. "Sure. Unless you wanted to come in and eat in the kitchen?" The Man's look didn't change, like it would if it was a trap. "I." His nose twitched. He wanted to see. He did. He wanted to know, but... "You don't have to, but you'll have to come inside to sleep--it isn't safe to stay outside at night." Greyson looked back at the house. "I tell

you what. Come on in--we'll leave the door open for you. Would that work?" Torao looked, sniffed the air. The Man seemed to be good. Truly. And he wanted to see, so badly. So he would. Hewould see. The Man seemed to see it in him, when Torao decided to go, for he smiled gently. "Excellent." The dishes were all put on the tray again, even his 'dessert' and then Greyson led the way in. His instinct was to morph, to pad in, but he fought it, swaying on his aching paws. The room was small, but bright with light, and it smelled good.

There were counters and a double sink, several electronic things, including a cold box the Keeper used to call the Fridge, a small table with two chairs around it and a bench against the wall. Greyson nodded toward the chair. "Make yourself at home." He jumped on the bench and rested, wishing he had his tail to curl over his nose. The dessert was put back in front of him, along with a spoon. Greyson moved about the room easily, taking a plastic jug full of milk out of the cold box and pouring out another tall glass, putting that in front of him as well. "Go on. Eat up." Then Greyson seemed to ignore him, putting the dishes from the tray in the sink and running water

over them. Next, another plate came out of the cold box, this one carrying the roast. As he watched, Greyson cut several pieces from the roast, put them on a plate, and then put the plate in a white box with buttons. "It'll be ready in a minute. Hey, you haven't eaten any of your cobbler yet--don't you like sweets?" "Sweet?" Milk was sweet. Grass was sweet. "Yeah, sweets--dessert." Greyson tilted his head. "Don't tell me you've never had dessert before." The Man came and sat across from him, digging the spoon into the bowl on the table and scooping up some of the food. Then the spoon was offered up to him. "Give it a try. Trust me; I think you'll like it." He leaned over, lapping the brighttartsweet flavor. Oh. Oh! More!

Greyson laughed and the sound was good--like the flavor of the dessert. The spoon was handed to him, as the white box with the buttons started beeping. He jerked, blinking at the box, waiting to see if it would hurt him. It didn't seem to bother Greyson though, the Man just went over to the white box and opened it, bringing out the plate with the roast on it and plunking it down onto the table next to his bowl of the wonderful sweet. "There you go. And if you're still hungry, I'll get you some more." Oh. Oh, he approved. What a very good Man. What a very good Man, indeed. The jug of milk came back out of the cold box as well, sitting on the table. "In case you want more milk." Then Greyson put some of the dessert into

another bowl and sat across from him with it, humming a little as he put the spoon in his mouth. "That is nice, isn't it? Miss Agnes lives next door, and she's always bringing over desserts because I take out her garbage for her and make sure the kids don't bother her." He nodded and ate, panting and lapping at the good milk, the rich taste of the meat. Greyson ate more slowly, so that they were done at about the same time. "Now that your belly is full, can I do something about your poor feet?" "Hurt?" He didn't want to hurt anymore. He didn't. He was tired of hurt. "Well it might hurt a bit--it depends what's in them. I'm just going to clean them, pull out

anything that shouldn’t be there--that's the part that'll hurt. And then I'll wrap them in bandages. Is that okay?" Greyson's dark eyes were so kind. "Okay." Bandages. He really just wanted to lick them. "Good. If you want we could do this in the bathroom where the light is better. Or in the living room where you would be more comfortable on the couch." Greyson got up, moving out of the kitchen and disappearing down a small hall, voice fading away. Torao blinked, watching the door, then the hall, then the door. How odd. Greyson appeared in the hall again, hands full of stuff. "You sure you want to do this in the

kitchen? You'd be far more comfortable in the living room. Or you could come see where you'll be sleeping, and if you sit on the bed while I do this, you'll not have to walk anymore..." Oh. Sleeping. He could Nap. He So could. "You. You let me nap here?" The man wasn't frightened of him? Greyson nodded. "That was the idea when I said you could stay here, that you'd be safe here." "You... You are not scared?" How odd. Greyson tilted his head. "You mean of you? Well, I wasn't. Are you planning to hurt me?"

"No. No, you are good. I would not." He Would not. He was Good. "Well then. I'm not scared." Greyson gave him another soft smile. "Now, make up your mind--where do you want your feet fixed?" "I. In the nap-place?" "Yeah, I think that's best, too. Follow me and I'll show you where it is." They walked down the little hall he'd seen Greyson disappear along earlier, and then turned into a small room with a ceramic tub, sink and the thing men called a toilet. "This is bathroom. Do you need to go?" Greyson nodded at the toilet.

Those he'd knew of and he wandered in, looking. This was much brighter and cleaner than any others he'd seen. "I can wait outside if you're pee-shy." Greyson filled up a small basin with water. "Let me just fill this up and then I'll leave you to it." "Okay." Pee shy. The water came from the taps, clear and... He reached out to touch. It was warm, gentle against his paw. "I'm filling the basin to clean your feet, yeah? Get rid of the dirt and the blood and see what's what." "Warm." The feel and sound of the water made his belly hurt, so he made use of the commode, just like he'd seen the Mans do. "Okay, if you're done..." Greyson led him back

out into the little hall and they didn't go very far before they turned into another door. The light here was softer, not so bright, and there were just a few boxes in the room. One long and low, with blue blankets on it, the other taller, thinner, and with little knobs. "You can take a seat on the bed." The bed was tall and he leapt up, going stiff and still as he sunk down in a strange softness. Oh. Oh! Oh, wrong.

Greyson frowned. "Hey, are you all right, T?" The basin of water and other stuff landed on the box that was not the wrong bed, and Greyson came to sit next to him. "I. Moves. Soft. I." He growled, paws rolling on the soft. Greyson bounced a bit. "I guess it's a little soft, but that's how I like it, and I kind of assumed it was how everyone does. I mean I've slept on some hard-assed mattresses, and that's no fun. Oh man, did you not even have a mattress where you've been kept?" Greyson shook his head and looked angry. "Mattrrrrrrrrrrrrress?" That was a fun sound to make. "God. I really wish you'd let me bring the police

in to take your statement. You've been abused, T. And that's not right." Greyson patted the soft thing they were on. "It's called a mattress. You lie on it when you sleep. And it's soft so that you don't get sore." He let himself lean down, curl into the soft with a soft purr. Oh. Gentle. Greyson chuckled. "There you go. Of course, I really need you to sit with your feet over the edge, like me." He let his paws dangle without sitting up. Honestly, Mans wereso inflexible. Greyson laughed, the brown eyes twinkling at him. "That'll do." Then the Man went down on his knees and wet a cloth in the basin, bringing it up to squeeze the water out over his feet. "This might hurt a bit --it depends on how badly your feet are torn up. The street is no place to go barefoot."

"Barefoot." How else did one go? His paws curled, claws wanting out. "Just try and relax, I'll be as quick as I can." Still, even though Greyson said that, the Man poured water over his paws again and again, and then some more. He wiggled idly, half-dozing, remembering the hours his dam and he had played in the shallow pools and ponds.

Then the Man started rubbing the cloth over his paws, irritating the bits of glass and sharp rocks that had embedded themselves in his paws. Torao growled softly, muscles jerking and wanting to pull away. Out. Out of him. "Yeah, you've got a bunch of stuff stuck in here. Let me just get a bit more of the dirt off, and I'll

start pulling the... splinters out." Greyson's hand slid onto his leg, petting gently, soothingly. "Out." Out of him. Yes. Out. He sniffed, the blood in the air making him uncomfortable. "Yeah. There. Man, it looked like you had half the dirt in the city on your feet." Greyson moved the basin away and moved his foot this way and that. "There're no big cuts as far as I can see, but lots of stuff's stuck. I've got a pair of tweezers and I'll try and get them all out. Then I'll put on some ointment and wrap them for you." "Out." He wanted to shift, to lick, to nap. To curl up with his tail. "Yeah, yeah, working on it."

He felt a sharp tug and then another, one by one the things in his paws coming out. Most of the pains were little, but some were bigger, and the Man somehow knew when, murmuring softly, soothingly. One made him cry out, claws digging into the mattress, wanting to tear. "Sorry, sorry. I've saved the worst 'til last. There's one more bad one in this foot and three in the other. I'm sorry. It's going to hurt, but they've got to come out." Greyson held his foot very, very hard and had to dig with the tweezers and then yank something that was jagged and felt very, very large out from his paw. He roared, voice ringing out and echoing, making the walls shake. "Wow! What the hell was that?" Greyson blinked up at him, looking a little shocked. "Wow, you have avoice , Man."

"Hurt." He pulled his paw up to his face, looked at it. It needed licking. "I know. You need shoes. You can't just go walking with bare feet in the city. We'll get you shoes." Greyson pet his leg again and took hold of his other foot. "These two look pretty bad as well, T. Are you ready?" No. No, it hurt. But out hurt better than in, so he nodded. "Out." "Yeah, out. Okay, here it goes." The Man was quick and that was the only good thing about it. That and finally it was done and all the things were out. "There. There, done. Let me just..." Something cool spread on his paw, and his other paw was

tugged back out of his hands, the sort of wet cool stuff slathered on it, too. "Bandages now," Greyson said, smiling up at him. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" His paws throbbed and burned and ached, the toes going tight and loose, tight and loose. Hurt. But better. And every moment it was better. And better. Greyson sat back up on the bed again, bandages in his hand. "You look like you could use a shower, but I think it would be better if you stayed off your feet until tomorrow. I could refresh the water in the basin, and you could take

a sponge bath if you're feeling gritty." "I am good." He could bathe himself. He could straighten his fur. "Okay." Greyson took his paw again and began to wrap the white bandages around it. "I'll just get this done and let you sleep." "I. You are a good Mans." For some reason that seemed to make Greyson sad. "Not everyone wants to hurt you or put you in a cage, Torao. I'm sorry that it happened to you." Torao shrugged. "I am free. I will not go back. It is better to die." "You are free. And you don't have to die."

Greyson's hand slid up his leg, petting again, after both his paws were wrapped in the silly bandages. "Look I'm just across the hall if you need anything, all right? Just call out. Is there anything I can get you before I go?" "No. No. I nap." He would change. Groom. Stretch. Sleep. "Okay. Sleep well." Greyson patted his leg one more time and then stood, going to the door. "You want the light on or off?" "Off." His eyes worked in the dark. "Cool. Goodnight, T." The room went dark. Torao moaned and stretched, groaning a bit as he

changed into his true form and began to chew the cloth from his paws. He needed to lick. Lick and groom and nap. Nap in the Soft. *** Saturday mornings were for sleeping in, but Greyson was up at dawn this particular Saturday. Worried about Torao. Wearing clothes that obviously weren't his own, feet bloodied and hurt, and running away from a man with a cage. It seemed unbelievable, except that he'd seen Torao for himself and there had been no hint of guile in the young man's story about the cage. The fact that he didn't want to go

to the police only meant he was truly scared, or that he'd had run ins with them before. Just thinking of that poor guy in a cage... Greyson clenched his hands into fists. Some people didn't deserve to fucking live. He wasn't sure what to do about that. This guy obviously needed to be stopped, because men like that would go out and get a new victim if they lost the one they had, but he didn’t know how he could be the one to do it if Torao wouldn’t talk to him. He could, however, do something about Torao. He could make sure that the man had a safe place here. He gave into his urge to go and check on T. He crossed the hall and poked his head around the corner of Torao's room, eyes going to the bed.

Instead of the pale man with the startling shock of black hair, there was a. A. A. No. No, there wasn't. People didn't have white tigers snoring in their guest rooms. He stepped back, went to his room and pinched himself. Hard.

Twice. Ow. Okay. He was awake. He looked in the mirror over his dresser. His own face stared back at him, looking normal. Well, maybe not entirely normal, he looked a tad freaked out. Especially around his eyes. But otherwise he looked like himself, not like some sort of dream or drug twisted version of himself. Okay. He was going to do this again. He went back out into the hall and went into T's

room again. Oh, fuck. Fuck. He might have screamed. Just a little. Possibly more than a little. He backed out as quickly as possible, closing the door and wishing like hell it had a lock. Shit. Shit, he'd told Torao that he was safe here. That nothing would hurt him. And instead a fucking tiger had eaten the guy. How the hell had it gotten in?

His heart was trip hammering as he went back into his room and closed the door, started pushing his dresser over in front of the door. He'd make sure he was safe and then call... shit, who did you call? He thought he heard doors opening and closing and then he knew he heard his name called out, along with "Good Man." He stopped pushing at the dresser and cautiously opened his door a crack, peeking down the hallway. Torao stood there, naked as the day he was born, blinking and scratching his belly. "Torao!" He opened the door further and waved T in. "Come on, hurry! Hurry!" That T hadn't been injured by the tiger was a miracle, but Greyson didn't figure they needed to tempt fate.

"Hurry what?" Torao wandered closer, beautiful eyes shining. He grabbed Torao's arm and tugged the guy into his room, closing the door behind them both. "I don't want to scare you, but there's a tiger in your room." God, it sounded insane when he said it out loud. But he'd seen it with his own eyes--a beautiful big white tiger. Torao laughed--the sound almost a chuff. "No. Not in that room." "Torao, I saw it. It was... a tiger. On the bed. I thought it had eaten you--I'm so glad it didn't. I know it sounds crazy, but I saw it." He shook his head. He could have sworn he'd locked the back door--howdid it get in? And maybe he was going crazy. Just a little. Possibly more. Torao nodded, stretched, looking completely unconcerned. "Napping. Napping in the sun."

"You let it in?" He knew he'd locked that door, but if Torao had gotten up and let the tiger in. "But why?" It didn't make sense though--how did the tiger fit in with the man and the cage. Oh. "Did the bad man keep you in the cage with the tiger?" Torao tilted his head. "I. Yes? No? I was in the cage." "And the tiger?"Come on T , he thought.There's a fucking tiger in the house, focus . Torao nodded, smiled at him. He sighed. Was Torao afraid he'd kick the young man out because of the tiger? He wasn’t like that. Well, the tiger couldn't stay. It was... atiger . "I won't be angry, T. But you've got to tell me--did you let the tiger in?"

"No. You let tiger in." "No, I didn't. I let you in, and then I locked the door." He wasn't sure if T was being deliberately obtuse, but the man hadn't appeared this... slow last night. Torao nodded. "Yes." God. And the worst of it was Torao looked so earnest . Maybe he needed to approach this from a different angle. "Is the tiger dangerous?" "No. No, you are Good." "So he won't hurt us? We can go see the tiger?" Maybe with the tiger right there in front of him, T would have some better answers for him.

"You see the tiger now?" Torao blinked at him, head tilting. "Yes." He nodded for emphasis. "You said it was safe, so we'll go together and see the tiger." "Yes. See tiger." T stretched and growled, the air around the man shimmering, then there was a white tiger where the man had just been. "Fuck!" He slammed back against the door, eyes wide. He couldn't have just seen... Pretty hard to continue that one, when there was a fucking tiger in front of him where Torao had been just seconds ago. He was obviously losing his mind. Of course, the tiger seemed as scared of him as he was of it, backpedaling, paws sliding on the floors.

"Torao?" Could there really be a white tiger in his room with him? Could that tiger have really been a man just moments ago? Was there any way this didn't sound insane? The tiger nodded, head bobbing, teeth bared to him. So white. He waved one hand, still pressed up hard against the door. "Hi." One paw raised to him and he could suddenly see it, see Torao in those eyes. Wow. He sank slowly down along the door until he sat there, watching the beautiful tiger who was also... a man. The tiger stared at him, purring softly, tail

thumping lazily on the floor. He’d lost his mind. Impulsively, he reached out, wondering if the white fur was as soft as it looked. Oh. Oh, soft. Silken. Warm. His hand looked so dark against the white fur, and he couldn't remember touching anything so soft in a long time. "Wow," he said softly, fingers sliding down over T's nose. He chuckled at the velvety skin. "This is unreal." T's tongue was rough, lapping his fingers. It felt pretty damned real.

He moved a little closer, his other hand sliding around to sink into T's ruff. Soft and thick, it felt wonderful. T rumbled and leaned, chin resting on his thigh. The long whiskers tickled him, teased his skin. "I still kind of think I must be dreaming," he murmured, sinking both hands in T's fur. It felt good, really good. And how could he be hallucinating something that felt so real? T rolled over, batting at the air with huge paws. The back ones were scabbed and raw, cut open. Well, if he hadn't believed his eyes when he'd seen T turn into the tiger, there was more proof. He let himself rub the white belly, but stayed away from the hurt paws, thinking that might be a good way to get bitten. Like sitting on the floor of his room petting a fucking full grown tiger wasn't.

Of course, when Torao's tongue lolled out, it made the huge beast seem evenless scary. He laughed and scratched his fingertips hard along T's belly. "You're just a big ball of fur, aren't you?" And what exactly was he going to do with this big ball of fur? Torao rippled and chuffed, obviously laughing. "So you can understand what I'm saying while you're like this then?" He didn't really expect an answer, but he liked to think he wasn't really just talking to himself here--given how high he was already pinging on the gone crazy scale. T's head bobbed, nose wrinkling up once, then Torao shimmered again, fur disappearing quite unexpected. And suddenly he was stroking the slender muscles of T's naked belly and he yanked his hands back. "Sorry! I didn't mean to..."

T blinked up at him, arching in a lazy stretch. "Good?" He swallowed and nodded. "I think so? I mean... well you're a tiger. Is that why you were in a cage?" "My dam was in a cage, so I was." "Your dam? Oh, your mother? Was she like you? I mean... human as well as a tiger?" God, he'd bet a freak show or circus would just love something like this... "Yes. Man and tiger." T nodded happily. "And that's why you were in a cage..." He shook his head. T and his mother werepeople as well as tigers, how could anyone cage them? Because people were assholes and if it made them a buck

some of them would sell their own grandmothers, he knew that. "Yes. Man and tiger in the cage." Torao stood and stretched, naked cock altogether too close to him for comfort. He went to stand himself, but his foot was asleep and he wound up bumping his head into Torao's thigh, the scent of the man strong and musky. His own cock perked up, reminding him it had been too damned long since he'd gotten laid. Torao reached for him, helped him up, seemingly unconcerned about the lack of clothing. "You. It is good? It is not good?" "It's... strange. But that's not bad. We'll figure it out, and you can still stay here." He couldn't keep himself from checking out Torao's naked body, but as soon as he caught himself at it, he forced himself to meet T's eyes. "Clothes. You need some

clothes. You can borrow some of mine." "Borrow?" The limits of T's experience were... quite overwhelming, honestly. "I'll give you some clothes." He opened his dresser drawers and found a pair of boxers, handing them and a t-shirt over. T was more than a little distracting as he was. And very well hung. He jerked his head back up to T's eyes. T's head tilted, those eyes watching him carefully, closely, nostrils flaring. "You. You wish to mate?" "Mate? What? No!" Heat filled his face, and he shook his head, not that his cock wasn't giving that away as a lie. "Of course not. I mean. I won't touch you, I promise. You're safe." Just put the damned clothes on...

"Oh." Torao slid the clothes on, keeping just far enough away that he wasn't tempted to touch. Was it wishful thinking on his part, or had T sounded a bit disappointed? He cleared his throat and smiled. "Let's get something to eat, yeah? Sit down and have breakfast and figure out where you're running from and what we're going to do." He'd bet Torao didn't even know what a social security number was, let alone have one. "Eat. I go in the darkness and leave the lights." T nodded, walking carefully on feet that had to be screaming this morning. "What? What do you mean go?" Where the hell did T think he was going to go? Especially hurt as he was.

"Mam says 'run and hide in the trees, eat from the cans in the man-towns.'" Greyson winced. He supposed it wasn't the worst advice going, if you thought like a tiger. He got T sitting, off those poor feet, and started poking through the refrigerator. "T, you'll get sick if you eat from the garbage cans. And if anyone sees a tiger? Folks are going to want to capture it at best, kill it at worst." "Better dead than in the cage." T sounded so sure. "It was pretty bad, huh?" "No. Not pretty. All bad." He nodded. "Pretty bad's an expression; it means

bad." He pulled out a carton of orange juice and brought it and two glasses over to where T sat. "Did they make you do stuff?" he asked, pouring the juice out. "They had fire. Sticks. We jumped and roared." T ducked his head, looking away. Greyson reached out to slide his hand along T's arm, instinctively trying to comfort him. "I'm sorry you were treated like that. Did they know? That you were a man, too?" "Yes. They know. Mans pay for tigers like us." "That's awful!" He squeezed T's arm, the skin beneath his fingertips warm and soft, though not nearly as soft as the tiger's fur had been. "You're pretty damned unique and special and shouldn't

have been treated like that." "Free now. No more cages." T nodded to him, bright eyes so serious. "No, no more cages. No garbage cans for food and hiding in the trees though, Torao. We'll find something that works for you, 'k?" God, if T went back out there as naive as he was, he'd find himself in God only knew whose clutches. There were a lot of people who'd exploit T just for the pretty young man he was, let alone the fact that he could turn into a tiger. "Works." Torao's nose twitched, eyes on the juice. "Bright." "Yes, it's orange juice--it tastes bright, too. What kind of food were you fed?" he asked, pushing the glass of juice toward T.

T shrugged. "Meat. Water. Brown things." He made a face. "Brown things? That doesn't sound very appetizing. Have the juice--you'll like it." He wanted to introduce T to fruit and fresh vegetables, to all sorts of breads and chocolate--oh God, he'd bet T would be amazed at chocolate. Good brown stuff. T's eyes went wide as he lapped at the juice, then the entire glass was gulped down. Greyson grinned. Oh, man, he was going to need to go shopping. And get lots of everything. As soon as the glass was empty, he refilled it. "More. Thank you. More. Good." T drank deep, then put the glass down, pouncing on him, rubbing their cheeks together. It surprised him at first, but then he realized it was what the tiger would do and he rubbed back, happy to share this with Torao. It felt good, too,

T's cheeks much smoother than his own rough ones. "You didn't spend a lot of time as a man, did you?" "No." T purred for him, nuzzling. "Tiger is easier." "Yeah?" he sort of murmured the word, enjoying the nuzzling, doing nothing to stop it. It felt good. T felt good. "Mmmhmmmmmmmmmm." T licked his jaw, tongue dragging on his skin. He swallowed, a part of his brain thinking he shouldn't be doing this, the rest of him totally ignoring that enjoying T's touches. He turned his head a little, so T's tongue slid across his lips. T chuckled, tongue cool and orange-flavored and

slick. He smiled, staring into T's eyes, his lips chasing T's tongue, sucking it into his mouth. Oh, God, T tasted good. Torao's eyes went wide, a soft sound pushing into the contact. He sucked softly, T's tongue hot inside his mouth. Good. He reached for Torao's face with his hand, fingers sliding on the warm cheeks. T nuzzled into his touch, purring away like a huge housecat. He turned the sucking into more of a kiss, T's lips soft and good against his, the low purring noises making everything vibrate. When T pulled away to smile at him, those fingers dragged against his skin, feeling him. "Good?" "Oh, yeah. You?" He wouldn't do anything to hurt T, but if T wanted it, too...

He smiled, nuzzling into T's touch as much as T nuzzled into his. Of course he could be getting ahead of himself, maybe T just wanted to kiss, to pet a bit. He sure hoped not though. "Good. Come nap in the sun?" Torao took his hand, tugged him toward the bedroom again. He got up and let T lead him down the hall and into the spare room with its east facing window. Sure enough the bed was full in the sun, the covers all twisted together to make a nest in the middle of the bed. T leapt, bouncing in the center of the bed with a toothy grin. "Nap!" He laughed, T's grin infectious. He got on the bed with T, wondering what all this nap consisted of. T purred and tugged him down, settling him quite carefully before beginning to groom him. With his

tongue. "Oh." Greyson groaned, his cock pushing at his pajama bottoms, trying to get to T. He ignored it, reaching out to touch T, slide his fingers over the pale skin, the sweet muscles beneath the silky skin. T just explored, completely unconcerned with pushing his clothes out of the way, licking and lapping at his hips. He moaned, fingers stuttering along T's skin. "Feels so good," he murmured. He found one of T's nipples with his fingers, tugging on it gently. T blinked, stared at him, at his fingers on the pale skin. "Is this not okay?" he asked, fingers still wrapped around the little nub. Had he misunderstood that

badly? Had grooming really been all T'd meant this to be? "I. You." Torao leaned forward, whispered. "Good." He smiled and rubbed their noses together before whispering back. "It can be even better. Have you ever made love as a man?" He slid his hand over to T's other nipple, fingertips flicking across it. "No. No. Hurts to, so the tiger comes." "Hurts? No." He shook his head, hands coming up to cup Torao's face, to meet his eyes. "It shouldn't hurt. It doesn't have to hurt." God, what had been done to T? One eyebrow arched, T's head tilting. "No?"

"No. God, no." He pushed closer, rubbing against T. "No. It's actually pretty great. And it's not like we even have to do... penetration. We could just rub off, or suck each other off. God, T. It can be so good. Really. I could show you." Torao looked utterly confused, hands opening and closing on his skin. "Show you. Me." He nodded and brought their mouths together, lips moving softly against T's. "Just lie back, and let me make you feel good." "I..." T touched him, frowned. "How?" "I'd like to suck you." He slid his fingers down and circled T's cock. "My mouth here. No teeth, I promise." He pumped T's prick a few times, wondering if tigers masturbated and if so how and did T only

associate good things about sex with the tiger? Having a new lover always involved learning each other, but with T it seemed there was a whole other layer of learning that was needed as well. T simply blinked, staring at his hand on that pretty, long cock. "Tell me if I do something you don't like, Torao, and I'll stop. Right away. Okay?" He leaned forward to bring their lips together again, kissing softly before wriggling his way down T's body. He made sure to stop and lick at each nipple, at T's navel, and the lovely ridges of T's abdomen, wanting it to be as good as possible. He didn't think he'd ever been anyone's first time before. It had to be good. T groaned, panting a little, eyes rolling as those hips rolled. Yeah, it was pretty fucking good,

especially if you'd never had a blowjob before. He let T's cock rub against his cheek as he licked through the black pubes around T's cock, and then he nuzzled T's balls, licked them a couple of times, stretching it out a little before he headed for the long, hard cock.

T cried out, jerking up into his touch, looking perfectly stunned. He smiled up and pet T's thigh reassuringly. "It's okay. I'm going to make you feel good." He licked the sweet dip beside T's hip, and then turned his head and repeated the lick, this time from the base of T's cock all the way to the tip. He teased his tongue across the top and looked up to make sure T was enjoying and not panicking. It would have been so easy to lose himself in the salty taste and the musky scent and the wonderful heat.

So odd, to forget himself so quickly to this beautiful stranger, but he did, T rolling up and reaching for his touch. He took Torao's foreskin between his lips, playing with it before wrapping his lips around the tip of T's cock and slowly going down about halfway. He used his hand to jack the bottom half of T's prick, his head bobbing slowly, tongue playing over the tip, slapping at it and flicking over it.

The sounds Torao made were amazing--sharp and deep and surprisingly loud and... Feral. Animal. Erotic as hell.

He shifted so his own prick rubbed against the bed, each of Torao's sounds making him throb and need. He sucked harder, head beginning to bob faster. He would show T how good making love could be. Torao tried to roll, hips thrusting instinctively, cock pushing into his throat gracelessly. Shit. Shit, he'd never met anyone who gave it up like this, so free, so completely. He opened wide as he could and let Torao take his mouth, fingers sliding to stroke over T's balls. So hot and urgent and abandoned--it was thrilling. Those heavy balls tightened, T's cock throbbing in his lips, swelling for him, warning him. He could have pulled off, but he figured T was new to this, would be clean, and so he just sucked harder, and he slid his fingers back beyond T's balls, just teasing the wrinkled little hole.

The roar T gave shook the windows, the splash of spunk on his tongue bitter and salt and faintly sweet. He swallowed T down, mouth and tongue gentling on the hot flesh, but still moving, drawing out T's pleasure. T slumped down into the sheets, panting and huffing, hands opening and closing. He slowly let T's prick go and kissed one hip. Then, ignoring his own throbbing cock in favor of sliding his hands over T, he touched and stroked, gently bringing T down. That purr vibrated through him, the sound loud and satisfied. Happy. "See? Making love as a man is good. No hurting." Though his own balls were starting to ache, but that was a hurt of a different kind of hurt altogether and he'd get relief soon enough, even if it was by his own hand.

"Good. No hurting." T groaned and stretched, face rubbing against his chest and belly, fingers sliding over his legs. Oh, he was going to start rumbling himself if T kept that up. He shifted onto his back, spreading his legs a little, opening himself up to T's touching and rubbing. "That's how it's supposed to be." Torao made a noise that he hoped was an agreement, then that mass of black hair with the white streaks sort of splashed on his skin, followed by those soft cheeks. Much as he would like to watch he couldn't because his head fell back onto the mattress, his back arching as he stretched out for T, offering as much of his skin as he could. He'd never been explored with such curiosity, with such attention. T licked and touched, purring over his navel, lapping the clear liquid from the tip of his cock. He held his hips as still as he could, but just couldn't stop the way they jerked

the first time T's tongue touched him, nor the long groan that came from his throat. "Oh, God. T." He had one hand wrapped in the sheets, but the other moved over Torao, sliding through the soft mess of hair, touching T's cheeks and shoulders. Torao arched for the petting, licking more and more eagerly at his cock as he touched. "Feels good. Feels so good." He kept petting, trying to encourage T, make sure Torao knew how good it was for him. And it sure was good. The untutored licks and touches were sending pleasure shooting up his spine, the ache in his balls growing more pronounced as each moment passed. Then T's tongue found his balls, bathing them, surrounding him in an amazing wet heat. He cried out, heels planting in the mattress, giving him leverage to push himself up against T's

mouth. Focused on his nuts, tongue bathing him and making him twist and cry out, T seemed determined to send him over the edge just from that attention. Then that tongue slid lower, rubbing over his hole. He shouted out, hand grabbing his cock, that touch, along with T's tongue on him were enough to send him over the edge. His whole body shuddered as the come poured out of him in pulses, each touch of T's tongue sending another ripple through him until finally he lay there, limp, melted, panting for breath. Then Torao crawled up and licked him clean, tongue dragging and rough on his skin. He moaned softly, his fingers moving through T's hair, over T's skin, touching whatever he could reach. For a novice T was fucking amazing at this. "Come kiss me," he whispered.

"Kiss." T's purr tickled, deep inside his belly. His breath caught and he half laughed, half moaned, fingers wrapping in Torao's hair, tugging gently. "Yes. Yes, please." "Pllllllease." Torao grinned, those eyes seeming to almost glow. Pretty. He laughed, rubbing up against Torao as the lithe body slowly moved up along his own. As soon as he could, he brought their lips together, moaning into the heat of Torao's mouth. T tasted like him, and a little bit wild, and he pushed his tongue deep, sweeping it through T's. How could anyone have caged this? Hurt it? He shifted slightly and they curled together,

mouths and fingers touching, the sun warming their skin. "I'm glad I was walking by that alley," he murmured against T's lips. "Mmmhmm. Alley with the other Mans." He chuckled. "Yeah, and here I thought that had been a waste of time. I guess everything happens for a reason, doesn't it? You'll stay with me, won't you?" The words were out before he'd even really thought about it, but now that he'd said it, he realized he wanted it, wanted to protect and care for, and make love to, this amazing... Torao. "Stay?" Torao nuzzled in, eyelids drooping. "Nap." He chuckled. "Yeah, nap." It was good enough for now.

Torao licked him again, then the air around the man seemed to shimmer and shift. Suddenly Torao got heavy and toothy and fuzzy. He swallowed a scream--he'd done the girly scream already once today, thank you very much--but went stiff. The paw on his belly was much larger than T's hand, and he'd bet the claws he couldn't see were sharp as hell, but he fit in against Torao's belly just right, the fur soft and warm. And T's purrs were something else, vibrating against him. He petted T's belly carefully. "Just don't forget you like me," he whispered, making himself relax. Torao chuffed and curled around him, tail heavy on his thigh. He rubbed his cheek against T's fur. Damn, that

was soft. He could maybe get used to this. As long as he made it through the nap without getting punctured by either tooth or claw.

Chapter Two Torao slept and wandered, ate and slept more, exploring Grey-Son's house and yard, both as a tiger and a man. There were upstairs rooms and downstairs rooms, places to soak in the water and places to nap in the sun. Torao Approved. He stretched out on the cool grass, paws batting

at the grasshoppers and butterflies. Yes. Approved. He thought he heard his name, but he was feeling too lazy to go inside again and look. A moment later Grey-Son came out of the back door and made a squeaking noise. "T! You can't be out here like that!" He rolled over to his other side and stretched, blinking, the grass tickling his whiskers. Grey-Son came rushing over to him. "I'm serious, T. If anyone sees you they'll call the cops! You need to be a man outside. Really." Grey-Son looked around and then back at him. "Please?" He sighed, rolling his eyes and growling. He liked the grass. He thought of himself looking like a man, feeling like a man. Being a man.

Bor-ring. "Oh crap! You can't be out here like that either!" Grey-Son tugged off the shirt he wore and wrapped it around Torao's waist. "I'm sorry, but the cops'll get called if you're naked, too." Torao sighed, stalking into the cage-house and heading for the little guess-room. Naptime. Before he bit something. Grey-Son followed him, hands sliding over his shoulders just before he got there. "T. I'm sorry. There's just certain rules we have to follow if we don't want to bring attention to you. I hate to think what would happen if someone found out about you." Torao wasn't sure what to say, so he didn't. He nuzzled Grey-Son's hand, then leapt to the bed to

lick his paws and rest. Grey-Son came and sat next to him, hand sliding over his skin before he could shift. "We need to find you something to do, don't we? Can you read?" "Rrrrrread?" Grey-Son knew odd things. Grey-Son nodded. "Books? Stay there and I'll get one." Grey-Son shot off and came back a moment later with a rectangle that looked like maybe it was a brick, except it had colors on it. "Here. A book." A book. He poked it. It was lighter than a brick.

And then Grey-Son did the most amazing thing. Heopened the book. There were pages like the flyers, but with no pictures and the pages had black marks all over them. "It tells a story. But I guess if you can't read... I could teach you. Of course we'll have to get some easier books to start." "Do they say 'come see the tigers'?" All the flyers said that or 'come see the freaks.' "What? No, it's not about tigers at all. It's about men who sailed the seas in the seventeenth century. It's called fiction. It's a made up story that people read for fun. There's lots of different topics though. I can see if I can find one about tigers if you like. We could start off with me reading to you." He tilted his head, trying to understand, but he

didn't. Couldn't. It didn't make sense. "Hmm... maybe we should start with TV." Grey-Son stood and held out his paw. "Come on. This is like the books, made up stories, but you don't need to be able to read for them." Grey-Son was very strange. Very. But kind. Torao liked kind, so he took Grey-Son's paw and followed. Grey-Son sat on the big shaped pillow and pulled him down, too. Then he picked up a plastic rectangle and pressed a button on it. Immediately, noise filled the room and the black box against the wall got pictures in it. He frowned, growled and pushed closer to Grey-Son, protecting the Man. He got a surprised look and Grey-son pressed

some buttons on the plastic rectangle and the pictures disappeared. "It wasn't real... just pictures." Grey-Son chuckled. "Maybe I'm going about this wrong. What did you used to do for fun in...the cages?" "Nap. There was a ball, a pool." He walked over to the box and touched it. "Pictures?" Grey-Son nodded. "Yeah. See how it's flat? Okay, now don't be startled, I'm going to make them come on again." The black suddenly had moving pictures in it again. He touched the box, looking closely. Lights. Lights.

They made pictures with lights. The noise slowly came back as Grey-Son pressed something on the little rectangle he held. "You like it? Oh, here, let me find the sports channel. You can watch them playing with a ball. I can get you one, too. To play with." The pictures changed almost dizzyingly and then stopped, a bunch of Mans chasing a ball around. "A ball! Tigers?" Did the box make tiger-pictures? "Um... Oh! The Discovery Channel might have something." The pictures changed fast again, and when it stopped there were elephants. "Well, it's not tigers, but this is where they'd be." Torao plopped down, staring at the pictures. Waiting.

Tigers were good at waiting. He was good at waiting. There were lots of elephants in the pictures and some Mans was talking about them and how something called poachers were hunting them, killing them and taking their tusks. Then all of a sudden there were tigers! He growled and sat up, eyes huge. Tigers. Not white like him, but orange. Yellow. Pretty.

In the tall grasses outside. Grey-Son laughed. "You like those? Here, I'll dvr it and then you can watch it as often as you want." "I like tigers." He did. Tigers were good. "Yeah, I'll bet you do." Grey-Son came and sat next to him, hand on his knee. "I can buy you a ball to play with. Is there anything else you're interested in? I know I'm away most of the day, but I have to work to pay stuff, you know? I don't want you to be bored or unhappy." He blinked, a cold feeling settling in his belly. "You... you work? Why?" He knew about what people paid for. He knew working. Working meant fighting and whips and fire.

"Because I have to pay for the house and the food and stuff like the cable--what makes the pictures. Nothing is free, I'm afraid." Oh. He stood up, padding back to the guess-room where his human clothes were. Grey-Son had washed them and put them in the wooden box he didn’t sleep on. He put them on, smoothing them over his skin. He knew working. He would not have Grey-Son burn and hurt for him, for his food. He went back out, leaning down to nuzzle Grey-Son's cheeks. He would go and hunt. He would find food for them. Grey-Son nuzzled back, hands sliding over his clothes. "What are you doing?"

"I go now. Hunt." He patted Grey-Son gently. Grey-Son had no teeth, no claws. "What? Hunt?" Grey-Son shook his head and stood. "You don't have to do that. Youcan't do that. It's the city. You need to have money to buy things. That's why I work. So you and I can eat and stuff. It's all right though, I have a good job; I can afford to have another person to feed." "I hunt. No burning. I know this." He could find food. His dam told him how. Grey-Son looked confused. "Burning? You mean cooking? You don't like my cooking? I... I could serve your meat raw if you'd prefer." Raw? He liked raw. He liked cooked. He liked food. His head tilted again. "I know working. Working has fire and hurting. I will hunt for you."

"Oh. Oh, Torao, no." Grey-Son got that sad look and hugged him tight. "No. There's no fire or hurting where I work. None at all, I promise." "Working has fire." He knew working. Grey-Son shook his head. "No. No it doesn't. Your working had fire. Almost all other working has no fire, no burning." Grey-Son started stripping. "Look. Look at me. No burn marks, no cuts, no hurting marks. See?" Torao frowned, working that over and over in his head. He knew working, but Grey-Son's words had sense. He moved closer, searching for marks. There were some--little ones--and he nudged a little old mark with his nose, looking up and questioning. "I got that when I was eight. I fell off my bike. It happened a long time ago." Grey-Son pointed to another one on his shoulder. "I fell out of a tree,

too--that one needed stitches, 'cause I landed on a rock and it cut deep." Grey-Son grinned at him. "Most of my scars are from accidents when I was having fun." He crawled up, nudged the deep-stitches place, licked it. The skin was bumpy, odd. Grey-Son hummed a little. "I can't feel where the scar itself is, but I can feel your tongue all around it." He took his own clothes off and brought Grey-Son's hands to his flanks. There were whip marks there, many of them like little lines. The dark fingers stroked over his skin, Grey-Son bending and looking close. "These aren't from doing fun things, are they?" "Work." He knew working.

"I'm so sorry, T. Not all working is like that. Most isn't. We have laws, rules that say you can't do that kind of thing." Grey-Son's fingers kept stroking, touching him gently as the dark eyes looked into his own. Torao purred, eyes fluttering closed as he lost himself in the petting. Petting. He knew petting now.

Grey-Son groaned. He knew that groan now, too, knew that it meant Grey-Son wanted to do the good touching and licking, the kind that made him explode.

Soft lips brushed his own, Grey-Son's tongue sliding into his mouth for a moment as the petting continued. He purred and arched into the petting, fingers rolling and rubbing against Grey-Son's skin. "You feel so good," whispered Grey-Son. For some reason, talking was always quiet when they did the good touching, but he could make Grey-Son cry out loud. Hot breath warmed his face, Grey-Son's lips sliding on his cheeks and over his jaw before tickling his ear. He made an odd sound, his ear wanting to flick and move and not able to. "Are you okay?" Grey-Son asked, stilling, fingers and lips warm where they rested on his skin. "Mmmhmm. O. K." He was. Very okay. Warm.

"Cool." Grey-Son grinned at him, teeth so white in the dark face. And then they kissed again, Grey-Son's tongue back in his mouth, all wet and wriggly and making him feel very warm in his belly. He sort of forgot about work and burn and fire. Just wanted to feel. To touch. Grey-Son's fingers found his nipples, tugging on them, twisting them a little, too, which should have hurt, but didn't. It was sharp, but good. He bared his teeth, toes digging into the floor as he pushed up toward Grey-Son's touch. A sweet little hum sounded, Grey-Son's lips sliding down over his skin, headed toward one of his nipples. Torao watched that mouth, body rippling, aching, pushing toward Grey-Son's lips. Grey-son's mouth wrapped around his nipple, tongue flicking across the tip.

"Grey. Grey-Son. Grey-Son." Heat flooded him, hips bucking, shaft throbbing. Grey-Son hummed, hands sliding around his hips, holding on to him. The sucking continued, tugging on his nipple, which he could feel all the way to his toes. "Morrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre." His eyes rolled and he grabbed for Grey-Son, trying not to fall. "Yeah, more." Grey-Son moved to the other nipple, licking and sucking it, teeth worrying it, bringing that sharp goodness again. He slumped to the ground, pulling Grey-Son with him. Grey-Son laughed, smiling at him before attacking his nipple again. There were bites and licking and sucking, fingers crawling over his

skin. It. He. It. Words and thoughts poured through him, Torao's heart throbbing and pounding, his shaft leaking. That hot, magical mouth moved down his body. Oh, he knew this. Knew what Grey-Son was going to do. Grey-Son's tongue slid through his navel, circling and teasing, licking. "Want." Need. He arched up, hips pumping up, begging for Grey-Son's mouth. "I know. I can smell you." Grey-Son smiled up at him again, face rubbing against his prick. "G...good? Good?" He blinked down, wanting to be a good tiger. A wanted tiger. "God, yes." Grey-Son nodded. "You make me hard, T. Make me want."

Grey-Son lapped at the tip of his cock, groaning, and then wrapping those hot lips around him and sucking hard. He growled, paws batting the air, pleasure flooding him. "Love the sounds you make, T." Grey-Son's mouth left him only long enough to speak the words, and then his cock was sucked back into Grey-Son's mouth. "Love." He knew love. He did. He was just. More. Grey-Son moaned, the sound vibrating around his cock. Then Grey-Son's head moved up and down, Grey-Son's lips so tight on his skin. His entire body began to shudder, nails scratching along the floor, digging in grooves. Faster and faster, Grey-Son sucked on him, making the pleasure flow through him.

When Grey-Son's hand pushed between his legs, he spread, and his balls were fondled, and then his hole stroked. Torao still didn't understand that touch, didn't understand the way it made him feel in his belly, in his legs. Then Grey-Son's mouth left his cock, moved down to lick at his balls and, unbelievably, at his hole, the feelings suddenly so much bigger than when it was Grey-Son's finger. His mouth opened and closed, eyes feeling like they were going to pop out of his head. Grey-Son licked again and then looked up at him and smiled. "Good?" Grey-Son's tongue licked again before he could answer. "Grey. Grey-Son. Please." "Please more or please stop?" Greyson blew against his hole.

"Please. Please. Morrrrrrrrrrrrrre." Hot. Hot. "Oh, I was hoping that was your answer." Grey-Son kissed his thigh and his balls again, and then Grey-Son's fingers tilted him and spread his ass open and Grey-Son's tongue. It. Oh, licked and licked and pushed inside him. Inside. Inside. Him. His roar echoed, seed shooting from him, surprising him. Grey-Son didn't stop, kept pushing his tongue in and out and in and out, making the feelings grow and grow, even though he'd come. His shaft stayed hard, slapping against his belly, over and over.

Deeper and deeper Grey-Son's tongue seemed to go into him, and then one of Grey-Son's fingers pushed in, too. And then another--two fingers and that tongue. So big. So much. He roared, thighs gone tight, eyes rolling in his head. And then it got bigger, Grey-Son touching something inside him that just... exploded. Tossing and twisting, Torao whimpered, body begging for something. Anything. More. Now. Another finger pushed inside him, that explosion happening again and then again. "Do you want more, Torao? I can make it even better." He keened, thrashed, needing so badly it hurt. Grey-Son moved over him. Something big and hot nudged at him. "Torao? Do you want, to?"

"Want." Need. Now. Please. "Grey-Son." "Yes. Yes, T." Grey-Son moaned and kissed him; something hot and hard and big pushing into him, spreading him so very wide. His eyes went big and he panted, trying to breathe, to feel. Soft kisses landed on his cheeks, his mouth, so different from the solid heat that impaled him. "Easy, T. Just relax and it'll ease, be good. I won't hurt you." "Big." It was. Big. Full. In. In him. "Yeah. God, you're tight. Feels so good, T." Grey-Son whimpered, lips pressing hard against his, teeth nipping gently.

Then Grey-Son moved inside him. Moved out and back in. There was nothing he could do but feel, but try to breathe and move with Grey-Son. The moving continued, slow and smooth after the first few times, Grey-Son's dark eyes looking into his. It started to change, to go from just big to big and good. Torao arched, purred with the sheer pleasure of it. "Yeah, that's it." Grey-Son licked along his neck, always moving, pushing inside him and pulling away again. He wanted the pushing inside, wanted it again and again. Grey-Son gave him that, making it bigger and bigger. His sacs drew up, his heart pounding in his chest. He. Oh. Soon. Need. Grey-Son shifted, hand wrapping around his cock, and that spot inside him exploded again, and again.

His roar this time ripped from him, loud and joyous and happy as he shot. Grey-Son roared, too, heat pulsing inside him, and then Grey-Son collapsed on him, gasping and panting. Torao purred and cuddled in, nuzzling in. Good. Good Man. Grey-Son's breath was hot on his skin, and Grey-Son made soft, happy sounds. Mans couldn't purr, but he thought those sounds meant the same thing, meant Grey-Son felt so big good. He petted and stroked, eyes dropping closed. Yes. Grey-Son slipped out of him, leaving him empty, but still feeling full, too. A soft kiss was put on his skin and Grey-Son nuzzled, whispered something he couldn't hear and lay heavy against him. Heavy and good. A right feeling. A love feeling.


Greyson had decided to take his vacation. He had nearly three weeks banked and planned to use it all. And he hoped that by the time it was over he'd have figured out what to do about T. He didn't want to lose Torao, but he worried about leaving his lover here every day with nothing to do. And T was curious and soon wouldn't want to stay in the house or yard, was going to want to explore. Naive as T could be, Greyson didn't figure that was the best idea going. His biggest worry was that T would get caught out as his tiger self, and that he'd be nabbed by animal control, caged and farmed out to a zoo, or worse, a circus. Of course so far, all he'd done was enjoy his first

two days off, a lot of it spent curled up with T in his nest, lying in the sun with his lover curled around him, fur soft, tiger body unbelievably warm, and purring, just vibrating against him. He petted T's belly, cheek rubbing. T felt so damned good. T chuffed, paws batting the air, claws going in and out and in. He grinned. God, he loved this, loved how T just enjoyed every moment, found pleasure in lying in the sun and petting. He reached out, rubbing the soft pads of T's paws, touching a claw. Hard and sharp, and T could do some major damage if he wanted to. So delicate, though. T traced the lines in his hand, tickling and touching. He turned the tables, digging his free hand into T's belly, finding the spots he'd discovered were ticklish. T roared, rolling on top of him and licking his jaw, those white and black stripes close enough to see every hair.

He laughed, breathless with T's weight on him, loving the rasp of T's tongue over his skin. His hands dug into T's fur, rubbing the skin beneath with his fingertips. Then he searched to tickle again, loving that roar, the pleasure in it. T nuzzled him, muzzle on his chin, breath so hot and his search was sidetracked, a low moan coming from him. He ran his fingers along T's flanks, the muscles beneath the fur so strong. T rippled, stretched for him, his enjoyment obvious. He rubbed his cheek along T's, the fur tickling, caressing. "Change for me," he murmured. T groaned and shifted, the air vibrating around him, leaving him with a warm, beautiful man in his arms.

"That's so amazing." He slid his hands over T's skin, loving the silk of it, the way it felt different from the softness of T’s fur. He brought their lips together, taking a long kiss. Torao moaned softly, melted into him, cock hard and throbbing against him. His hands slid down to T's ass, squeezing, encouraging T to move. "Time. Time to love, mate?" He nodded, loving the sound of that word. "Please. Mate." It was the first time he'd tried it out himself. It felt right. T purred, the light in those eyes shining out at him. "Mate." "Yeah." He kissed T, tongue licking across the soft lips. "Will you make love to me?" He wanted to feel T inside him, wanted T to feel that.

"Mmm. You will make yourself slick?" T's smile tasted so good. "I can do that. I'll need the lube though." He laughed. "I can't lick myself." "Poor man." T's laughter made him ache inside, made him throb. He rubbed noses with T and rolled them, kissing his lover hard. T wrapped around him, holding tight and humping up, growling into his lips, eyes nearly glowing. He met T's movements, the kiss deepening. He felt like he was glowing, too, it felt so good. He finally broke away, lips tugging on T's lower lip before finally letting go. "Okay. I've got lube in my bedroom. I'll be right back."

T growled and stalked him as he moved away, eyes fastened onto him. "Mate." He smiled, padding a little quicker, loving the way T played. "Yeah, that's me." He wiggled his ass as he got to his room, grabbing the lube out off his headboard. Bare skin slapped against him, T's teeth threatening his shoulder. Laughing, he leaned back against T, head tilting, to offer his neck over. "You caught me." "Mine." T growled and rubbed, teeth digging in enough for him to feel. T was hard, wet-tipped, rubbing his ass. Almost whimpering, he rubbed back, nodded. "Yeah, T." He'd been thinking he'd let T think he was caught and then take off, play chase, but after that? He just wanted T to fuck him, to prove it.

T pushed him down, right there, covering his back. Those lean hips moved in a parody of fucking, rolling and thrusting against his thigh. He popped the top off the lube, getting his fingers slick and reaching back between them to shove two into himself. He grunted, the stretch burning, almost too much. He was in a hurry though, T's need becoming his own. The sounds that T made were driving him crazy, deep and low, vibrating deep in his bones. He yanked his fingers out of his ass and tried to get his knees up under him. "Please. T. I'm ready. I need you." "Need." Need. Yes. That voice was full of need, T's prick lining up and pushing in deep, spreading him with no hesitation. He could feel every inch, every bit of T's cock as the burn spread through him. So good. He pushed

his ass back, encouraging T to get in as far as he could go. T's teeth grabbed the nape of his neck, right under his hairline, holding him close as T took him, fucked him, claimed him. The burn soon morphed into pleasure, T's cock hitting his gland, making him jerk and cry out. He tried to hump back, to meet T's motions, but T had him, held him fast. Faster and faster T took him, growls coming low, sliding down his spine. "Mmmmmmate." "God, yes." He nodded, or tried to, fingers digging into the rug, his breath coming short and fast. He could feel each thrust in his balls, in his cock, his blood pounding in his veins. He could feel T's cock swell, fill him, spread him wider as T bucked, slamming into him violently. He got his hand wrapped around his prick, and all it took was that touch, his hips pressing back even

harder as he came. Heat flooded him, right after, Torao's teeth sinking into his shoulder. He whimpered softly, panting and shivering, skin so sensitive. "T. Oh." T released him, lapping gently at the sore spot on his shoulder, sending electricity through him. He shuddered, his cock throbbing with each lick. He reached back, stroking whatever skin he could reach. "Love you," he murmured. "Lllove." T was purring, the sound satisfied. Happy. He smiled and pet T some more. "Yeah." He felt warm and sore in all the right places, T's body so good draped over him. T got heavier, cuddling in, purrs threatening to become soft snores.

He pushed back a little. "T? Let's get to the bed before we start napping, k?" The floor wasn't the softest place to rest, especially with T's weight on top of him. "Bed." T rolled off, dragging him unashamedly to the bed and plopping him down. He laughed and curled into T's warmth. "Yeah. Bed." Man, his three weeks vacation was going to be up before he'd figured out what was the best way to keep T happy. Somehow, curled up with T, the smell of their lovemaking still in the air, the warmth of T's body wrapped around him, he thought he'd figure it out.

Chapter Three He was introducing T to the wonders of key lime pie--trying not to laugh too hard at the way T couldn't decide whether to make a face at the sour or “mmm” over the sweet. It wasn't easy though, T's nose wrinkling up. He took another spoonful, licking the spoon clean. He loved that mix of sweet and tart himself. "More?" he asked, holding another spoonful out. T nodded, leaned forward to lap the pie from the spoon. He chuckled and dipped his finger into the pie, licking it before dipping again and holding it out to T. But before T could wrap that tongue around his finger, the doorbell rang. "Who could that be?"

T tilted his head, sniffed, then one hand wrapped around his wrist andpulled . "Yeah, yeah, I'll get it, T." He was wearing a bummy t-shirt and old sweats, but it was good enough to answer the door with. T growled, dropping to the floor and tugging him away from the door, toward the bedroom as the knocking grew louder. "T! What's the matter with you? The door's this way." He tugged his arm out of T's hold, frowning. Torao shimmered, the tiger appearing suddenly, teeth bared, snarling at him. He backed up fast, shocked--T'd never been aggressive with him. Ever. And really, he was

hurt at this sudden change, he didn’t understand it. "I have to get the door," he said, backing up fast down the hall, eyes on T's teeth, his paws. T disappeared without a sound, without a backward look, black and white pelt scrambling down the hall. Greyson started after him for a moment, totally confused as to what had just happened. The doorbell went again and he jumped, turning to go get it. Was that the first time T'd heard the bell? He couldn't remember it having gone before. Maybe it sounded like something bad from T's past. He was still trying to figure it out when he opened the door. "Good evening, sir." A man with slicked down hair and a trimmed beard stood at the door, flyers in hand. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm looking for something I've lost and everyone here says that you are the one person in the neighborhood who might take in strays."

"Strays?" He let his frown deepen. "I'm sorry, I don't know what you're talking about." "I own a small menagerie and freak show--one of those little traveling things. One of the animals escaped and I'm trying to find him." The flyer was pushed into his hand, a black and white tiger on the front. "He appears to be quite tame, but he is a wild animal." His heart started pounding, and he worked as hard as he could to keep the expression on his face the same. "This isn't some stray cat--this is a tiger." God, how had T known? No, don't think about T, this guy might see, might know. He fought the urge to turn and check to make sure T was out of sight, or to close the

door behind him, keep the inside of the house hidden. He shoved the flyer back at the guy. "I'm not stupid enough to go anywhere near a tiger." "Are you sure? He's deceptively tame, used to people. He was bred in captivity, you know? He's almost like a son to me." A son? This man thought... Greyson took a deep breath. Just play it cool. Don't hit him. If this guy guessed, if heknew and he brought the cops back. Shit, Greyson had no idea what kind of rights T had. He'd been born a tiger; he had no papers. Maybe if Greyson had time to figure something out, but off the top of his head, playing it as if he had no clue what this guy was talking about was the only thing to do. "A tiger's still a tiger, man. I'm more of a dog person anyway."

"Well, here's my number. I'll be in town until I find him, or his body. Please, if you hear anything, give me a call." "I will. I will. I hope he doesn't hurt anyone." "For his sake, I do too." "Okay. Well." He waved the flyer. "I'll call if I hear anything, man." He started to close the door. He saw the flash of a gun, the man’s eyes staring into the house as if looking for the slightest hint. "You do that." "I will." He shut the door and turned the lock as quietly as he could, fingers trembling. Shit. Shit. He waited though, to hear the man going down the steps.

The house felt ungodly still, almost echoing with the silence. He prayed that Torao stayed wherever he was, just stayed out of sight or sound until the guy at the door was well and truly gone. He thought he heard steps moving away and he tiptoed over to the window in the front room, peeking out to make sure the guy was really gone. There was a white van, sitting across the street, a dark shape inside just sitting. Watching. He swallowed and stepped back. Damn it. He had to find T. Had to make sure his mate stayed hidden, stayed safe. He padded quickly back down the hall, in the direction he'd seen T go. "T?" he hissed. "Where are you, Torao?"

Nothing. Not a breath. Not a growl. Nothing. Oh, God, he hoped T hadn't run. He went to the back door, only half relieved to find it closed. It wasn't locked from the inside and T could have shifted long enough to deal with the doorknob. Okay, okay. Think.

Where would T go? He went back to check T's room, but it was empty. Just in case he checked the closet, but he wasn't surprised to find it T-free. A human would hide in a closet, but so often T's instincts were more animal than human and he was pretty sure that scared and worried and angry as T had been, he wasn't thinking like a human at all. So where would a tiger go? He thought back to the nature programs he'd dvr'd that T would watch over and over again. Higher ground. Shit, the roof. There was an access ladder on the back wall.

He opened the door quietly, trying to look casual as he went over to the table and chairs--he had to make sure the back of the place wasn't being watched before he went up. It seemed clear. The trees were tall enough that it hid him and he climbed up, staying close to the bricks and then as low to the shingles as he could. He could just see Torao, curled into a tight ball behind the chimney. Oh, God. He felt so bad. He should have paid more attention, should have made sure he knew why T was behaving erratically. But should haves weren't going to get T down off the roof unseen though. "T," he hissed, fingers drumming quietly on the shingles, trying to get his tiger's attention. A low growl sounded, T's teeth flashing, eyes fastened on him.

"Sh." He put his finger in front of his lips. T had to be quiet; they both had to be quiet. He waved T to come to him, but hunched so T would get the idea he had to stay low. T moved slowly, inching toward him, nostrils flaring. "Change," he hissed. T would be lower to the roof as a man. Not to mention the ladder would prove to be a real problem for a tiger. The tiger snorted, staring at him. Great. Time to get in stubborn mode. "We have to go inside," he whispered. "It's not safe out here. Someone could see you and tell him." Torao crept closer, claws digging into the roof as

he moved. He reached out, fingers just reaching T's nose, stroking it softly. "I'm not going to hurt you, T. You know that. Mates, yeah?" T sniffed him, licked his fingers over and over. "T? Please? We need to get inside. It's too open up here. Please. You need to change; you need to come down with me." He was getting used to the change. The sudden scared naked guy in his arms? Not so much. Greyson held on tight, keeping them as low as possible. "It's okay. It's okay, T. I told him you weren't here, that I hadn't seen you. But we have to go in now, okay? It's too open up here." Please, they had to get inside, lock all the doors and stay away from the windows. Once he knew T was

safe, he'd try to figure out what the hell they were going to do. "Is the Keeper gone?" T moved, crawling down the ladder with that amazing agility. He wasn't sure what T's reaction would be to know that the man was still in a car outside the front of the house, so he didn't say anything, just followed T down and urged him into the house. They could discuss it once they were inside. T stayed low to the floor, moving like the cat, slinking and staying away from the windows. Although he hated seeing T so worried and upset, that was a good thing he was being so careful, and Greyson locked the door, pulling all the curtains in the kitchen closed.

"Let me check the street and then we can talk." He was still whispering, still tiptoeing around as

he went back to peek out the front window again. The van was there, the man in the front seat talking on a cell phone. It crossed his mind that maybehe should call the police. Tell them there was a strange van outside, lurking. But if the guy spilled about T and the cops wanted to come in and check for themselves... He backed away, finding T in the hall, curled in a ball well out of the way of any windows. "Let's go to your room," he suggested, going in first and pulling the shades. Torao curled on the bed, staring at him. "We go now?"

"He's outside in a car. We can't go anywhere. I'm not even sure where we'd go." "When dark. We go. To the trees." "It doesn't get dark enough, T. There's street lights and stuff." How come the circus man wouldn't go? What had he done to give them away? Greyson thought he'd been so clever. He'd been thinking earlier they couldn't stay in the city, that it just didn't suit T. This only proved it. Torao sighed softly, nodded to him, and hopped off the bed, moving to hug him tight. The embrace felt like a goodbye. He held on tight, refusing to believe that's what this was. He'd figure it out. T needed him. And he needed T. They were Mates. ***

Torao shifted in the night, wearing the clothes Grey-Son gave him. The Keeper left in the metal Car and it was time to go to the trees. Grey-Son smelled scared, worried. His instinct was to go, follow the Keeper and kill him, protect his mate. He wasn't sure how he'd follow the metal Car; they all smelled the same outside, but he would try. Somehow. Grey-Son groaned and moved on the bed, hand reaching out, looking for him on the bed. Torao whimpered softly, heart hurting. Mate. His own Mate. The dark eyes blinked open, looking black in the darkness of the night. "T?" Grey-Son half sat, eyes finding him. "Torao? What's going on?"

He purred low, trying to soothe. He didn't know the words to say it, the way to make Grey-Son know. "Come back to bed," Grey-Son told him, arms opening to him. His Mate wanted him close. "I go eat the Keeper. No more scare for the mate." He cuddled in, rubbing and scenting Grey-Son. "What?" Grey-Son's arms went tight around him. "Oh, no. No, T. You can't do that. If you do that the police will come after you--you'll be killed!" The Mans had so many rules.So many things you weren't allowed to do. "No scare the mate. Bad Keeper." He licked and nuzzled.

"Yes, T. Very bad Keeper. He scared me because of what he could do to you, T. He could take you away or hurt you. I don't want that." Grey-Son pushed into his touches. "He's a very bad man, but if you eat him, you are the one who will be punished. They'll put you in a cage, T. Maybe even shoot you." "No cage. No more." He would die first. He would. "No cage." "Then you have to forget about the Keeper. As soon as he's gone we'll take the car and go out of the city. Find someplace safe." Grey-Son's hands stroked him, petted him. "I don't want to see you hurt, T. You deserve a good life." He didn't understand. It was so hard, being Man. So hard. He whimpered, pushing into the touch. "I love you, Torao. And I won't let you get

killed. I won't." Grey-Son's arms were so tight around him, holding him close, petting him over and over. "I won't let you die or be hurt or caged. Mates take care of each other, right?" "Yes. No scared for the mate. Good for the mate." He knew that. Grey-Son cupped his cheeks and looked into his eyes. "You are good for me, T. You make me happy. And I want you to be happy. I'm scared that won't happen. So you need to listen to me, to trust that I'll take care of you." Listen. He could listen. His ears were good. He nodded, licked. "Good. Good." Grey-Son's tongue licked his, then Grey-Son licked his lips. "We should check

and see if the van is still out there, see if it's safe to leave the house. Leave the city." "Van?" Grey-Son knew so many words. "The white car that the keeper was sitting in across the street. You can stay here if you want; I'll go and see if he's still there." The soft petting started up again, Grey-Son's hands soothing on his skin. "Not here. The Car goes away." "How do you know that? And how did you know that it was him at the door in the first place?" "Smell." He nuzzled in, scented Grey-Son again. "Grey-Son smells like Mate. Keeper smells like Keeper. Torao smells like tiger."

"Oh." Grey-Son beamed at him for a moment and then rubbed their cheeks together. "Now Torao smells like Grey-Son's mate." Yes! He chuffed and nodded, purring loud. Yes. Just so. Grey-Son laughed softly and pressed close to him, rubbing their cheeks again, arms wrapping around him. "We should go then. Let me pack a back and we'll get in the car and leave the city. Do it now in case he comes back." "Leave? You leave, too?" He wanted that clear. He and Grey-Son were mates. If he was not going to eat the Keeper, they should go together. Grey-Son nodded. "We'll pack some clothes and see if we can find a store with camping supplies

tomorrow. I have two more weeks before I have to go back to work." Torao nodded, not completely sure what Grey-Son meant, but pleased with the happiness in those eyes. Grey-Son pulled him closed and kissed him hard. "Everything's going to be all right, Torao." "All rrrrrrrright." He purred, nodding. "Go, Grey-Son. We should go now." "Yeah. I know." Grey-Son nodded and went to the other bedroom, tugging a big bag from his closet and filling it with clothes. He wandered over, watching. Mans and their things. It was... different.

"Do you want to bring anything, T? Maybe one of the blankets from your bed? Oh, and can you get me my pillow, please?" "Blankets." He pounced on the bed and started throwing pillows. "Just one, T. You don't use any so we don't--" Grey-Son broke off as one of the pillows hit him full in the face. Then Grey-Son took the pillow and hit him over the head with it. He laughed, batting at the feathers as they poured over him. "Oh, I love that sound, T. I'm going to fix it so I hear it more often." Grey-Son grabbed one of the pillows that wasn’t empty of feathers, and then hurried away and came back a moment later with a blanket from his nest, pushing them into the big bag.

Torao took the story from the bed, handed it to Grey-Son. Grey-Son talked him the story at night. It was a story about a tiger. Grey-Son smiled and added the story to the bag. "Okay, we just need stuff from the bathroom, and we can go." Grey-Son looked at the band on his wrist. "Yeah, we should get out of here now." "It is good? Good to go?" "Yeah, T. We're good to go." Grey-Son bit his lower lip, looking around. "Yeah, let's go. Wait. Is he still gone?" His nostrils flared, trying to scent the Keeper. "Gone. Gone, Mate." "Okay, let's go." Grey-Son kept saying they would go, but so far they had not gone.

"Yes. Go." Mans were so odd. Grey-Son nodded and took his hand, squeezing it. "Okay." Then, finally, they moved to the front door, Grey-Son grabbing a ring with shining things hanging on it. From there they went out a small door on the side and into the stinking room with the metal Car and he growled, nose wrinkling. Stinky. Stinky. Grey-Son froze. "Do you smell the Keeper?" "No. Room smells bad." He sighed, looked at Grey-Son. "You don't smell?" Grey-Son made a show of sniffing. "Um... a little?"

Grey-Son shrugged and tugged him over to the metal Car, opening the door for him. He crept over, peered in. It looked like a cage. It did. "It's okay, T. I'm a good driver." Grey-Son pushed him gently, trying to get him in. "Not a cage?" "What? The car? No, no, not a cage." Grey-Son walked around to the other side and got in from there. "See? We sit here and close the door, put on our seatbelts and off we go." Grey-Son pulled a belt down across his body.

"I. I." He growled and shook, but trusted. Grey-Son. Mate. When he sat, Grey-Son pulled the same kind of belt across him. "Sorry--it's mandatory. In case we have an accident. But we won't because I'm a good driver." Grey-Son patted his knee and gave him a smile. Then turned something by the wheel in front of him and the Car roared. Torao whimpered, cowering in the chair. Scared. Scared. Out. Out. OUtoutoutoutout! Grey-Son's hand slid over his leg again, squeezed. "It's all right, T. It's just the engine. It won't seem so loud once we're out." Grey-Son pressed something near the top of the car and the wall in front of them started lifting.

"Grey-Son!" His eyes rolled, and he shifted, getting out of the belt and curling down on the floor and panting, hiding. Grey-Son's hand slid over him, petting him, letting him lick the fingers, the scent good, right, his mate. "Okay, you stay there. You can't come up while you're the tiger; you have to stay out of sight." The roaring noise changed and the metal cage-car started to move. He growled back, face hiding in Grey-Son's thigh. "Would music help?" Grey-Son asked and suddenly there was a drum beat and singing. Oh. Singing. He vocalized along. He knew singing, it meant happy, it meant good. "Yeah, that's it." Grey-Son moved in his seat, singing, too. Grey-Son sounded good singing.

Torao dozed off, watching, easing into sleep as the Car motion rocked him. The sound of the Car changed, and that brought him back awake, the smells and sounds from outside also changing. He rumbled, nose lifted to the air. Trees. He smelled trees. Grey-Son's hand moved on his head when he moved. "We're out of the city. You need to be a man though if you want to look out. Just in case." He nuzzled the touch, taking Grey-Son's hand so carefully in his mouth, loving his mate. Grey-Son's fingers wriggled, tickling his tongue. "There's trees and fields. I think there's a motel coming up in a few minutes."

Chuffing he stretched over the seat, paws batting the air idly. "Careful," Grey-Son murmured. "If someone sees you like that we're in trouble." His tongue lolled. His mate worried and worried. "What?" Grey-Son's fingers slid through his fur again. "If someone reports seeing a tiger that man is going to be all over it." Grey-Son's mouth moved and moved and he listened, purring and grooming before curling into a ball in the floorboard. "Oh! Motel Six. That'll do us. I need you to change now, T. You can stay in the car until I've booked the room, but there might be people wandering about." The engine noises grew quieter, the car slowing.

He frowned, tried to think of himself as a man, stretching and easing into it. It was easier now. Better. Grey-Son smiled at him and encouraged him to put the torn shirt he’d been wearing back on. Silly Man coverings. Then Grey-Son leaned over and kissed him quickly. "It's going to be okay, T. I promise." "Okay. Mate. O. Kay." His mate did not lie. His mate knew the truth. Grey-Son nodded, getting out of the car. "Wait here, I'll be back in a minute." Waiting. He could do Waiting. Mostly.

For a few minutes. Look at the flashing lights... He was starting to get bored when Grey-Son finally came back, waving one of those little metal things. Getting back into the car, Grey-Son smiled. "We're in the last room. I figured it would be quieter. "We can get a good night's sleep and then figure everything out in the morning." Oh. Sleeping. "I like sleeping." Grey-Son laughed; he liked that sound, it was better than the worrying. "I know. You're good at it. There's no sunbeam for you tonight, but we can probably make our own warmth, yeah?" "Yes. We sleep together?" He didn't want to nap alone in this strange place with so many smells.

"Of course. I won't leave you alone." The Car roared again and then purred as it moved to the end of the low building. He purred back, patting the Car. Good Car. Grey-Son grinned at him and made the Car stop making noises and stop moving. He got out, Grey-Son giving him the pants to wrap around his waist and going around to the back of the car to pull out the bag. Then they went in the door that Grey-Son opened with the piece of metal he'd collected earlier. The room they went into was small and smelled of dust and mold and old air. His nose wrinkled and he paced. So many smells. So many. Too many.

Grey-Son stopped him, eyes looking into his. "Hey, what's the matter?" "Smells. So many people. So many." Couldn't Grey-Son smell? "No, I don't think there's very many people staying here. Especially down at this end." Grey-Son sniffed a few times. "Can you really smell all the other guests?" Of course he could. There had been many, many people here, sleeping, mating, living. "We'll try to find a solution quickly, T. So we don't have to stay here long." Grey-Son sniffed again. "I just smell that it's musty. Come to bed. We'll put the blanket from home down, that will help, right?"

"Home. Home." Torao nodded, nuzzling Grey-Son's hand. "Home. Home." Grey-Son nodded and pulled the blanket and pillow out of the bag and threw them on one of the two beds. "Our own nest, yeah?" He nodded and pounced, bouncing in the center of the nest and holding his arms open for Grey-Son. Grey-Son laughed softly and pounced onto the bed as well, landing against him. His Mate was not so worried now, happier. "Better. Better." He pulled Grey-Son in tight, wrapping around. "Mmm. Does it smell like us yet?" Torao's nose pushed into Grey-Son's throat, sniffing. "Smell like mate."

"Good." Grey-Son's fingers slid over him, pushing at his clothes to touch his skin. He stretched, tugging the clothes off and tossing them away before settling. "Mmm. Your skin is so soft." Grey-Son leaned up and licked his neck. "You taste good, too." He brought his paw up, licked it. He tasted like him. Grey-Son laughed, and licked his paw as well, then his Mate held a paw out for him to lick. "My turn." Torao purred, licking and lapping at Grey-Son's paw. Grey-Son jerked it back, laughing. "Tickles!"

Oh. Laughs. He liked laughs. Torao did it again and again, nibbling at Grey-Son's skin, finding more and more laughs. Grey-Son retaliated, fingers of his other paw digging into Torao's side, rubbing lightly along his ribs. Oh! Oh, tickles! He chuffed and rolled, paws batting at Grey-Son. The tickles and laughs continued until Grey-Son, collapsed against him. "Stop! Stop! Oh, man, my belly hurts." No hurting. He leaned in, lips brushing

Grey-Son's belly, licking and lapping at the warm skin. "Oh... Oh, T. That's good." Grey-Son moaned softly, shifting, moving into his licks.

Torao could no more stop his happy sounds than he could stop pulling Grey-Son close, fingers rolling and rubbing and tugging his Mate closer. Grey-Son moved against him, pushing into each touch. And Grey-Son’s paws and mouth moved on him, too, sliding, making him feel good. The more they touched, the more the room smelled of them, of sex, of mating, of good. Much better. Much. "I thought that guy was gonna see you," murmured Grey-Son. "I thought he was gonna

take you away and hurt you again. He didn't want to believe me that I hadn't seen you." The words were spoken between kisses and licks, soft touches and hard. "You did see me. I will die before I go in the cage." He would kill. Grey-Son shivered and wrapped around him. "I won't let them have you. We'll find a way to be together and for you to be free." His Mate's kisses became hard, almost desperate. Oh. He growled, pushing back, wanting his mate to give him more. Taste him more. Grey-Son rolled him over onto his back, paws holding him down at Grey-Son's mouth moved on him, tongue tasting his skin, teeth testing it. "Mate." It was easy to ripple and rock, eyes rolling as his mate loved him, drove him mad.

"Yeah, and don't you forget it, T. Not gonna let anyone take you away. Not going to let anyone else have you." Grey-Son's lips closed around the skin where his neck and his shoulder met, sucking, pulling the blood up. Marking him. Grey-Son's mark, on his skin. He stilled, shaking a bit as he stretched, allowing Grey-Son to mark him. Yes. Yes, more. Mate. Yours. Grey-Son moaned, lips sliding away from the mark, tongue playing with it a moment before Grey-Son's mouth slid over more skin, slowly working toward one of his nipples. Grey-Son tasted him there, over and over again. His cock throbbed, belly and balls tight, as heat flooded him. "Grey-Son. Grey-Son. Mate."

"Uh-huh. Mates." Grey-Son nodded and nipped his skin, teeth sharp, but not breaking the skin. "Want you, T. Want to be inside you." "In. In. Touch, mate. Please." He turned, hind end in the air. Offering what he would never offer another. Groaning, Grey-Son's fingers slid over his spine, and a bite was taken from his ass. Grey-Son licked it immediately, and then Grey-Son's tongue slid across his hole. Oh. Hot. Hot. Please. Mate. Sounds poured from him, deep and rough and hungry. He was hungry. That hot tongue pushed inside him, making him roar and pushed back, demanding more. Grey-Son gave it to him, tongue pushing in over and over again, making him wet, making him feel so good.

When Grey-Son pulled away, cock pushing into him instead of that tongue, the pleasure was huge, filling him. "Oh, T." Grey-Son moaned, and began to push into him over and over, paws hard on his hips. "So tight. So hot. Please." "Mate." He bowed his back, begging Grey-Son for more, for marks. "Mine," growled Grey-Son, leaning over him and biting his neck, breath hot on his skin. "Yes." All of his muscles tightened, jerked, balls drawing tight. Grey-Son's hips pushed against his buttocks, the hard shaft nudging that place inside him that made everything become sparks. And Grey-Son's teeth dug into his neck.

Seed poured from him, marking the sheets, the blankets, his skin. The scent of them overwhelmed Torao and he roared, shaking the walls. "Oh God! T!" Grey-Son's cry was sweet, his mate's seed hot as it filled him, marked him deep inside. Then Grey-Son collapsed on him, panting, fingers moving softly on his skin. Oh. Better. So better. Torao purred, nestling into the blankets.

Grey-Son stayed curled around him, heavy and good on his back. "Sleep, love. We'll figure everything out tomorrow." "To. More. Row." Yes. Sleep was good. *** By the time they woke up, the urgency had dialed back some, but Greyson still wanted to get away from people. His instincts were telling him to take T and get themselves lost in the country.

So he checked them out of the Motel in the morning and convinced T to give the car a chance as a man rather than the tiger. They picked up camping equipment at a little fishermen outfitter's shop and headed for the forest to camp. Leaving the car at a secluded parking lot amongst the trees, they moved into the forest, pack heavy on his back, T practically vibrating next to him. When they hadn't met anyone for an hour, he stopped and put a hand on T's shoulder. "Okay. You can change. Just make sure you stay out of sight if we come across anyone." T kissed him, eyes dancing, then he was face-to-face with an excited black and white tiger playing in the grasses. He laughed, and watched for a few moments,

before deciding T had the right idea, and with a whoop he ran toward T. T leapt into the air, paws batting harmlessly, teeth gleaming as T grinned. God, T brought out the kid in him, and it was fun, just letting go and chasing, mock fighting, playing with T in the grass. And his lover, his mate? Torao was ecstatic, bounding and playing, chuffing and completely at home. And the solution was as simple as that. They'd find a place out here--some land that backed up onto trees, a place where T could be himself, could play and roar and be safe from people. Okay, so there were probably a thousand little details to take care of, but he'd do a lot to keep T as happy as he was right now. The rough tongue slid on his arm, his fingers, distracting him. Tickling him. He laughed and pounced, landing on T and running his hands over

the soft, white fur. That deep, rolling purr made him smile, satisfied him to the bone. He kept petting and then slid off T and took off, knowing T would give chase. The feel of T hitting his back was sort of like being hit by a train. A big, soft, fuzzy train. He went down with an oof, laughing, and trying to catch his breath.

T nipped his shoulder and then went bounding off, spooking a flock of birds and sending them flying. Breathless, but happy, he sat and watched T play. It felt good, to not worry for awhile, to just enjoy the happiness that poured from Torao. He eventually wandered over to where he'd left the backpack; this was as good a place as any to put up the tent. He'd do that and then have something to eat. They had sandwiches from the little restaurant they'd eaten breakfast in.

It might have been an hour, maybe more before T wandered back toward him, panting and covered in grass and dust and flowers. He laughed at T and rubbed all that fur, getting rid of the worst of it. "Hey do you like being brushed?" He supposed he could use T's hairbrush on his fur, too... T shivered, stretched way out. "Oh, that was a yes." He went through the bag, finally finding the brush at the bottom. He supposed if T the man didn't want T the tiger to share the brush, he could go buy a new one, but this would do for now, and would get the rest of the crap out of T's fur. He sat next to T and started sliding the brush through the fur on T's back. Torao's purrs were loud enough to make the leaves on the trees tremble.

"Oh, man, you should have told me earlier you liked this." He didn't know why he hadn't thought of it earlier, except that he'd never had a cat as a pet. He kept brushing, T's back and the long sides, getting all the vegetation and dust off and making T's coat just gleam. "You want me to do your belly, too?" T rolled with a thump, spreading out wide. He'd take that as another yes. He brushed a little gentler over T's belly, not wanting to hurt, his free hand following the brush, stroking the so soft fur of T's belly. "God, you're beautiful." T rippled, tongue lolling out. Beautiful and a little goofy. He kept brushing, noticing that T was

starting to drool just a little. It had him chuckling. "So you like it out here, don't you, T?" He'd never seen the tiger as limp and drooling as T was now and he was pretty sure it wasn't just the brushing, it was the whole package. T chuffed, nodded, paws rolling in the air. He nodded. Yeah. Moving out here was looking better and better. As long as the circus-freak show had moved on. He didn't like what he knew about T's "Keeper" and meeting the man hadn't made him like the guy any better. And nobody was going to hurt T, not while he was around. He knew that circuses had to move on--would the keeper give Torao up as lost? If they'd already moved on, he and T could move out here to the country and then just not be in town when the circus came back.

He stopped brushing and stroked T's belly with both hands instead, concentrating on feeling good. T slowly changed, fur turning to soft, sleek skin. "Mate." He kept petting, well stroking now, fingertips gliding over T's silky skin. "Yeah, Mate." God, he did love the sound of that. It made him feel good. "Would you like to live out here?" "Live? Make home? Here?" Torao's eyes lit up, the man nodding and smiling. "Tigers like trees." He laughed. "Yeah, I've noticed that." Then he nodded, looking around. "I don't mean this exact spot, but somewhere out here where there's land and trees and a house." "House and trees." T nodded, the look satisfied.

"Yes. I find?" "You find?" He frowned not sure what T meant. They needed to look in the paper. Or call a real estate agent. He'd have to sell his house in the city, too. Torao nodded again. "I find house and trees for mate." "Well it's not as easy as all that, T. We can't just choose the first house we come across. We need to find one that's for sale." T gave him one of those looks that said, 'men are strange' and 'I don't understand' and 'what?' He chuckled and gave T a quick, hard kiss. "Okay, so say you find a house for us to live in. Well what about the people who already live there? They aren't going to leave just because we

like the place. But if people want to move to a new house--like we do--they let everyone know their old place is going to be vacant. We need to find one of those houses." "I could eat them for you." Oh, that had him laughing. At least until he realized T was looking at him strangely. "Oh, you can't do that, T. Eating people is against the law." "Silly man law." "Oh, I don't know. I find it kind of comforting knowing I won't be eaten..." He squeezed T, sliding his fingers through the long hair. "But we can go get a paper tomorrow and see some houses maybe where the people are leaving. See if we find one we like?" T nodded. "Like. Like trees and home."

"Yeah, I know. What kind of house would you like? Big? Small? It'll have to be well off the road." He got a shrug. "No cage. Trees. Water. Movie box." "You do like the television, don't you? And there won't be any cages, T. I promise." Never again. Torao rolled over to him, kissed him gently. "Promise." He nodded, leaning in to kiss T again. "Yeah. Promise. No cages, no one hurting you. You get to run and play and not have to worry about anyone seeing you as the tiger." "You happy? Mate happy?" So dear. So honest,

his Torao, always wanting him to be happy. "Yeah, T. I am." He grinned because it was true. He was out in the woods with a tent that wasn't going to survive a bit of wind or a rainstorm, they had something he had to re-hydrate for supper and Power Bars, but he was happy. "Good." Torao cuddled in, heedless of the grass, and promptly went to sleep. Greyson laughed and relaxed, watching the clouds go past in the sky above the tops of the trees. He liked how T thought, just living, enjoying life. You were happy or you weren't, and T wanted to be happy. Greyson did, too, and being with T made him happy. So he was going to make that work.

No matter what.

Epilogue Birds. Big, white birds. He crouched in the tall grasses, muscles tense, eyes fastened on the flock that landed. Birds. SPROING.

He rolled in the grass, chuffing as the birds flew up, feathers going everywhere. Birds birds birds. Grey-Son had brought him to this place with grass and trees and birds, said this was home now. Grey-Son was a good mate. Even if he spent too much time at the work that didn't burn or hurt. Torao spent the afternoon patrolling the grounds, chasing bugs, marking his territory and exploring before curling on the porch to nap in the sun. Napping was good.

The sun was still in the sky but not as warm anymore when he heard the noise that meant the metal Car was bringing Grey-Son back to him. Torao leapt down to meet the Car, shaking his ruff and roaring in welcome. Mate! Mate! The Car pulled up and the noise stopped, his mate coming out of the car. Grey-Son looked tired, but smiled at him, arms open. He crouched and pounced, changing to a man right before he hit Grey-Son's body. Grey-Son's arms went around him, catching him, and Grey-Son 'oofed' as his back hit the car.

"Hey, T. Did you have a good day?" But Grey-Son didn't let him answer the question, pressing their mouths together. He loved Kissing. Kiss. Sing. His tongue pushed against Grey-Son's, the heat sweet and perfect. Rich in his mouth. Grey-Son moaned, the sound adding to the texture of their kisses, the warm paws moving on his skin, warmer even than the sun. Torao rubbed and purred, the sound vibrating between them both. "God, I love coming home to you." Grey-Son grabbed his ass, squeezing, diving back into the kiss. "Work work work." He chuffed and moaned, wrapping himself around Grey-Son. "There were birds today."

"Birds? Did you catch any?" Grey-Son pulled off his tie and opened the buttons of his shirt. "No. Just feathers." Grey-Son got cross when he killed the birds. Grey-Son chuckled, shirt coming right off, baring the pretty dark skin, the little nipples that were standing up for him. He chuffed and pounced again, pushing Grey-Son into the grass so he could nuzzle and lick and lap. Grey-Son didn't argue, just wrapped strong arms around him, stroked and petted him. At the place in the city, Grey-Son would have complained about people seeing, made them move inside, but here they were far away from anyone and he could be himself, and they could feel the sun on their skin without stupid clothes to get in the way. Moaning, Grey-Son arched and rubbed beneath

him, offering him one nipple before pushing his head toward the other. He groaned, worrying the little bit of flesh with his teeth, luxuriating in his Grey-Son's laughter and moans. The hands moving on him grew tight, Grey-Son's cock hard inside his pants, rubbing against him. It was easy, to tear the clothes away and roll them, their bodies rocking and slapping together under the late summer sun. First he was on top, and then Grey-Son, and then him again, their bodies rubbing, the kisses growing harder and deeper. The grass felt almost as good as the sun against his skin, but it was Grey-Son's skin that felt the best on his own. On one turn, he spun, tongue finding Grey-Son's prick and nuzzling it, tongue sliding along the shaft. "Yes! T!" He liked the note of need in

Grey-Son's voice, the way Grey-Son's hips shifted restlessly. Then Grey-Son's hands tugged him, moved him a little and Grey-Son's hot tongue touchedhis shaft, sharing the same pleasure with him. T purred, caught between the grass and the sunshine and the heat and his mate. Happy. So happy. "Love that sound," murmured Grey-Son, prick pushing against his lips. "Makes me feel good." "Gooooood." He nodded, licking and sucking and groaning happily. Bittersalt drops leaked from Grey-Son's prick, strong on his tongue, and the heavy scent of Grey-Son's musk filled his nose. His mate all around him. His mate's mouth was around him, too, taking his

balls into the hot wetness, licking them. His hips jerked, pushing deep and thrusting against Grey-Son, the heat perfect. Then Grey-Son's mouth moved beyond his balls, licking the skin behind them. Such a delicate touch. Sharp teeth, sudden and shocking made him jerk and roar, but Grey-Son's tongue was back right away, soothing the unexpected scraping. Then that tongue flattened on his skin and dragged over his hole, making him need so much. His head snapped back, roar filling the air as he fought the urge to shift, to arch his hips and beg for more. Grey-Son's tongue pushed into him, hot and wet, so good as it stabbed him again and again. He rolled over, ass in the air, fingers digging into the grass as his hips pumped. "Mate."

"Yes, T. Yes." Grey-Son's rolled up to kneel behind him, fingers spreading him, shaft hard and hot and pushing into him. Grey-Son's cock stretched him and spread him, pushing so deep into him. He snarled and purred, head dropping so his mate could bite and hold on, hold him. Grey-Son's smooth, warm skin pressed against him as Grey-Son stretched out over him, mouth latching onto his neck. Grey-Son's lips sucked, pulling the blood up to the surface, marking him outside, just as he was being marked inside. He could see his hair pooling on the grass, black and white and... "Morrrrrrrrrrrrrre." "Yeah. Yeah, T. More." Grey-Son's tongue dragged over his skin, teeth scraping as the hard cock pushed into him over and over again. He shuddered and shook, stretching and

spreading for his mate, his friend. Inside him. He could feel the pressure and slide and push inside him. "Oh, God, T. Mate." Grey-Son's words whispered in his ear, and Grey-Son's teeth latched onto his neck. Yes, mating. Good. Good. He bucked and roared, body jerking violently as his seed poured onto the grass. Grey-Son called back to him, shaft jerking into him again and again until Grey-Son roared, pretty loud for a Mans, and filled him with heat, marking him deep inside. "Mmm. Mate." He plopped down onto the ground, panting and purring happily. Grey-Son was a good weight on top of him, warm and solid, nice and close. "Love you, Mate," Grey-Son murmured, nibbling at his skin.

"Love." His eyes closed, fingers sliding through the grass. "Good love." "You said it." Grey-Son's end of day whiskers scratched nicely against his shoulder blade as the heat inside him slipped away. "So you had a good day? You're still happy here?" The dark eyes looked into his own as Grey-Son settled next to him. "Good lair. Birds and grass and sun and sky." He rolled on his back and stretched. Grey-Son's fingers slid over his belly, stroking gently. "And no one around to see you and call the cops. Or the circus." His nipple was kissed. "It's safe here." He nodded. "You, mate? You have happy here?"

Grey-Son looked up at him, and smiled. "Yeah, Torao. I have happy here. A lot of happy." "Good." He would not wish to have an unhappy mate. Never. Grey-Son nodded and then made a face. "Except for the grass going up my butt. Let's go inside and have a shower." Shower? He could bathe Grey-Son just as well! He shifted as he rolled, tongue dragging on Grey-Son's skin. Salty. Grey-Son laughed and dug strong fingers into his ruff, petting and rubbing. "That's not quite what I had in mind, T." Silly man. Tiger baths were amazing.

Just like tiger mates. And tiger pounces. And tigers. End.

plums by camilla bruce

Once, there was a ferryman rowing with the dead down the stream. Spring, summer, autumn, he was there, rowing with strong arms, the coffin placed by his feet. Sometimes small, sometimes big. Sometimes there was more than one.

He was collecting at times of plague. Picking up the dead by the shores. Often there were no coffins then, just linen-wrapped bodies that he hauled onboard. Old people and children mostly. White bodies scattered on the riverbanks like dolls, waiting for the ferryman to come.

In good times, people had more care for their dead. The coffins were crafted with skill and stained with sweat and tears. They scented of freshly cut wood, bled with thick resin and spoke of love for the still bodies inside.

The ferryman, whose Christian name was Simon, thought it was a peaceful job when the weather was nice, rowing the dead. He had been doing so for eight years, and had many small villages, scattered farms and houses to take care of. The people living there were all depending on him to bring their dead to that final rest by the small church. The soil was rich and black there. Cool. The ferryman thought it a delightful place. He felt he did good in his work, and the dead did not scare him. The people he served paid him well. They were generous with their food and liquor, to make sure he gave their departed ones a proper last journey down the stream.

Simon Ferryman was a handsome man, tall,

blond and with the bluest eyes, but he was not married. People said it was a curse from spending too much time with the dead, but that was of course not true. His mother was still alive and he lived with her and his two younger brothers. He provided well for them all. When he did not row the dead, he carried other things on his boat: goods and cattle. He worked in the woods and with the fishermen. All gave solid gold in his pouch and he did not desire a different life. Not yet, he told himself, while his mother was still strong and able to keep the house. The truth was that he feared the changes. Feared to leave what he had and embrace another life, for he was not like the other men surrounding him, and he knew that very well. Solitude was a refuge for him as much as a consequence of his work; it was crucial that the other men did not come too close. Maybe they would see it then, in the way he breathed, smell it on his skin or feel it in his touch, the horror and the shame. He carried the Devil inside.

His mother once almost married. She was a

widow and the neighboring farmer a widower. They both still had young children. It would have been a blessed solution. And they were thinking of Simon as well, not knowing that he had chosen his path, his work, for this particular reason--to keep other people away. They thought of his freedom, his chances of finding a wife. Having young brothers and a mother in the house might be one of the reasons, his poor mother guessed, that his presumed efforts to have a girl to warm his bed failed.

The neighbor's sons came and drank with him. Raised their glasses in the air and toasted for the bonds that were soon to be tied between their homes. Simon felt sullen and uneasy, and not very eager at all. It ached in his heart because his mother blushed and smiled with her eyes when the widower came to visit, yet he demanded of her that she'd stay. He could not, he said, possibly make it without her. And his younger brothers deserved to be raised in their father's house. With the heavy weight of guilt on her shoulders, she obliged, and the ferryman had his wishes granted,

though he did not forget his betrayal, what he had done, crushing his mother's hopes and desires. It was the wrong in his flesh that had caused it. This thing he could not reveal, this thing that made happiness in life unattainable for him.


In early spring, the first buds appeared on the branches of the plum trees framing the silvery stream of the river. They were bending over the water to get a glimpse of themselves--green-leaved beauties of purple wood--in the clear liquid mirror. Soon, as the sun grew warmer and the days longer, the flower buds opened up and revealed the delicate flowers within. Petals, soft and pink in color, hung in rows and heavy clusters above the stream as if trying to kiss the black stones beneath the cool water.

Simon loved those trees, loved to row amongst the branches, often so close to shore he could touch the fresh, green grass. His fingers reached up and caught the flowers between long fingers, caressed the petals and let them go, hesitant to ruin the sweet fruit he knew would come of them. Heavy and purple. Skin taut with the juices beneath. The scent of ripe plums hung about him as a perfume in the early days of autumn, as he filled his boat and stomach with the soft, sugary flesh of the fruits.

He was not the only one appreciating the plums though; the ravens were in love with the fragrant meat as well. Black birds with glossy feathers sat on the ground by the crocked trunks, feeding on the earthy plums, so ripe they had burst upon hitting the ground. Other birds sat high up in the trees among the green leaves. He saw black beaks and glittering gazes. Strong wings that rose gracefully, as in a greeting, when the ferryman appeared among them to pick plums of his own.

One of the birds took a particular liking to the man. He did not fear the human intruder--did not move skittishly on the grass when the boat came too close to the shore, or fly up among the leaves to hide from the man's gaze. No, this bird just cocked his head and looked at the human with an expression resembling curiosity.

Simon Ferryman was puzzled by the peculiarbehaviorof the bird and began talking to him when they met. He threw pieces of fruit to the black-winged hunter and complimented thelusterof his feathers in a calm and gentle voice.

"What a lovely thing you are," he said, "your feathers are as black as tar and kissed by the god of the rainbow..."

The bird seemed to respond to his kindness. He cocked his head, jumped a little closer, spread and lifted his wings high up in the air, as if to show them off and let the sunlight play in them. This amused the ferryman and he fed the dancing bird many of his juicy fruits. He laughed when the raven swallowed it down and swept the grass with his wings, bowed his head like a man, as if to thank the kind man in the boat. Simon thought he saw a mind in there, in the bird's eye. Thoughts forming and dissolving, like water or vapor on the stream.

He was taken with the bird. This one was so different from the other birds, the blind-eyed ravens that watched him from the treetops, that he soon felt a particular bond forming. As if he was a brother, this bird. As strange among his own kind as the man was among his people. For the raven was surely playing with him, jumping around in circles, cocking his head coyly when he came, hiding behind the trunks and peeking at him with a glittering gaze. He made the ferryman laugh out

loud and he started to bring crumbs and apples from home to give him. Almost every day he went, even if there was no dead to row, he had to visit the bird. And the man only saw his raven among them all, who usually sat by the river's edge, as if waiting for him. The raven never responded to the other birds while he was there, but kept his gaze and his attention on man. He soon trusted the man so much he ate the pieces of fruit from his fingers and soon moved into his boat, sat in it as it cut through the water, his claws safely crooked around the worn wood, his sharp gaze keeping watch over the dead. Every time the ferryman came to the plum grove on his way to church, he stopped so that the raven could fly onboard. And the bird never departed again before they were at the same spot, on the ferryman's way back home.

It was nice, Simon thought, to have a living thing onboard with him. A pair of eyes but his own, watching the oars dip into the water, someone listening to his low humming. The bird cocked his head then, when he hummed, and narrowed his

eyes. It led him to believe he enjoyed the sounds. Simon, on his side, got to study the bird closely as the weeks passed: the blue shine in his feathers, the size and sharpness of his claws, the ridges on his feet, and he found it beautiful. He told the bird that. He appreciated the company. Told him that too. The bird's eyes stared at him, unreadable and clever. Playful, almost. Simon felt a stir in his heart. Being looked at like that...he enjoyed it.

When they were by the church and Simon was busy with the coffins, speaking with the priest, the raven flew up in a birch nearby and sat there watching, waiting, until Simon once again was in his boat and water separated it from shore. Then the bird came back, landing in the boat by the ferryman's feet.

The old priest did not like what he saw. He called it an omen of ill-fate. He said that the bird was attracted by the smell of fresh meat from the coffins. It was a bird of death, he said, and they

both knew that it was the ferryman's death he silently predicted.

"Nah," Simon shrugged at the priest, who stood silently by the boat, coffin by his feet and stared up at the treetops, at the silent bird. "My raven is a clever one. He is funny; he makes me laugh. He is much brighter than many men I know of," he joked, but the priest was in no mood for laughing. His grey skin wrinkled concerned above his nose.

"He would not be the Devil's if he was not clever," he said. "Mark my words, Simon Ferryman, your trade is to evil what sugar is to ants. It is a world of shadows, the world of the dead. And you are easy prey to demonic powers".

Simon, already thinking himself rather demonic, due to those insistent urges of his flesh that made him do and picture things that he really shouldn't,

did not get frightened by the priest's speech. He had already faced the possibility of going to Hell, and had accepted it as, if not fate, then a consequence. He was done fighting. He had at a young age raged against his own mind, his dreams and his hunger, and he had lost to the power of it. And if his friend was truly a demon of Hell, then Hell didn't seem such a bad place to be to Simon... He didn't tell the priest that. The ferryman rarely spoke his mind about such things.

"I cannot believe him to be evil," he said instead. "He does me no harm, but keeps me company. The river can be a lonely place for a man with only dead for company," he said calmly, while watching the water lick the river stones smooth.

"Maybe he has come to accompany you? Collect the soul for his master," the priest would not let the topic go. "It is a bad omen having our dead arriving at church with birds of prey in the boat..." He turned on his heel and left the shore,

leaving it to his men and the ferryman to carry the coffin up the slope to the church. "The bird never enters church grounds," the priest said over his shoulder. "I think that is proof to my words!"


As autumn drew to an end, all the plums had fallen from the branches and the leaves withered and followed them down. The birds became fewer by the day as they sought more available food inland. The remaining few, hungry and cold, stood on the yellowing grass, by the river's edge, watching the ferryman with expressionless eyes. Their feathers were puffed up, and their claws were clutching at summer's decay, wine-colored leaves under their feet. What Simon had come to think of as his raven was still faithful to him, accompanying him up and down the stream. Not even after all his brothers had gone, the plum trees lifted their naked, dark branches toward a white sky and shards of ice drifted down the river, did

he leave, but waited patiently every day for the man to come.

Instead of being scared of this, thinking in another ill omen of impending death, like the priest would, the ferryman worried for the bird.

"The riverbank is much too cold for you," he said. "You cannot stay there day after day, waiting for me. Some days I cannot come, you know that. And when the ice covers the water, I will not come at all! Not before spring." He lifted the oars off the water. "Go somewhere you can find food," he bid the bird. "Near a farm or in a forest." He swallowed hard after speaking. It was not easy to let his new friend go, winter was long and he worried for its safety. "Promise me you will go somewhere warmer when the ice covers the stream," he said in conclusion, but did not look at the bird while he spoke. He wanted to think the raven had understood and would indeed find a warmer place to stay during the harsh

season, and so the man would not have to worry for him. "Good, then." He was looking at the shore, the thin crust of ice covering the fields. "You will do as I say. It is a promise!"

When water was just rippling coils of black in all the white covering the river, Simon pulled his boat on shore and stored it for winter. Often, during those first days of snow and cold, he would walk by the river’s edge, looking at the thick, smooth ice while carefully stepping on the slippery, black stones lining the frozen stream. He already missed the river and he missed the bird. As it was for him every winter, the world suddenly became too small around him. The family and the house, the chores and the mundane rituals of everyday life. He missed the running water, and this year also, the flight of raven wings.

On the dark, long nights he sat by the fire and listened to his mother's humming while she

cleaned the plates and the wooden spoons from their meals. He drew patterns in the ashes, ravens’ beaks and feathered angles resembling wings. The raven became all that he longed for: the drifting on the river, the scent of ripe plums and fresh water.

He would dream of it at night, see the world from up there as if he was the raven, gliding through the fresh, cold air. He saw the green of the forest, the white of the fields. He saw the snow-covered river, curling like a white serpent through the landscape and crowned with a silvery waterfall, frozen stiff, as if caught and bewitched in motion, glittering in the sun's brilliant light.

It was beautiful from up there, the white world, and he did not freeze, although a coat of feathers had seemed to the man but a joke when faced with winter's cold. The bird was warm though, and steered them both safely through the landscape, between treetops and over houses. The

ferryman thought he could smell the fresh scent of pine needles and the smoke from the chimneys when they flew by. Feel the fine drift of powdery snow when they landed in the white dunes. His dreams were so vivid he could taste cold water on his tongue and count the ridges on his clawed foot. Vivid, yet strange and alien to him. He did not recall those dreams as he usually remembered his dreams. His nights flying with the bird was remembered as a bird would--glimpses and fragments, feelings of necessity, like hunger or thirst. Their world wasn't as linear and bound by rules as the human world was. As a bird, one was free from the knowledge of time. As a bird, one was free from gravity. That was how the ferryman remembered those dreams: as a taste of something else, somewhere without guilt and the pressure of his responsibilities. When he flew in the bird's flesh, felt the little heart beat and the pulse race, when he felt the mighty rise and fall of heavy wings and the air around his body, a feeling of love for this creature overcame him, and because in those dreams the bird was indeed him, he did, for the first time in his life, truly love himself.


Winter was particularly hard that year, and many a day, the snow whipped the woodwork of the house with mighty force. The wind howled and the treetops of the forest swayed, bent, kissed the ground. People got lost, surprised by storms and buried in white, falling prey to hungry beasts. Sometimes the door to Simon's house was barricaded by the white dunes and he and his family were trapped inside. Then, more than ever, on days when he fought his way through the heavy snow, watched his fingers turn red and felt his muscles aching, did the ferryman think of his haven on the stream, about his peculiar and faithful companion. He wondered if the bird could find food now, when the fields were buried under snow and ice, if he found shelter during the storms. He thought about going looking for it, but knew it was folly. The raven could be anywhere. And he did not recall having ever seen the places he'd dreamed of while awake. He never doubted that those dreams were somehow true. Never did

he reject them. He kept them in his heart like treasures. Jewels to be polished and enjoyed for their beauty, for the happiness they created inside.

Winter was indeed harsh. Although the ferryman was usually a man of many and merry words, he now fought with his family over small things. He complained about his brothers and hardly spoke to his mother when the days were at their darkest, and the sun was just a brief guest and not a steady companion for mankind. He grew tired of dried meat and hard bread, hot liquor and stale beer. He grew tired of it all: salt fish and his mother's humming, the color of the soot-stained timber walls and the scent of too many people in one room. Sometimes it felt as if spring would never come. But it did... Of course it did! Slowly the snow turned to water and was drunk up by the earth and swallowed by the river. Bits and pieces of ice broke loose and were caught by the stream that grew broader by the day, breaking free from its icy prison. Pale and exhausted people tumbled from their houses to greet the harsh, brilliant sun of spring and look at the newborn flowers, awe

and relief in their eyes.

One sunny day early in spring, the ferryman dragged his boat ashore again.

There was freedom in the flexing muscles, the ache in his arms after their long slumber, freedom in the water, in the furious flow. In cold liquid and drifting ice. Simon had to fight a bit to steer the boat on the playful river. Not that he minded, oh no! This was what he had been longing for and he drew his breath in deep gasps and felt as if his chest was too tight for the tremendous joy that he felt.

The plum trees were still naked though. There was no sign of life among the branches.


Simon Ferryman was busy all spring. He collected the dead and brought them home to holy soil. Some of the coffins had been stored all winter, as the earth had been frozen through. They had watermarks on them, and the wood had darkened from time.

Some diseases spread quickly in warm weather and they often had a bit of a plague after the winter. This year was no exception. The ferryman found it hard that so many children often died from these fevers. Their little coffins were a heavy burden, but it was the price to pay, he figured, to see the flowers of spring bloom again. It was all a part of nature's order, like the little leaves on the plum trees. A bright, lovely green! Thin, fragile life unfolded from brown shields and stretched toward the sun. The ferryman scanned the fruit grove for black wings, but saw none. He knew it was too early, still he wished they would appear.

Summer was, as spring before it, unusually warm. The ferryman shed his shirt while rowing but his skin was still covered in sweat. His curly, blond hair slicked to his scalp and he had to drench himself in water from the river to stay cool and focused on his tasks. The coffins often smelled, as the heat made the bodies rot faster than usual. On certain days the ferryman had to fight sickness as well as the warmth. His mother gave him strong-smelling flowers to sniff, should the sickness overcome him or the smell of the bodies become too much.

The plum trees blossomed fiercely for a couple of weeks. The pink petals, so delicate and small, drifted down the river.

Still there were no ravens about, and, though the ferryman knew it was early, he was already tired

of waiting and his hopes were fading. He fought a growing feeling of disappointment. No, it was more than disappointment, much more grave. It was despair. It was a feeling of grief, for he missed a loved one, and of betrayal because he was not there. He worried too, for the raven's welfare, and had to remind himself that there were no other ravens by the trees either. There was no apparent reason to worry. And then he realized he expected to bird to think like a man, for that was how he thought of him in many respects. Like a thinking, reasoning creature. His peculiar friend with the lustrous feathers had convinced him with his way of acting. The intelligent spark in his eyes.

But if the bird was not there, and did not come back. If he was but a bird and forever gone, never again thinking of the man in the boat... Had it all been just dreams then? His flights of freedom at night...


Simon went to the dance on Midsummer. The summer night sky held a pale blue light and the air itself was intoxicated with the wild, bewitching power of the night. The earth hummed with budding life, the slowly ripening harvest to come. The young folk built a giant fire by the river's edge and danced barefoot on the cool grass. Liquor floated in their veins and want stirred in their loins. Simon drank as well--emptied the cup in his hand more than once. He watched the young men move around the fire, their limbs stretching and muscles flexing in rhythmical ecstasy. He felt hot and it made him feel embarrassed, so he drank even more, became much too drunk in no time and fell asleep under a birch.

One of the young girls there lay down beside him during the night and set to kiss him awake. She was whispering softly and playfully in his ear, told him how gentle and pretty he was, told him

about how she was not afraid of his dealings with the dead. The ferryman shrugged and turned over to his side, snoring happily all night.


Small green plums formed, created themselves from flowers and dust on the plum trees' branches, like eggs in nests of glossy leaves. They grew and ripened, slowly, day by day. The ferryman watched them eagerly, noticed the changes and anticipated the tasteful fruit, the fragrant juice. He watched the fruits grow from babies to adults, change color and taste, from sour to sweet, as did his confused grieving over the bird cease and become a gentle longing. Nostalgic melancholia and warm feelings replaced those of sorrow and anger. Every time he came to the fruit grove, he lifted the oars from the water and let his boat glide though the mirror image of the trees, sometimes closing his eyes while he let the branches, heavy now with leaves and fruit, gently

brush the top of his head.

It wouldn't be long now, he could tell, before the plums were ripe and ready.

One day, as summer prepared for its final crescendo, blooming hot and passionately in the brightest of colors and painting the harvest with sun's gold, Simon Ferryman passed under the plum trees when his eyes suddenly caught sight of something peculiar up among the green. Just for a moment, brief and swift, he saw a face there: pale skin and dark eyes, hair the color of coal, a slick coil of it, over a white shoulder. It was a man, the ferryman felt sure of it. A young man with a burning gaze and slender arms, high cheekbones and sharp-angled eyebrows. The ferryman startled and almost lost an oar. When he looked up again after saving the wooden pole from the water, the thing in the tree was gone. Simon's skin was suddenly slick with cold sweat despite the warmth, for it had not been human that thing he

saw. He could not say why it was that he knew that, but he did. Something about the face had been so strange to his senses; it was as if he was warned by his own humanity that this one was not a brother.

Then he remembered the priest's frightened predictions from the year before. He looked down at the coffin by his feet and shivered. Was it death that came to greet him? Or had he spent so much time with the dead that he could see the creatures from the other side that came seeping through the veils to meet his passengers? Or had it just been an illusion? A trick of his mind? Had he fallen into slumber there, by the oars, under the dizzying sun? The ferryman scooped cold water from the river with his palm and wet his brow while drifting further down the river. It made him feel a little better and the rhythm of his heart slowed down from having raced in fear. His gaze lingered on the coffin by his feet; drops of water had soaked into the wood and stained the pine with darker color. It was a woman in there, fairly young and dead from a fever. The next day she

would be earthed, her family would come down this very stream, dressed in dark wool despite the warmth, to see her off. Husband and children, sisters and brothers. He did not think it was her spirit he had seen. It had been a man, he felt sure of it. A peculiar and pale man, but a man never the less.

Had it been another omen that he himself was soon to go? A creature of death so harshly painted among summer leaves?

The next day the ravens had returned. The ferryman lifted the oars off the water and scanned the trees with his gaze. He tried to make out if any of the croaking, large birds was his friend from before. In his hand was a half-eaten plum; they were ripe now, ready to be devoured. His heart pounded with a frightened kind of excitement though he did not dare to hope, to anticipate or assume that his friend was there among them. Ravens could be found in dozens,

there was no good reason why his particular one should be there. Yet Simon did hope...just could not help but feel the hope uncurl in the pit of his stomach and bloom forth in his chest.

There were seven birds that he could see from the water. Seven big and beautiful birds. All of them sat up in the trees, among the branches, tasting the fruit with black beaks. The man looked at them, one by one, afraid that he wouldn't recognize it, even if it was there. But then the smallest of the birds suddenly took flight, rose from the tree and came flying down to him. The ferryman worried no more. Gone was the restless anger and the fear. He knew those lustrous feathers, knew the ridges on those feet. He had been in that body, felt the air yield and give in to the power of those wings. A bright smile formed on his lips and he greeted the raven warmly while the bird flew about the boat in excitement, sat down for a moment, restlessly moved a bit and circled the boat once more before finally calming down. Its claws curled around the grey wood as before.

The ferryman rowed the rest of the way to church with a new vigor and a chuckle in his throat. It was an amazing thing, this, he thought, that a friendship between man and a bird could become something like this. Not only had it survived winter's hardships but the raven had even let him have a taste of the magic of the sky. Just like some of the Sami people traveling the lands could take on a different form and travel like birds, salmon and even like the bear. His mother had once traded six silver spoons for answers, after the ferryman's father disappeared. The noaide she asked had called upon the spirits with his drum and left his body to travel like a hawk. When he came back to his body he told her that her husband was dead. They found the body washed up on a shore the next spring.

The ferryman felt humble and grateful that the bird would share this with him.


The priest became frightened when the dead arrived at church with the black bird back in the boat. His gaze darted nervously to the raven who, just as before, had left the boat and was waiting for the ferryman to finish his business in a nearby tree.

"He came back?" said the old man and wetted his lips nervously.

"That he did," said Simon.

"This does not bode well," the old man's voice was filled with his fear.

The ferryman shrugged. It was not important what the priest thought. Simon had nothing to lose in questions about salvation. The bond between him and his raven was more important.


The rest of the summer went as the one before; whenever the ferryman rowed the dead, the bird would come with him. The ferryman picked plums and ate, gave pieces to his winged companion who blinked and swallowed them whole. But the intimacy between them had increased. As was natural, when they had shared the same feathers in dreams.

One day while they were relaxing in the shade under trees, watching the crystal clear reflection

in the water, the ferryman asked his friend, "Do you think the plums will grow down there?" He tossed a large plum seed into the water so it stirred the image of a peaceful fruit grove and made the slender trunks quiver on the water.

"It looks almost like the ass of a young man." Simon's fingers closed around a fat, blue fruit hanging above them and ripped it from the tree. He slowly caressed the tiny crack in the taut, smooth skin. The beast in his abdomen uncoiled and stretched its neck as he spoke, hissed like a serpent, hungry and alive. The raven looked at the man. Blinked once, twice. The ferryman blushed while his thumb made love to the fruit in his hand. "But one shouldn't talk like that," he declared and abruptly threw the plum away so it hit the water with a loud splashing sound. Ripples formed in the lazy river and he watched them form and fade with a dreamy gaze. Feeling all ashamed and self-conscious. It wasn't just any bird sitting there, looking at him, it was his bird, bright as any! And he felt certain that the raven had known exactly what he'd been thinking about. "Shouldn't talk

like that," he repeated and reached for his oars. The raven just stared at him. His beak shone like polished jet. He opened it up and croaked hoarsely.


As lovely as summer had been, the autumn that followed it was terrible, windy and full of rain. The sky showered the world in cold water and the ferryman's job was no longer peaceful. It was hard work just to maneuver the boat with the bad visibility and the wind. Sometimes there was fog as well, veils of vapor drifting across the water. Green leaves with yellowing edges plastered to the wood of the boat and the coffins. The ravens were all gone to safer, warmer places. All but one, who found his shelter at the bottom of the ferryman's boat, pressed against the coffins. He was looking very small and sorry now, with his wet feathers plastered to his body, his chest was always puffed up and ragged. Simon was even

more amazed than before at the bird's behavior. He wondered why it was that the wild creature had taken such a liking to him that he fought the storms to be with him? The raven was still waiting to join him every time he passed by, hidden among the leaves of the plum trees, picking at the rain-washed fruits with his beak.

The weather reminded the ferryman of the dead of winter and he was in no way anticipating the cruelest of seasons. Once again, he worried what would come of his bird when ice licked the river frozen. He told the raven that. It cocked its head and made a jump, closer to the man. Once or twice the man touched him. His fingers stroked the black feathers. The bird watched him intensely, but did not seem to fear his touch, as he stood still while the callused hand petted him.

Then one day, about a year after he had first met the raven, came the storm.

The morning had been quiet, more so than usual. It was as if the sky held its breath. The ferryman could feel the stirring, the tension in the air when he walked down the slope from his house to the river with the oars resting on his shoulder. His woolen sweater was already damp from the air, though it did not rain, and the nature around him was unusually quiet. Even the birds held their peace.

The only sound as he began his trip to collect the coffin of an old man who had died from a fall, was the sound of water clashing with wood and himself working the oars. Then, later, when the coffin was placed in the bottom of the boat and the ferryman was rowing it to church, the weather suddenly hit, fast and furious like a drunken blow, careless and merciless, whipping the stream into a frenzy.

Simon Ferryman fought while his boat was forced from one side of the river to the other, dancing on sudden whims of air and water. He cursed out aloud and clenched his teeth, huddled down on his seat while straining his muscles to force the boat to go where he wanted it to. He tried to make it to shore, but the stream was as cursed, as if playing with him! Every time he was close to land, it would force him away from it, blowing him, the coffin and the boat to the other side.

He started to feel frightened. It didn't feel quite natural, how nature had suddenly turned on him. He wondered if it was the man in the coffin that was cursed, or if it was an omen his death had not been natural? Then came the rain and there was no more time for thinking, as the boat now rocked so hard and out of control Simon had to lay down his oars and use all his might just to hold on to the wood with his red, cold fingers, and pray he would not lose his grip and fall over board. He screamed out loud with fear and frustration. The boat filled with water and the rain whipped his

face with icy needles.

Soon came the plum grove, and just as the boat passed the wind-bent trees, the wooden coffin silently slid off the rocking boat and into the fury of river and rain. The ferryman acted on instinct, not reason. He threw himself after the dead. It was his job after all, to see them safe to the grave.

The river was freezing and he gasped for air; the coffin he saw no more, just the grayish water that foamed around him, soaked into his woolen clothes and made them heavy and hard to move in. The water filled his shoes as well and made him sink faster. He panicked and fought for air in the wind-whipped water, fought to stay on the surface long enough to fill his lungs before he was forced down in the cold river again. Once, he saw his boat, rocking as wildly as before, far away from him now. Drifting helpless, an empty shell...


Once, when he was not quite a child, but not an adult either, a young man was taken from one of the nearby farms. Taken, by strangers. Thieves and killers. When they found him, dead, there were rumors he had been raped. Taken by the men...

Simon had seen the thieves, before they had done their evil deeds. He had been gathering wood in the forest and quickly hid when a party of strange, dark men he did not know arrived. They were six but had but one horse. He remembered he'd thought they looked scary and wild, standing there on the brown leaves covering the forest ground. Filthy. Dressed in a mixture of linen and fur. Runaway slaves from a foreign ship, he had guessed then. They looked like that; like caged animals let loose. Yet there was something about them, especially one of them; a dark man with

long hair and just a scar for one of his eyes. His face had a lovely built despite the missing eye. Simon could see glimpses of naked skin where his clothes did not quite fit.

Later, when the young man was dead and rumors had it they had done those unspeakable things to him, Simon went mad with a jealous rage. Where he should have felt pity, his eyes filled with tears of anger. Why couldn't they have taken him instead?

He was thinking of the one-eyed man. It was a bitter thought that there had been a beautiful man, so close to him, who probably did not fear touching a boy. In his youth's folly he had thought painful death a small price to pay for he had never really heard of such things between men before, yet it answered all his questions and named all his longings. He knew from that day on, that he was born wrong. And that he was willing to die for that "wrong". Sacrifice his very life to experience

the touch of man on his body. The Devil lived and danced in his blood.

In secret, Simon hid in the forest, closed his eyes and pretended he was being taken by the one-eyed thief, bent over a rock or up against a trunk. Guilt blossomed when he remembered the dead boy, but it didn't keep him from touching himself. The passion was all too strong for that. He asked the Devil to bring the killer back. Dreamt that he would see him again one day. In the forest. Beautiful and wild as before. But the Devil never answered his prayers... Someone said the thieves had been hanged for the murder, but others said that was not true.


It was warm and sunny when he woke up. He was neither wet, nor cold. His mind felt clouded.

He was dizzy, but not sick. Above his head he saw glossy leaves and ripe fruits. The sun's golden rays filtered to the branches, and under his naked body, the grass was soft, a vivid green. The silence was complete. He turned his head in the bright light. The river was there, but stilled. It did now flow, was just water mirroring the sun, like silver. The ferryman gave a quiet sound of fear and curled up on the warm grass.

The strange man stood by the trunk of a plum tree, half-hidden behind it, shy and peculiar looking. He was naked just as the ferryman, his black gaze was unreadable and his thin lips closely pressed together. The dark hair hung over his shoulders and covered most of his chest. The fingers that clutched at the bark were long and thin with almond shaped nails.

"Am I dead now?" Simon's voice was hoarse and frightened.

"Not quite," the young man answered, his voice was quiet and soft. He let go of the safety of the trees and stepped forth. It was an awkward walk, his weight on his toes and not on his heels. He cocked his head and measured the man. "I pulled you out of the river," he said, "and I brought you here."

"Am I going to die?" The man asked. It felt as if all his strength was drained from his body, and even the lightest, smallest movement was an effort.

"I do not think so," the man shrugged and moved closer. "I know what you think, but I am not death," he said. His sincere gaze sought for the ferryman's, pleadingly. "Your priest is very wrong about me."

Simon Ferryman raised his head, trying to make sense of what he had just heard. Amazement, fear and a spark of joy mingled in his heart when he stretched out his hand toward the raven.

"My friend!" He said in a shivering voice. "To think I did not recognize you!" Tears stood in his eyes and the raven, still hesitant and shy, slowly closed the gap between them. Sat down to his knees and touched the man's hand, held it with his own. So very pale that hand, the man mused. So pale and graceful and smooth to the touch. "The priest," the ferryman smiled, "is wrong about many things..."

The raven bent forth then, and in a secretive manner he whispered to the man, "I cannot enter the graveyard!"

"But why?" Simon asked. The words sowed a new seed of fear in his heart, yet he was clutching at the fingers in his hand, as if afraid that the other male would suddenly disappear.

The raven smiled a little; it was a lovely smile, just a twist of his lips. His gaze twinkled and he used his free hand to brush the hair from one of his ears.

"I am not allowed," he whispered in that same intimate voice. "It is not for people like me." His ear was sharply pointed.

"I never knew elven people to be ravens," the ferryman shifted on the ground. His fear quickly yielded to amazement and surprise. To the magic of the frozen time that embraced him like a warm, safe presence.

"Oh, but we are not!" The raven's eyes widened. "It is just us, me and my brothers, being denied real death by a curse. We are twelve brothers in all, but some do not remember anymore, what we were…like I do.”

"I can see that you do. Remember, that is..." Simon smiled slightly. He squeezed the raven's fine hand and looked at him, awestruck and taken with his peculiar, elven beauty. Trying hard to grasp the fact that his strange friend was not really a bird, but neither a man as himself. "How did it happen?" he asked. "How did you become a bird?"

"It was a long time ago," the elf looked away, as if his own words were painful to him, the memories too much. "It was in the old land, where we lived, my brothers and I, in the mountains. It was a fair land, covered in purple

flowers and red moss. The soil was wet and the rocks streaked with silver. We liked it very much, but it was not ours. One day an old man in a blue cloak lined with wolf's fur came and told us the land was his. He was not human. Neither was he of our kind. He had magic from the dawn of time."

"A god?" the man asked him.

"You might call him that, yes," the elf smiled. "To us he was merely stronger, and older. He claimed the land and the land yielded to him, and so it was his."

"Were you sorry?"

"No, it was how it was," the elf shrugged. "We

never did ask many questions, or struggle to make things just," he stated. "We are like the birch and the stars and the rainbow, the water and the moon at night. We are, but we do not act in the worlds like you do. To us, breathing and living, just being, is rewarding... This old man, this god, he never took from us, he just told us that he was the owner of the land. "

"And what happened?" Simon shifted on the ground.

"Nothing...But years went by and soon there were humans. Some of them came to our mountain. One did, in particular, a young woman. My brother had taken a liking to this girl who drifted about alone up there, sometimes crossing over and visiting our realms through the veils that usually separates us... I think he loved her, but my brother wasn't like me. He had already then a taste for meat; he ate it from the animals' bones and yearned for it when he could not have it. He

had taken death into his body, and so, when men came and searched for the woman, he ate them. He killed them first and ate their flesh." The elf's voice was calm but the ferryman felt sick.

"But it was not you?" the man asked to be certain.

"No..." his eyes widened. "But that was not easy to tell for an untrained eye," he continued. "Since I and my brothers are so much alike..."

"Do you look the same?" To Simon, the elf was so unique, he could not imagine more just like him.

"No," the elf smiled. "But almost... Do the salmon look the same to you?" he asked almost

playfully. "They do not for the salmon. And neither do we, to each other," he explained. "But the old man came back, carrying ravens on his shoulders, and he could not tell us apart, neither could any threat make us tell who it was who had slain and eaten the men."

"Why not?" The man was surprised. "Surely you did not think it right...?"

The elf smiled again. "No," he said, "but neither did it seem important at the time. Right and wrong are words I learned from you, from men. We never used them or even thought that something like right and something like wrong existed, back then. We are, as I said, just are, but our unity and bond was strong. We knew of nothing else, but the twelve of us. Maybe we didn't quite know who was who and which was which one of us... I was my brother and he was me," the elf told the man. "And so it was that the old man punished all of us, by turning us into

birds forever cursed. He carved mighty runes in leather with his blood and thereby changed our form."

Simon Ferryman thought it was an amazing tale, a tale of old told by someone who had witnessed it all, and even played a part. He felt blessed, as a man, to have been told such a story.

"And then, after so many years, you became my friend,” he said, marveling at the fact.

"I like you," the raven-elf explained in a shy voice and looked away. Simon smiled when he heard that.

"More than a friend," he said. "A brother. Like kin."

"I held you in my body," added the elf. His black gaze flickered.

"Yes, you did, and I remember it well!" Simon assured him. "It got me through the winter. Being with you..."

"I missed your companionship," admitted the elf, "so I called for you..."

"I missed you too," his voice was very quiet. "It was a beautiful thing what you did..." His gaze held the warmth of love when he spoke to the elf. "Where are we?" he asked next. "If this is not the land of the dead?"

"Nowhere," the elf smiled again, brief and shy. "I may be trapped and cursed, but I still know the crafts." His gaze darted to the side, away from the man.

"I guess you know much about forbidden things..." Simon said, excited, not uneasy.

"To us, they are not forbidden," the elf replied solemnly. "I was going to ask you to take me with you in death. I knew you would die, you see, your priest was right about that. I cannot leave this body of beak and feathers unless a mortal would willingly take me to the other side."

The ferryman lay quiet for a bit. "You can see the future, then?" he asked, unwilling to think the raven had caused his accident.

"Yes," the raven's smile widened. "Sometimes."

"So, that is why you became my friend, and helped me escape death in the river?" It sounded bitter almost. Disappointed.

The raven seemed to shrink beside him, wrapped his free arm around his own knees.

"But I am not going to," the creature said in a very quiet voice. "I am not going to ask you..."

"Why?" the ferryman's voice sounded mad, he could not help it. He was hurt he had been used, though he knew he should be grateful he had been saved from the icy water and shown such marvels

as he had.

"I want to be with you." The dark one whispered.

Simon Ferryman looked at the elf and swallowed hard. He said nothing. Their gazes met, and then they looked away from each other, then their gazes met again, slow and insecure.

"I want you to live," the raven said at last. He was gazing at a point far away, "So I can be with you in your boat and eat plums from your hand." The elf looked at the ferryman now, something frightened and vulnerable was visible in his eyes, they looked shy and worried. "I want you to stroke my feathers and call me pretty names," his voice faded to a whisper. And then a flash of a memory entered the ferryman's mind unbidden. It was not his own memory, but the raven's. It was a scene seen from the bird's perspective, from its

place on the other side of the boat from him. He could see himself on a clear summer's day, caressing the juicy plum in his hand and pointing out its resemblance of a young man's behind.

Simon blushed. The raven still did not look at him. His head rested on his knees so all that the ferryman could see was the lustrous, dark hair, not his face. The man felt dizzy.

"It made me want to have this form again," the raven said softly. "For when I do, I look much like a human and I have a..."

"Plum?" The ferryman finished his sentence with a surprised, little smile. He was shocked and embarrassed, yet the thought of maybe being close to him, to this naked and lovely creature made him grow hard. "You wanted me to touch you like that?" he asked boldly. Prayed that he wasn't

wrong, that he had not misunderstood the other. That the raven had not misunderstood the man...

A shy glance from the elf was all the answer he got, but then, he did not need more. He let out a shivering breath and raised his free hand to stroke the raven's silky hair.

"Are you sure, my friend?" The ferryman could not quite believe it. This had been his most guarded secret and never had he thought that someone willingly would give himself to him. And to think someone so beautiful and so dear to him...

The raven's gaze had bled another shade darker when he looked down at the man again. He brushed his hair from one of his shoulders and without another word he caught Simon's free hand and guided it between his legs so he could feel his

hard member, proving his sincerity with his flesh.

"Would you have me?" he asked breathlessly.

Simon's heart pounded so hard and fast in his chest, he found it hard to speak. He sat up, too fast, his head swam and a complaining sound rose from his throat. Then he reached forth and pulled the elf into his embrace. He kissed him, hard, on the lips. He kissed him, his neck and his ears, moaned quietly with the rush and the hunger and kissed him again, pulled him closer, held him hard. His own breathing felt hot upon his skin.

"Say I am not just dreaming this," he begged. "Say it is for real..."

"It is real," another whisper, pale arms wound

around his neck and the elf's kiss was on his lips, sweet and soft. Simon's own were hard and full of need, it could not be helped. His hands drifted in under the smooth hair and caressed the slender back of the creature that had crawled onto his lap. At least he would not die without having tasted the greatest of pleasures, Simon's thoughts raced through his mind. At least he would have tasted it once, and from the loveliest of men.

Not a man at all!

"Oh!" He burst out. The elf had taken a hold of Simon's stiff member and he cried out with the sensation. Gently urged by delicate hands, he lay back down on the grass and pulled the elf back with him, kissing his eyelids, his brow and his lips again, licking his neck and biting lightly in his shoulder. The elf moaned on top of him. His slender arousal grazed the man's. They rubbed hard against each other, fueling each other's desire while they kissed.

Simon ached and cried again when the elf used his hand to press their arousals closer together and lock them in his tight grasp. The man's was thick, the elf's slender. Both were bursting with their lust, leaking moisture like ripe fruits, the juiciest, most tender meat.

"Be still," the elf begged breathlessly, "my love, you are weak!" His eyes were almost closed and his lips were red and glistening. He reached back and the ferryman felt him take a hold of his member, guiding it to his opening. With a deep sigh, the black-haired elf positioned himself above him and began pressing the hard member against the tight muscle of his rear.

"Be careful," Simon warned, worrying about him. He held the raven by his hips and felt the cool, black hair slide across his fingers.

"Good!" The elf rolled with his head, he drew a deep breath and opened his eyes, hazed with lust and pleasure.

"Move!" the man begged hoarsely and gasped. His member was caught in the sweetest, tightest agony, and if it was not seen to soon, he would must surely die!

The elf smiled down at him then as he half-lay, half-sat on top of the man, on his knees with one leg on each side of the human. Slowly, he began rocking back and forth, his hands steadying himself on the ferryman's body. The hard arousal inside of him slid in and out, while his own member brushed hard against the man's hairy belly with each stroke. The elf's pink nipples looked and felt like hard raspberries, Simon touched them and tweaked them, pulled gently in his long

hair to have him lower his head so he could kiss his mouth and touch his tongue with his own.

Simon felt as if mad with this fever! His rhythmical moaning filled the absolute silence surrounding them and mingled with the soft sighs of his lover. The elf had a sheen of sweat on his brow. The ferryman tasted it, savored it. His hands devoured the other male's body, every limb and every angle he could reach, roaming and caressing. He was fighting the fire in his loins, did not want it to end just yet, did not want to come undone.

With a cry, he took a hold of the raven's shoulders, then forcefully rolled them both over, hoping that the other would not get hurt. He set to control the pace of the coupling himself, holding the raven’s legs in place, wide open and high up in the air, resting on the ferryman's shoulders.

Simon took it all in: his own arousal slipping in and out of the pink opening, the leaking shaft of the other. The elf's fingers were there, touching himself, caressing the hard member fast and roughly. It was too much! All too much! Simon gave a deep sigh and let himself come. He cursed and cried out, thrust hard and mercilessly, while the salt of his body poured forth inside the other male.

The elf had thrown an arm over his face but the man could see his eyes, his burning gaze. The delicate hand on his slender member was suddenly coated in white.


Simon Ferryman held the raven close to his chest. Their bodies were covered in fresh sweat and

semen. One of the ferryman's hands was caressing the elf's lower back. The other arm just held him close. The elf lay on top of him again. He weighted almost nothing. His eyes were half-closed and his long fingers drifted up and down the ferryman's summer-kissed skin.

"Now it is time for you to go back." he said at last.

"No!" Simon said passionately. "I will never leave you!" The bliss still rolled through his body where the lust still lingered, but that was not why he said what he did. "For the next time we meet, you are a bird again, are you not?"

The elf did not reply.

"I know you will be," he needed no confirmation. "Why can we not stay here?"

The elf looked up at him with sad eyes."This is not a place," he said. "It is just borrowed, like the image of the plum trees in the stream, and it cannot last. Sooner or later it will be disturbed and broken."

Simon lay still for a while. He held the raven and pondered quietly.

"And if I die? And take you with me?"

"You will not die! You will live!" the elf said quietly. Insistently.

"Just because you say so." the ferryman kissed the top of his head. "But if I live now, you will live on as a raven, is it not so? Fly for eternity, unless you find another willing mortal to take you there?" His voice grew thick with jealousy.

"That is true," the elf said calmly, "but I would want you to be alive," he said quickly. "I do not know what is behind death's gates either. But we do know we will be together, if you are alive." He raised his head from Simon's chest and smiled down at him. His gaze appeared so serene and pure.

"It is not enough!" Simon man clutched at him passionately, filled his palms with thick, soft hair. "I would die with you," he declared. "I most certainly would without you," he said with a sad, desperate laugh, knowing he was already living on borrowed time. "There is nothing in my life more precious than you are," he said. "Nothing I

will miss more than you... having held you now... your raven form will just not be enough. I have served Death much of my life," he continued. "Maybe it is time that I met him?"

The raven looked at the man. His gaze was dark and void of emotion. "Would you really do that?" he asked in a voice that quivered slightly. "Would you take me with you in death and free me from the bird?"

"Yes," he did not hesitate, "I will."


They fell through the water. The raven carried them both with strong wings. He broke the illusions with his gaze, as they fell through the

mirror of the trees, through the leaves and the water, through the storm and the sun while life itself shattered like ice around them. Deep down below, they could see the fruit grove, plum trees full of ripe fruits and green leaves, slender branches mirrored in the water. Soon they would break the surface and be free.

singing up the moon by angel

It was Cooper-Young, so of course, anything went, and nothing was unusual. The little gift store hadn’t made it, so now they were washing the old sign off the front window to the drifting smells of food from the half-dozen restaurants on the block. Jars of herbs and roots, strings of myrrh, incense sticks and cones had replaced the fair-trade trinkets and local artisans’ works and all stood ready for their opening in the morning. “You really think this is a good idea, lover?” The words were half-growled from behind the Commercial Appeal. “Of course it is. A little alchemist’s shop in the

arts district. How quaint, how suitable. And run by such a nice pair of older gentlemen.” The tall blond man wiped down the window again, watching the foot traffic which was substantial even this late in the evening. The al fresco diners at Tsunami across the way were caught up in their conversations. “Don’t flutter. It’s not safe. Not even here.” “Corin Faw, you’re a grumpy bitch today.” A few softly mumbled words and the paintbrush had painted ‘Faw and O’Brian Potions, Spells and Readings’ on the window. “What’s got your tail in a kink?” “You, for being a big queen, and the opening day jitters. This is the South, dammit. The kind of place they drag people like us behind their pick-ups as queers, if they aren’t just burning us for witches first.” Corin lowered the paper and scowled. His grizzled hair fell into his bushy eyebrows that met above his nose. He sniffed.

“You’re scared, too. That’s why you’ve gone all fey.” “Do stop that, lover. It’s completely unfair to use that were nose on me.” He closed the paint and set it behind the counter. “Says Cian of the Second Sight.” Corin rose and folded his paper. He turned out his reading lamp and let darkness descend on the shop. After his eyes adjusted, far better than his lover’s, he took Cian’s hand and led him upstairs. “I’m a cranky old wolf who would rather have earth under my feet than live in a shop on a city street.” He kissed Cian gently. “And that, my love, is what our country house is for. I hear there is a pack in the area. Are you interested?” “Right now, all your grumpy bitch wants is his dinner and a mating. I wish I could be here for the

opening. I leave for the cottage tomorrow.” “PreLunar Syndrome again,” Cian rolled his eyes. “I fear it’s Michelina’s again tonight. We still haven’t shopped.” “I’ll do it tomorrow before I go. There’s a grocery about five blocks up Cooper.”

They heated the frozen dinners and ate in silence. The September heat rippled on the pavement, making the air conditioner run, and the sun went down very slowly. “Grand opening on Saturday,” Cian sighed. “I’m just not sure having it during the Cooper-Young Festival is the best idea.” “Biggest crowd you’ll see all year, bar Pride in June. That’s what the folks say.”

“Could we take a walk? I’ve been so absorbed in getting settled, I haven’t done any exploring.” Cian reached over and touched Corin ’s shaggy hair. “Unlike my restless lover.” Corin shrugged. He washed their forks and carried the trash out. Cian waited by the door. The end of the daylight turned him ethereal and Corin remembered how he’d looked so many years before, trooping on the fairy-ride down the side of Sugarloaf Mountain. The Fair Folk’s pipes had drawn all the youths of the gypsy band from their wagons, and Corin had seen Cian among the Unseelie Court. There were plenty of tales of how to claim a sidhe for one’s own, but Corin only half-believed them. Before that night, he had only half-believed in the Fair Folk. The beautiful man had smiled at him, and he had followed, ensorcelled by the May night, the pipes, the voices like birds, like bells, like rain. His own sturdy pony had caught the

mood and he had ridden beside the dapple grey whose hooves did not touch the grass. The blond beauty astride the horse kept smiling at him. They had lain together, under the waning moon near a fairy fort in Killarney. Corin had known the girls weren’t for him from a young age, but Cian had amazed him, drawing his seed from him time and again, as they grew wet with dew and moonbeams. As dawn turned the east grey, Cian had risen to go, beckoning Corin to follow. No fool, and knowing what lay under the Hill, Corin had seized him and held him pinned. Cian had cried and begged piteously to be allowed to take his leave of his mother. Corin--thinking of his own mother weeping over her boy, vanished under the Hill, refused. He held tight. Cian had changed in his hands and he had a maid, fair as a rose on the first of June. He held her, her body curving in all the wrong places.

The maid turned into a fish, flopping and smelly, walloping him in the face, the scales cutting his hands. He bundled the fish in his discarded shirt and held on. The fish became a shaggy wolf. Corin had grinned and shifted himself at this. In wolf-shape, he held his mate pinned to the ground, biting at his ruff, tempted to mate with him to establish dominance. The Cian-wolf was gone and a snake slithered beneath Corin’s furry belly. He shifted quickly and held tightly, grasping the serpent which grew by the moment, its fangs dripping poison that made his arms swell and blacken. It bit him, and he watched the venom race up his arm, but clutched Cian. The snake became a brand of fire. His fingers seared, melding to the wood. Corin screamed, but did not let go. As the first rays of sun struck them, Cian was himself again, and Corin was whole. Cian faded. Corin held him and shouted at the girl on the highroad. She carried a yoke with milkbuckets on it. She saw the gypsy youth

holding another and went to him. “A ladle of the milk, lass, throw it on him,” Corin shouted. She did without thinking, and Cian solidified, lying naked in Corin’s arms. After making sure he was real and himself, Corin stood. He dug five florins, their salmons bright in the morning, out of the pouch in his far-flung clothing and handed them to the girl. “My thanks for your help. Take the payment for your milk. I’ll be getting my sweet home now.” Corin began parceling his clothing between them. She shouldered her yoke and smiled, knowing it would be a tale for the grandchildren, but no one would believe her now. “I’ll be off. A good morning to ye.”

The pony was gone, and Corin found himself nicking trousers from a house’s clothes line for decency’s sake. They’d found the gypsy band near Cork, but Cian had never fit in. Eventually, the tribal leaders decided a werewolf and a sidhe were too dangerous to travel with and cast them out. They’d taken passage to America almost immediately, planning to lose themselves in the enormous country. Later, deciding they would never see home again, they took citizenship. But Corin’s gypsy blood and Cian’s wanderlust had made it hard to settle down. They’d roamed and roved, aging gradually, until here they were, in Memphis. One of the last places Corin ever wanted to live. He’d argued for Canada or at least Vermont, civilized lands as opposed to the South, which he saw as a vast cultural wasteland of homophobes. He hoped, for their safety, he was wrong. He looked again at Cian in the twilight. Too many years of caution restrained him from taking his

lover’s hand. They were old. Let the brave children, like the two girls he had seen kiss before the cafe, demand their acceptance and be bold and open. With age came awareness of mortality and fragility. They walked, side by side, north. Cian turned his nose up at Celtic Crossing and the penny-whistle that floated out the open door of the faux-Irish pub. They passed Black Lodge Video and the houses. At the railway bridge, they crossed Cooper and headed back south, passed the drum shop, the David Mah gallery and the yarn store. The Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center had a rainbow banner out for the Cooper-Young Festival, a change from the usual subtle yard sign. Cian tipped his head and Corin shrugged. The cheery person at the desk greeted them and had them initial in before offering a tour. A small place, but warm and welcoming. The crowd

watching Ginger Snaps in the TV room waved in vague acknowledgment. “Thursdays are always movie night,” the guide explained. “Have a schedule.” “Thank you.” Cian gave a small bow and they left. He looked it over as they walked. “Blue Suede Bears? You certainly qualify, lover.” Corin snarled at him. They passed Jasmine, Tsunami, Dish and the Blue Fish. At The House of Mews, they paused. Even though Corin kept well back, the cats caught his scent. He had to go sit in the gazebo on the corner while Cian soothed the animals. A tiny calico bristled, her tail a bottle-brush as she bounced, puffed and spat. Cian calmed the panicky cats and Corin stayed well out of scent range. They turned the corner onto Young and peered into the galleries. The Java Cabana filled the

evening with the scent of coffee and the sounds of slack-key folk-rock. Cian gestured south. “Let’s see that labyrinth at First Congo that I read about.” Corin shrugged. “Neither of us took to the New Faith.” Cian smiled. “A labyrinth is much more my people’s tradition than theirs. It’s a meditation, of sorts.” The painted lines on the asphalt were having no effect on Corin. He leaned against the church and watched, smelling the neighborhood and the people. The end of the sunlight gleamed on Cian’s hair as he walked the lines that curved upon themselves. Corin was content to watch his lover’ s unearthly grace, his slow glide through to the center of the labyrinth and back out.

*** The sun had set, and there were no cars coming. Cian stole a kiss, pressing Corin between the wall of the church and the stairwell. “Home now, lover. You’ll get your mating.” Corin growled, feeling the pull of the nearly-full moon. “Home, elf. Now.” The last trailed into a near-howl. He looked embarrassed at losing control. Cian kissed him again and took his hand. “If we cannot walk freely in our own neighborhood, we may as well be caged.” Corin looked over his shoulder for the three blocks home. “Jumpy again, love?”

Corin sniffed. “There’s another wolf in the neighborhood. Male. Only one. He’s not home, but I can smell his den. We’ll make his acquaintance after the full. “ Once up the back stairs of the shop, he relaxed a little, and resisted the urge to piss on the corner of the stair-rail. Inside, he drew Cian close and kissed him. His lips demanded, his teeth scraped, his tongue invaded. Cian was caught, trapped by the feral lover that bore him backward toward the small, creaky bed they shared. He barely managed to slip out of his shirt before Corin’s hands were on him, rough and uncaring. After many decades, and many shredded articles of clothing, he knew what to expect. Cian seized the lubricant from the bedside table as Corin bore down on him, kissing him until the bed-springs groaned more loudly than he did. “Noisy bitch,” Corin growled. He tore his jeans open, resisting as Cian tried to slow him enough

to get him lubricated. His ordinarily-bushy eyebrows had swallowed his forehead. His neat small beard had spread over his jawline, and up onto his cheeks. His normally hairy chest resembled a pelt. His eyes blazed yellow. “Corin, acushla,” Cian soothed, his slender hands fast with the lubricant and his own khakis. “A 'fbn, my own sweet wolf.” He loved Corin in this mood. He loved all of Corin’s moods, but the primal desires of the alpha wolf who claimed and mounted as his due, with none of the sweet give-and-take of lovemaking, with no hesitation, aroused him until he could no longer think. Corin cuffed him, batting at his shoulders until he rolled over. Once ready, Cian obliged and gave himself over the wolf. Corin slammed in, as if heedless of all save the pull of the moon in his blood, the warmth of his mate beneath him, the urgent need in his balls. Cian whimpered softly and Corin humped

at his mate, wanting to be deeper inside. He wrapped his arms around Cian’s body and bit at the back of his neck, the tight heat sending him close to the edge. Cian pressed back into the thrusts, feeling the fur of Corin’s belly against his ass, his back. He whimpered again when Corin’s teeth closed on his neck. He knew lycanthropy wasn’t contagious, but he shuddered anyway. He kept a steady, soothing stream of Gaelic endearments flowing, broken only by the small yelp when Corin slammed hard into him with a soft howl of orgasm. Claws scraped at his sides, but he ignored them as they melted back into human nails. Corin pushed away as if he was ashamed of himself. The excess hair melted away, his hands were normal again. It had been almost a year since he’d lost control of the beast like that. He lay down beside Cian and drew him in. “Oh, my lover. I’m a sorry man, I am.”

Cian kissed him sweetly. “For what, Wolf?” He pressed close to Corin’s stockier body. “All I ask is a bit of relief of my own. I love you so. Even and especially like that.” Corin touched the area of the scratches. “I hurt you again.” “Small enough to pay for such loving.” Cian always reassured him and Corin never believed him. He kissed his beloved wolf again. “Please, darling Corin, my need is great upon me.” “And I’m a selfish old wolf.” Without another word, Corin took Cian in his mouth, his tongue too long just from the deep musk scent of his mate. He sucked Cian deep, and flickered his tongue over Cian’s balls, smooth and hairless and typical of the Sidhe. He extended the tongue and laved Cian’s perineum and touched it to Cian’s abused opening.

“Ah, Darling.” Cian could never handle being rimmed. At the second stroke, he came. Corin withdrew, swallowing with a smile. “Yer a pushover, O’Brian. Two licks of your sweet arse and you shoot like a Dublin fountain.” Cian pulled him in, laughing. “Only for you, my gypsy love.” He sang softly in the Old Tongue, and Corin was asleep in his arms in moments. *** The e-mails, chats and phone calls had flown fast and furious since Christmas. Furball couldn’t come for spring break. Both were busy for Memphis in May. BB was in the middle of a huge project with a final deadline over Memorial Day and Pride. Furball was teaching the second summer session, and in class or grading all of July.

Finally, they’d said ‘Screw it’ and agreed to Cooper-Young Festival at the end of September. It was just their luck it fell on the full moon. “And, BB, if you don’t make this, it’s your tail this time,” Furball threatened. Paul growled playfully. “Going alpha on me, Danny boy?” “No. But nine months is too fucking long. Especially when there isn’t any fucking.” Paul laughed. He loved it when Dan dropped his ‘ meek and mild college lit professor’ routine. “Got my tickets already, Furball. I’ll be there. And I can’t wait to see the farm. You know, it’s going to be the first full moon I’ve been outdoors since I was 14?” “Deprived. Love you, Handsome. See you Thursday.”

“See ya, Babe.” Paul turned back to his packing. He wasn’t sure why he was bothering. He zipped the jumbo bottle of lube from Christmas into a plastic bag and threw it into his luggage. He’d spend nights in wolf-shape, and he didn’t plan to let his sweet boy out of bed by day. He guessed he had to make a good impression on the folks at some point. He had promised a trip to the Festival. He threw in his rainbow tie-dyed shirt, figuring that was about as gay as Memphis could stand. To say meeting the family hadn’t gone well was an understatement. Dan had met him at the airport, pausing only to steal a kiss in the parking lot. It was the last sweet kiss he got for the day. The large family farm was an hour north of Memphis and the traffic made him stare at his Furball trying to drive in it. “Is it always like this?”

“Oh, this is light, sweetie. You should see the nutcases during rush hour,” Dan said, narrowly avoiding being sideswiped as a Buick zipped down the shoulder and pulled in right in front of him. Paul was sure he’d left claw marks in the armrest of Dan’s little Honda. He’d known the car for his lover’s the moment he’s saw it: small, battered, held together with duct-tape and liberal bumper stickers. The clincher was the one that read ‘Please forgive me. I was raised by wolves.’ The trim white house sat well back from the road, the fence at the perimeter just a little stronger than the livestock would indicate. Paul looked uneasily at the horses grazing and the cows placidly chewing cud. “Oh no,” Dan moaned as they crunched up the tree-lined gravel drive. “What, babe? We forget something?” He really didn’t want to face the traffic again.

“No, look at the darn cows.” “They’re lying down under the trees. So what?” “Stupid weather man. He said the rain was going north. We’re going to get wet tonight, lover, and maybe tomorrow, too. Wet wolves are miserable wolves. Trust me on that one.” “I wouldn’t know.” “No, of course not. Not with your big warm basement and fluffy doggy bed.” He parked in the circle drive. “And your water bowl.” The last was practically snarled, and his nose was elongating. Paul seized his curly hair, getting tangled quickly. “Big words from the little bitch who dared mark territory in my basement.” He kissed

his lover fiercely, almost biting. His own teeth felt too large, his tongue felt too long. He licked Dan’ s face. “My mate. My beta wolf.” He nipped at Dan’s throat. A tap on the window startled him. A beautiful girl with the same big dark eyes as Dan was standing outside, knocking. If he’d been straight, he’d have melted right there. “Ravish my brother later. Mama says you have to come in now and say hello.” Her voice carried only the faintest of southern accents. The whole family had turned out to meet him. Paul overheard one cousin refer to him as ‘Danior’s mate.’ That left him feeling good but shaky at the same time. He was almost forty and settling down after a lifetime of being a lone wolf was daunting. Grandfather headed the table, gold teeth gleaming as he smiled at his favorite grandson.

Grandmother was long dead, so it fell to Dan’s mother, sisters and various aunts, nieces and cousins to get dinner around. Dan’s father sat across from a unibrowed man that Paul guessed was Uncle Zoltan. His mountainously pregnant wife was exempt from the bustle. “Six months,” Zoltan smiled. Paul could smell the man’s pride as he stroked the woman’s belly. “We ’re hoping for Christmas twins, right, Rita?” Aunt Rita smiled. “Someone has to carry on the pack.” Dan actually snarled at his aunt, the sudden change in demeanor startling. “So sorry we’re not all breeder-bitches.” “Danior!” Mama rapped him with a serving spoon as she passed. “Apologize at once.”

“Mama, I’m not twelve and she is way the hell out of line.” Dan’s southern got more pronounced as he got angrier until “line” sounded like “laaahhhn” to Paul’s northern ears. “Danior Camomescro!” Mama rapped him again. Paul reached over and took his hand. “Dan. We are what we are.” He looked at Rita and Zoltan. “And if you have a problem with it, take it up with me and don’t snipe like gutter-trash.” The promised storm broke as if on cue, punctuating Paul’s statement. Grandfather laughed. “The boy has timing. Paul, when you say that, you are my grandson as well.” The rest of the family stared a bit. Paul’s stomach flip-flopped. “Listen, all of you. Our Danior has chosen his mate. And

not a one will say another word because he has not taken a female.” The little man rose to his feet and leaned on the table. Too many teeth were in his mouth and the scent of wolf was heavy in the room. Even Paul felt the urge to roll over and show belly at the display of dominance. “Are we understood?” There was a general murmur of assent and Dan’s father looked quite unhappy. The conversation among the younger siblings and cousins continued, but the older generation cast dark looks at Dan and Grandfather. The excellent food was mostly wasted, and after dinner no one wanted any dessert. Evening was coming on and the weres withdrew from the rest of the family. “We do not change until tomorrow,” Grandfather said, “but we are poor company for humans, and sometimes even ourselves until this is past.” Dan leaned against Paul as they sat on the couch. “We all get bitchy. Mama and Aunt Rita

don’t like the bunch of us snarling at each other and the rest of the family.” He accepted a small glass of brandy. Paul waved one off. “So, we gather in here and plan the wolf time.” It was about what Paul expected: boring as hell. He listened to the men talk about fence strength, whose turn it was to bring in the cows and horses and who had scratched the hole in the dog-door of the change-hut. He was very glad when he and Dan were finally allowed to make their escape to Dan’s bedroom. Dan’s room at the farm was still a child’s room: cowboy curtains, double bed, a framed autographed picture of Clayton Moore holding place of pride on the wall. Paul had no doubt there would be a child’s cowboy hat and toy six-shooters on a closet shelf. “Yippie-kai-yay, git a long little doggie,” he snarked, swatting Dan lightly. Dan snarled as he

shut and locked the door. “And what would I find in the room at your grandmother’s? Rocket ships? Tinkertoys and Legos?” He grabbed Paul and kissed him hard, as if he was trying to avoid the fight they could both feel beginning. Paul slammed him up against the wall, devouring him, his hands holding Dan’s face steady as he shoved against his lover. “Erector set,” he whispered. He licked Dan’s neck and let him feel how hard he was. “Ah, Furball. Need to fuck you now, or I’m going to go crazy.” “Makes two of us.” Dan yanked at Paul’s shirt and didn’t flinch when he heard it tear. He scrabbled at the jeans. “No cock in my mouth for nine months, babe. I’m starving.” Together, they got Paul’s jeans down around his thighs, and Dan dropped almost instantly to suck

him. He moaned around Paul’s cock as if it was the best thing he’d tasted all evening, as if it was melting chocolate or fine wine. Paul thrust, knowing he shouldn’t but unable to help himself. Dan’s hand went around his shaft to keep from choking. His tongue was busy, and Paul came very quickly. Dan smiled up, licking his lips. “Now that was dessert.” Paul grabbed his shirt and hauled him to his feet, kissing him again. “An appetizer, pup.” He backed toward the bed, pulling Dan with him, working at his lover’s clothing. Dan just laughed and stripped quickly as Paul removed his own. He turned, coyly, his arms covering his chest. Paul pulled them down and gawked at the small gold ring with a captive ivory bead of the Man in the Moon.

“Way to go, Furball. When’d you do that?” “Couple months ago. You like?” “Hell yeah. Why didn’t you tell me?” He reached out to toy with the ring. Dan pounced, playful and hard. “It’s called a surprise.” He licked Paul’s neck. “So, I took care of you. Whatcha gonna do for me, BB?” Paul’s hand was hot and hairy as he wrapped it around Dan’s cock. “Gonna let you fuck me,” he said softly, keeping time with his strokes. “Let you slam that pretty cock right up my ass. It’s lonely for you. Gonna suck you off, lick all over you.” He punctuated this by licking Dan’s face. “Suck your cock, eat your ass. Gonna lick your balls for you since you can’t reach them tonight.”

Dan moaned under the words, wanting all of it. Months of cyber-sex, phone-sex and masturbation had perfected their patter, but left him missing the real thing more and more. He gasped when Paul made good on the words, licking his way down his chest, playing in his navel and then sucking him in for a long moment. Dan closed his eyes, seeing stars. He whined when Paul moved off. The whining only got louder when Paul pulled his cock up out of the way and licked at his balls with long swipes of his tongue across the darkly-furred sac. When he took them into his mouth, careful, wet and sensual, Dan’s whines turned to something more feral in his throat. Paul let go and licked over the whole of Dan’s sac before taking a long stroke up the shaft of his cock to suck it again. Dan came with a small whimper. “Paul. Lover.” He moved up to kiss Dan gently. “My Danny

boy.” He cuddled him close, stroking the wild black curls he’d missed. “We’ll go another round soon.” Dan nipped at his collarbone. “How soon? Because if I don’t get fucked I’m going to do something desperate.” Paul chuckled. “How desperate are you, pup?” Dan worried his earlobe with his tongue. “Desperate enough to quote poetry at you until you beg to fuck me and shut me up.” “Very damn desperate. Found myself getting horny having sex fantasies about a T-square last week, babe.” They lay quietly, listening to the storm rage

around the house. The thunderclaps were getting farther apart. “Maybe we’ll have nice weather for the festival this weekend. Nice weather for running too,” Dan sighed. Paul kissed him. “I’m ready if you are, lover.” He ’d recovered enough to get hard, the sweet boy in his arms aiding that process to no end. Dan stroked him a little and then rolled away to open the bedside table. The bottle of Astroglide and condoms kept company with a few little beige plastic cowboys and Indians, and a copy of Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with the Circus . Paul just smiled. “Grandfather never throws anything away,” Dan said, snagging the supplies. He ripped open the package and rolled the condom over Paul, before slicking him with a practiced motion. Too

practiced, to Paul’s eyes. “Been fucking every handsome were that crosses your path, pup? Been lifting that tail for everyone?” Paul snarled the accusations and pinned Dan to the bed to loom over him, the next kiss punishing. “Been jacking a lot on weekends out here. Can’t mess the sheets,” Dan gasped. “Mine,” Paul snapped. He flipped Dan onto his stomach. “Yours, BB.” He didn’t add “Mark your territory.” He didn’t need to. Paul was already inside him, thrusting and biting at his shoulders. “Oh, yeah. Need this so bad.” Paul was only urgent to claim his lover again. He knew no one else had had Dan. He could smell

it. But he wanted to make sure. He had to mark his love. His. The wolf’s territorial instinct was all over him, drowning rational thought. He found presence of mind enough to stroke Dan as he thrust at him. Finally he came, shoving in deep with a shudder. “Mine,” he gasped. “Yours,” Dan agreed, finally coming himself, all worries about the sheets clearly gone from his mind.

*** Friday was even more tense. Four adult male werewolves in the same house were three too many. Paul could smell the sickness in Grandfather, the cancer that was killing him. Uncle Zoltan’s restlessness, his ambition, stank and Paul knew the others could smell it. But no one would say anything. Paul had a very bad feeling about the weekend. He suspected his presence might be the last factor needed to tip this

unstable dynamic into open war. After breakfast, he went up to Furball’s room, staying out of the way. He couldn’t be in the same place with so much anger and so many feral killing urges. He found a Lone Ranger Big Little Book on the shelf and spread out, staring at it more than reading, until Dan could find him after teaching his last early morning class. When his mate’s soft weight dropped on the mattress beside him, he rolled onto his back. “Babe, I’m not staying. I can catch a flight back tonight and be back in my basement before change.” Paul’s face was tight, regret bleeding through every word. Dan was quiet for a long time, curled into his side. Finally, he asked, “You don’t love me?” “I didn’t say that, pup. I do love you.” It was the first time he’d said it, and he was amazed how

natural it felt in his mouth. “I just don’t want your Uncle Zoltan to tear my throat out tomorrow night.” “He won’t,” Dan reassured him. “I won’t let him. Grandfather won’t let him.” “Don’t want Grandfather getting his torn out over me.” Paul rolled onto his stomach and looked down at his lover. “Look, Dan, come home with me. You know Uncle Zoltan’s going to take over and you’re not gonna be real welcome in the pack. I make money. I’m debt free. Even if you can’t find another teaching job, you can write those books you keep dreaming about.” Dan kissed him. “We’ll see. Stay the weekend.” He added softly, “You’re right. When Grandfather goes, the whole family--not just the pack--will want me gone. I criticized your folks for not loving you because you were a wolf, when I knew mine were no better.” He lay in Paul’s

arms. “Sometimes, it takes an outsider to point out the flaws.” Paul kissed his curls. “I’m sorry, pup. Sometimes, I’m more trouble than I’m worth.” “Never, lover.” Dan tipped his face up and let Paul kiss him, moaning and working his hand down his lover’s jeans. “Can’t believe you’re hot for me, even like this.” Dan laughed. “Always hot for you, my Big Bad Wolf.” He sat up, dragging Paul with him. “Let’s go to my place. We can come back before change tomorrow. It’s not much, but no tension either.” Paul kissed him. “Knew I made a smart move seeing a professor.” He fastened his shirt and grabbed his overnight bag.

They made their goodbyes to Grandfather and Dan’s folks. Dan navigated his little Honda through the crazy traffic with highways that went nowhere and endless loops. “Good lord, people, it’s 10 a.m. on a Friday. Why aren’t you at work?” Paul asked of the traffic. Dan had a dingy apartment on the other side of where Cooper ran into Southern Avenue. He set the Club, locked his car and gave a sheepish grin. “In this neighborhood, they’d just get five of them and carry the whole thing away.” Paul looked around the area. It depressed him. A little stop-and-rob on the corner, a faded daycare behind a cyclone fence. “Why do you have train tracks in the parking lot?” “They have to park the trains somewhere,” Furball said with a shrug. He opened the door of

the second floor efficiency. The first thing Paul saw was the bike hanging from the ceiling. “I only drive to the farm or the ‘burbs,” Dan shrugged. “Everything else is less than five miles.” “Return with me now to the thrilling days of yesteryear: grad school!” Paul shut the door and swept Dan into a proper kiss. “I love it. Let’s be kids for the evening.” Dan waggled his eyebrow. “Pizza, bad movies and Nintendo?” He kissed Paul. “And by Nintendo, I mean sex because I don’t own a game system.” Paul cracked up and sat hard on the wood-framed futon. “Come on, then. I’m up for a game of Pac-man, pup.” Dan’s grin was goofy. “Gobble, gobble, gobble” he said, sounding eerily like the sound-effects of the game.

“Oh hush.” Paul undid his jeans and pulled him down into his lap. “Just get on the joystick.”

*** Dan lapped eagerly at his lover’s cock, then swallowed it down. It felt good to be away from the family, away from the tension. Just him and his alpha wolf, on his territory, mating. He loved Paul’s taste, the smooth skin, the nicely cut cock. He teased, drawing a little way off and only sucking half until Paul moaned. Then he took it all, working tongue and suction, encouraging his lover to come. “Change for me, pup,” Paul whispered. Paul’s groan turned to a yelp as Dan did, into the sexy half-shift Paul loved and had been trying to master himself. The clever canine tongue in the human mouth drove Paul right over the edge with

something almost like a howl. Dan looked up at him, smiling, and licked his lips then the bridge of his nose before changing back and coming up to kiss Paul. “We’re going for lunch, then I’m going to screw you through the futon, BB,” Dan promised. Paul grinned. “Oh yeah. The weekend won’t be a total loss.” Dan punched him in the shoulder. ”I would hope not. Let’s go.” *** Cian Saw the wolves before he saw the young men. The loup-garou stalked each man’s aura, the shape of a wolf--especially now on the full moon--drowning out their usual human auras. They stood close on the sidewalk, and Cian

saw the taller one brush his fingers over the back of the little dark one’s hand, a gesture that said, even here in the gayest part of the city, they still had to be discreet. They ducked into the shop, laughing. The laughter stopped abruptly, with a small yelp from the little one finishing it. Both of them sniffed audibly and the little one sneezed. The big one practically bristled, snarling. “May I help you?” Cian flipped the sign to “Closed” and locked the door. He hung the ‘Out to lunch, back in 20’ sign. “Paul,” said the big man. He gestured at his lover. “Dan. Where’s the other were? And who are you?” Cian puttered. “Rude!” he snapped. “You have no manners, Wolf.” After he finished pulling the front shade he said, “I am Cian O’Brian. My

mate, Corin Faw, and I run the shop.” Dan smiled sweetly. It looked as if it surprised Paul He knew it was a territory thing. “Mr. O’ Brian, sir, your scent is unusual for a human. That was why my Paul asked.” Cian shook his head. He knew when he was being soothed and charmed. Dan did it well. “I am one of Danu’s People,“ he said, more gently. “Are there many wolves in the city?” “Just the family. Grandfather, Uncle Zoltan, me.” Dan tucked a hand into Paul’s arm. “My great rude lover is just visiting.” Cian smiled a little at the look of mock-consternation on Paul’s face. “Corin is at the cottage. The city is unsafe for him during this time.”

Paul nodded. “We’ll be out at the farm before sunset ourselves.” He rummaged in his billfold and took out a business card. “Furball, what’s the farm number again?” He scrawled the numbers as Dan gave them, then circled a number on the front as well. “My cell.” Dan looked over the shop. “I’m sorry your mate missed the opening. If he would like to come meet my family, we would welcome him, and you, for lunch tomorrow.” Cian took the card. “Thank you, boys. Do come again.” He raised the shades and flipped the signs. When he unlocked the door, Paul and Dan slipped back into the Cooper-Young Festival crowd. Nice pups, but naive, he decided. Corin had been a lone wolf too long to deal in a pack.


Paul stayed close to Dan. The last thing he wanted was to get separated in this mob of people. The Memphis Area Gay Youth booth was cheerful and most of the kids looked happy and well-loved. Paul found it a pleasant surprise for this area. They were selling bowls made of old vinyl records. Furball found one by Starship. He held it up for Paul’s approval. “NotKnee-deep in the Hoopla !” he moaned. “Oh man, how could they? I had that one.” Furball grinned. “I thoughtWe Built This City would be appropriate for my handsome architect.” “I danced to it in high school and you think it’s a Golden Oldie.”

The willowy blonde girl behind the counter laughed. They watched her Adam’s apple bob, thinking between that and her height she might be transgender, but a quick glance at the curves that tented her ‘Kermit isn’t the only one with a Rainbow Connection’ t-shirt only confused them. “My mom likes it too.” She leaned over to them both as if telling a secret. “So do I.” “Good taste.” Dan bought the bowl. “The money all goes to help you kids?” She nodded as she wrapped the bowl. Her long, graceful hands were tipped with natural dragon-lady nails painted in silver glitter. “It’s our main fundraiser. Buys us cookies and fruit punch for the rest of the year.” Dan grinned as Paul snickered at her deliberate pun. “A worthy cause.” He slipped an extra five into the general collection jar.

“Mom and Dad think so.” She nodded at the middle-aged couple at a booth across the way with several more blond children in tow. “Thanks.” They walked on, checking out the other work by local artisans. Metal sculpture, concrete faces to be nailed to trees, making them look like ents, a variety of handmade clothing, jewelry and purses. The September sun beat down and Paul could feel his neck starting to burn. They worked their way north to Central and stopped into the little Stop-n-Rob for a Coke before beginning the trek back south. The crowds were growing steadily thicker, and Cooper was sidewalk-to-sidewalk people. Paul caught Dan’s fingers as they pressed through the crowd, heedless of the danger. Dan shook free almost at once. Once back in Dan’s apartment, Paul scowled at him. Dan returned it.

“This isn’t Wisconsin, lover. They kill us down here and the cops applaud. Don’t touch me in public again.” He moved in closer. “I love you, babe, and I don’t want to die any more than you do.” “Don’t order me around again,” Paul growled, biting at his neck. He was in a really foul mood, between the crowd and the other were’s shop. “Don’t do stupid shit and I won’t have to!” Dan’s beard crept over his face with startling speed, his eyebrows growing bushier. He snarled. Paul snarled back, his own hands hairy and large. They circled. Dan snarled again at the smell of intruder on his territory. Paul growled low, off his territory, but an alpha wolf all the same. He launched himself at Dan, tumbling them both onto the futon.

Dan scratched at him, his own nails grown thick and claw-like. They didn’t connect. The men rolled over and onto the floor, Paul getting the top by dint of size. He snarled down at Furball, his face feral. Then, he kissed his mate. He flipped Dan over, pressing the ridge in his jeans against Dan’s denim-clad butt. “Pound you through the floor, pup,” he growled. “Yes!” Dan swiped back and laid open his shirt with claws. Paul tore his jeans open, and shredded Dan’s with nails grown into claws. The lubricant was in easy reach or he’d have made do with spit. He was inside in seconds, low growls instead of love words. Dan beneath him was hairier than normal himself, and rose to meet every thrust. This time, Paul actually howled when he came. A

thumping on the floor from the downstairs neighbors made him grin sheepishly. Dan laughed, having already come. “Time to go, lover. You feel better?” Paul nodded and dug for fresh jeans while Dan went to change for the trip to the farm. ***

From the sound of it, Paul had expected the change hut to be a rickety hunting shack in the woods. It was a small, neat building comprised of a single room with a large eastern window. It had a dog door in the main door. There were shelves on the wall, in easy reach of a man but too high for a wolf. Grandfather laughed and set his shoes on them, then ruffled Dan’s

curls. “Our Danior, he was a shoe chewer. I thought he’ d never grow out of it. So we added the shelves.” Dan looked mortified and pleased. If they were down to embarrassing adolescent stories, Paul was part of the family, at least as far as Grandfather was concerned. Zoltan ignored all this and filled a small, low horse tank. Dan got a couple blankets off the shelf and dropped them near a similar pile. “Not quite as domesticated as you, BB.” He drew Paul to stand at the window. “Not bad. You have a good view.” He watched the sky change color as the sun set.

Dan kissed him and started stripping out of his clothes. Less easy with the other males in the room, Paul did the same, only slower. He folded them next to Dan’s on the shelf and went to sit with Dan on the pile of blankets. Paul could smell the Dan-wolf all over the one pile of blankets. He tried stay on his own. Thinking the older men were absorbed in the sunset, Paul stole a last kiss. From the corner of his eye, he saw Grandfather smile. Then the world went black and white. In his human mind, Paul knew he hadn’t eaten enough to make the wolf sleep. As a wolf, he didn ’t care. His mate was nearby. He could smell water and the den of his mate’s pack. He pounced his mate, biting playfully at Dan’s ruff. Dan-mate whined and rolled over. He licked his mate.

A sharp bark from Grandfather-leader drew their attention. Grandfather-leader bounded out the door. Zoltan followed, lean and black, a hungry look in his yellow eyes. The next bark segued into a howl as Grandfather-leader greeted the Moon-Mother. Zoltan joined it. Paul hesitated but Dan-mate made up their minds by bouncing out the door to sing. Paul couldn’t bear to be inside another minute. He nudged the dog door, scratching and whining. Finally, he butted his way through the swinging flap. The night exploded all over him. Earth under his paws. A million new and exciting smells in his nose. The howl came again. He sat beside his mate and sang the Moon up. There had never been such a night. Moon-Mother hung full and bright. The air was warm. Paul ran for miles, for sheer joy of running on four feet. Through the wooded acreage, into empty

pastures where the scent of calves made him complain they were not there to eat and then back to the creek side where Dan-mate was splashing. Dan-mate shook off and submitted to the mating when Paul nipped him again. Both gave voice as they finished. Distracted by the smell of rabbit, Paul cuffed him playfully and bounded off. Dan followed and they found the warren. The hot blood in his mouth intoxicated him, and he devoured the rabbit as if he hadn’t eaten in a week. They ran together, playing and tumbling like pups. Tired at last, they loped back to the hut and curled up on their blankets. Paul woke, smiling. He was wrapped protectively around his mate, Dan nestled into his chest. He understood Dan’s contempt for his basement now. The very thought felt like a cage.

“Morning, boys.” Grandfather strolled in, dressed and smiled at them. “Breakfast is ready. Don’t dawdle.” He winked. Paul nudged Dan. “Breakfast, babe.” Dan stretched and yawned with a gratuitous tongue curl that tempted Paul to forget the injunction about dawdling. “Morning, BB. I could get used to this, you know?” “Yeah, in a bed, though.” Paul sat up, stretched and creaked a little. “Hard floor.” “Geriatric case.” Dan tossed him his clothes. “Insatiable pup. Let’s go for breakfast.”


Breakfast was fine, but Sunday dinner was more tense, if possible, than Thursday’s had been. Corin and Cian had accepted the invitation, and came to the farm for lunch. Mama and the aunts put on a good spread, mixing Hungarian dishes with old-fashioned Southern cooking. The Irish visitors tried to keep the conversation light, as did Grandfather. They talked of places they’d lived in their wanderings, of all the places they’d seen. “And what do you think of Memphis?” Uncle Zoltan asked, his smile too wide with too many teeth. “We are enjoying the city a great deal,” Cian answered. “And the cottage in Mississippi is comfortable when I require a change.” Corin’s bristling did

not go unmarked by the rest of the family. Zoltan nodded. “I wonder, though, if you might not find an Arkansas property more to your liking. It’s a swamp, but there is very good hunting in the river bottoms I hear.” The implication of dividing the territory, with the river as boundary line, was very clear. Dan spoke up. “When I finish my teaching contract for this semester, I’m moving to Wisconsin.” The announcement lay on the table, putting an end to the sparring. He nodded to their guests. “I must impinge upon your area for few more months. But since we both leave the city to change, it should be no problem.” “Lad, we’re the ones who moved in on you. Don’ t let us drive you out,” Cian said. “I’m not driven.” Dan stood up. “Paul asked me to join him up north. I’m going. I’ll love and miss

all of you, but sometimes, you have to stake your own claim.” Paul just looked at his plate. He never meant to take his lover away from his family. He didn’t like the cold silence that greeted Dan’s announcement. *** They knew it was a bad idea, but the argument had run too late for Corin and Cian to make it safely home. “You take Dan’s room, Cian,” Grandfather said. “I’ll look out for your mate.” “Thank you, sir,” Cian smiled. “Time to go.” Grandfather opened the glass doors

to the yard. These had struck Paul as ridiculous from the first time he’d seen them. He had visions of bursting through them in wolf form and eating Dan’s sisters or mother. He knew he’d seen too many movies. As they walked out into the woods, Grandfather explained the change hut. He pulled a metal spiral--a dog stake, Paul realized--off a shelf. “Zoltan, do you need to be leashed, Son, or can you behave?” “I’ll be fine, Father.” Zoltan busied himself filling the water pool. Paul didn’t like the look in Zoltan’s eyes. He exchanged glances with Dan and saw the same worry on his mate’s face. They’d spent the afternoon near Corin, listening to his stories and acclimating to his scent. Grandfather had done the same. Uncle Zoltan had not, he had merely picked the fight that detained the visitors.

The excellent dinner weighed in Paul’s stomach. All he wanted tonight was a nice long nap. Dan yawned beside him as they walked into the hut. “Your mom’s a good cook, pup,” Paul said. “Tell her, not me,” Dan snapped. “Touchy, touchy.” Paul circled his waist, yanked him close. “Maybe you need a reminder who the alpha wolf is?” He nipped at Dan’s neck. Dan cuffed him upside the head, a snarl on his face. He said nothing, merely growled low in his throat. He felt the family tensions reaching the breaking point as well. Paul backed off. “Sorry, Furball. I was teasing.”

“Don’t.” Dan hadn’t stopped snarling. “It’s too close to time.” Paul could tell. He knew he was out of line. Dan stripped fast and arranged a bed for their guest before he sat down on his own blankets. He rose to turn, sniffing worriedly, every few minutes. Paul folded his clothes onto the shelf and sat beside his mate, pulling him close. “I’m sorry, pup.” He stroked Dan’s curly hair, rubbed along his jaw and ears as Dan liked best. “I love you.” Dan kissed him as the sun began to set. “Love you, too. Is my bed still in the basement?” Paul nodded. “Water bowl too.” The last word turned to a howl as the change came upon him. Around him, he heard the groans of the others and his own noises of pain. Then

Grandfather gave tongue, the primal cry of their people, and the pain was gone. Paul ran on four paws, the night his playground. He paused with the pack to sing Mother-Moon up. Grandfather-leader loped off on his own business. Zoltan headed for the creek, the smell of anger on him. Corin-guest howled again then touched noses with Dan-mate. Dan-mate touched back, and touched nose-to-tail as a gesture of welcome. Paul circled them and touched noses with Corin-guest. Corin-guest gave a bark and ran for the woods. Paul circled Dan-mate. He pounced. Dan-mate mock-fought, puppy playful. Paul mounted, dominating, and Dan-mate howled joy to the Moon. When finished, Paul sat back and licked himself, licked Dan-mate. He butted Dan-mate, herding him back to bed. They curled together like puppies and slept.

Fighting from outside woke them. The moon was high and bright. Zoltan launched himself at Corin, trying for his throat. Grandfather intervened, his grey body a wall between the lean black shape of Zoltan and the stockier brindled wolf that was Corin. He butted Zoltan away. Grandfather touched noses and nose-to-tail with Corin, signaling his welcome in the pack territory. Zoltan snarled again. Before he could launch himself, Paul rammed him from the side and Dan bit at his tail. Zoltan turned on them. Dan snapped again and extricated himself. Zoltan and Paul circled, snarling and snapping. Dan touched noses and nose-to-tail with Corin again, reiterating the welcome. They stood back to the watch the fight. Zoltan cornered Paul near a large magnolia tree. Paul whimpered and presented himself for mounting, acknowledging Zoltan’s

dominance. When Zoltan bit his ruff, Paul clawed back with his raised hind legs. He flipped them over, foreclaws searching for Zoltan’s soft belly. He bit and clawed, tasting blood from a bitten foreleg. He could smell Zoltan’s fear. Finally, he got the black wolf down, belly up under him. He went for the throat. Grandfather slammed into them from the side, snarling. They were knocked apart. Grandfather backed Paul off. Paul tucked tail and sidled back to Dan. Dan licked his bites. Zoltan turned on Grandfather, leaping at his undefended flank. Dan barked a warning too late. Over and over the wolves rolled, each seeking the bite or claw that would force the other to pull away. Blood hung heavy in the night, covering the smoke and leaf-spice of autumn. They broke apart to circle again, snarling. Zoltan was bleeding from bites and scratches.

Grandfather favored his left hind leg. With a growl, Zoltan attacked his father again. Paul tried to go to Grandfather’s aid and Dan stopped him. He understood. The battle for pack leadership had been brewing like the thunderstorm and had just broken in a cloudburst of blood and fur. He and Corin had only been catalysts, not causes.

*** Corin sat away from the family, licking his wounds and watching. He had no doubt that if Grandfather lost, his own throat, then Paul’s, would be Zoltan’s next targets. Grandfather set his teeth to Zoltan’s throat and nipped hard enough to draw blood. Then he climbed off and turned his back on Zoltan. He kicked dirt over the black wolf as if burying him

like a piece of waste. Zoltan whined and limped off into the night. Corin touched noses with Grandfather, then licked one of the bites. Grandfather licked him back and went into the hut. He settled his shaggy grey body on his bed. Corin licked the nearest wound. Dan approached and touched noses with Grandfather and Corin before settling in to lick the bite on Grandfather’s flank. Paul walked over slowly. He touched noses and licked the scratch on Grandfather’s back. They licked the old wolf, nuzzling and caring for him. Then they slept, all together like a pile of pups. At dawn, they dressed and returned to the house. Zoltan arrived just as they were finishing the first round of breakfast. “Father, I--”

“No.” Grandfather sent his coffee mug down too hard and the flatware rattled. “Do not apologize. You did as you thought wisest, son. I’ m proud of you. I raised you well and taught you right. Some night you will tear out my throat as is our way. But last night was not the night.” Zoltan sat and started on the sausage and eggs. “Mr. Faw, I am sorry. I had no business attacking a guest of the pack.” Corin nodded, thick eyebrows knit over his coffee. “That you didn’t, lad. But I forgive you for being a young hothead with more pride than sense.” Dan hid a snicker with his biscuit. His mother caught it and hit him with the spatula as she set another bowl of scrambled eggs before the weres. The rest of the family was long

finished. Aunt Rita fussed over Zoltan’s wounds. Cian was hovering, checking Corin over. “It’s all been really good, Mrs. Camomescro,” Paul said helping himself to four more sausages and a couple spoonfuls of eggs. “You’re an amazing cook.” “With three wolves in the house, I have to be.” She smiled at Paul. “Thank you.” “Did you enjoy your evening out, lover?” Cian asked. He applied antibiotic ointment to the bites on Corin’s neck and shoulders. “Let me eat, elf,” Corin grumbled without anger. He kissed Cian to take the sting from the rebuff. “You can flutter over me when I’m done. You have a shop to open.” “Not until noon.” Cian smeared the ointment on

Corin’s left arm, the one holding his fifth biscuit. “Corin, you’re welcome here any full moon,” Grandfather said. “Pack territory is--” He froze, his breath catching in his chest. He toppled forward slowly into his empty plate. “Father!” Zoltan said. “Grandfather!” Dan was on his feet, searching for a pulse or eye movement. “Good mate, boy,” Grandfather whispered and his eyes closed. Paul was on his cell to 911. “We’ve got an emergency. Adult male, age eighty, collapsed at breakfast.” He gave the address and directions to the farm.

“It’s no good, BB.” Dan’s eyes were too bright. “He’s gone.” He glared at his uncle. “Your fault. You overtaxed him.” Zoltan snarled and shot a glance at the guests. “His own fault. He allowed strangers on our territory.” He loomed over Dan. “And there are going to be changes around here, little faggot.” Dan folded Grandfather’s hands on his chest. “I’m still going to Wisconsin in December.” He was careful to keep his voice neutral. “Good.” He turned on Corin and Cian. “What of you two?” The menace in his voice made Corin snarl reflexively. Cian spoke up, as if he didn’t trust his mate not to say something that might get them all killed here over the breakfast table. “Our lease is up in a year. I think we’ll find other climes less chilly at

the shank of summer.” He turned and looked at Dan. “Lad, you’re welcome at our place if you’d like.” He suddenly seemed taller, more powerful. His hair shone and a pale nimbus surrounded him. His eyes were more silver than blue. “Zoltan Camomescro, you may have all the land around for yourself, Wolf. We’ll trouble you no more. I wish you the joy of it.” He diminished, leaving the weres wondering what they had just seen. Corin shook hands with the young wolves and the Camomescros. He had only a scowl for Zoltan. “My mate is fine-spoken. I say piss on your territory and piss on you too. Grandfather had the right idea to bury you like the turd you are. A curse between us, Zoltan Camomescro.” He spat and forked the horns at Zoltan. Cian dragged Corin bodily out of the house. If the werewolf had had his tail on, it would have been twitching.

*** The ambulance was just arriving. Paul and Dan gave their statements. The paramedics ruled it a cerebral accident and called it at the scene. They asked of the scratches on his body and arms. “We were out clearing brush.” Paul showed his own scratches. “We all got a little banged up.” They nodded and said the coroner would be by soon. They left instructions not to move the body. Dan kissed his mother and father. “I have to go. I still have classes to teach. I’ll be back tonight.” “No, you won’t.” Zoltan caught his arm as he was

leaving. “You and your so-called mate aren’t welcome on pack-territory.” “Much joy of your territory,” Dan began, his hands forming the sign of a gypsy curse. “Much joy of your pack leadership. And may your breeder bitch never deliver a wolf in the line.” He stalked out, Paul in his wake. The drive to the apartment was quiet, the anger having suppressed Dan’s grief. Paul sat quietly on the battered green chair as Dan gathered his books and papers for his classes. Halfway out the door, he turned back for a kiss that turned into weeping on Paul’s shoulder. Paul stroked his hair. “Call it out, lover. Death in the family is a legitimate reason.” Dan nodded and recovered himself enough to make the call. The department secretary promised to spread the word and cancel all his classes for

the week. His hands were shaking as he hung up the phone and he was breathing too deeply. The outbound breaths sounded almost like howls. Paul made out the futon and took him to bed. He curled around Dan protectively, letting his love sob as much as he needed to. He nuzzled Dan until the crying subsided. They were both still close enough to the wolf that nuzzling turned to licks. Paul licked Dan’s neck and ear. Dan whimpered and licked him back. “Easy pup. Let it out. That’s what your big bad mate is for.” Dan half smiled. “Oh, BB.” He nestled close, burying his face in Paul’s chest. The sobs came again, wracking him. By early afternoon, Dan had cried himself into exhaustion. Paul left him sleeping on the futon and slipped out to the Young Avenue Deli. The

menu was amazing and the jukebox was loud on his sensitive wolfish ears. He was only glad he wasn’t fighting the Festival crowd or a live band. He ordered the beer-battered onion rings and mushrooms. The battered dill pickles tempted him, but he resisted, if only for a moment. He added them to the order. The Bren, cream cheese and smoked turkey steamed in a pita with mushrooms and onions, a basic reuben, a whole muffuletta and two burgers with everything finished the order. It had been a busy night and even after the enormous breakfast, his stomach was growling. He knew Furball would be hungry too. They wouldn’t let him purchase beer for carry-out. He decided before he left he was going to come back and have a drink or six from their thirty-six item draft beer menu. The bottled beer list was even longer. The Dixie Blackened Voodoo piqued his curiosity. He walked back to the apartment, the carry-out heavy in its bags. Dan was still asleep. He laid out the food and then sat on the edge of the futon.

He leaned over and kissed Dan. “Furball. Wake up, pup. I have lunch. Then we need to go to the country for the night.” Dan sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes then ran fingers through his hair making his curls stand up every which way. “You bought half the deli.” He grabbed half the Bren. “My favorite. You try the other half.” Paul tasted it, but didn’t like the cream cheese. “Sorry, pup, not my thing.” He dove into his half of the muffuletta, having heard of the legendary sandwich but never tasted it. The olive salad and ham was very tasty. They demolished most of the sandwiches and all the appetizers. Dan stuck the end of the muffuletta in the fridge while Paul called Corin. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah. You okay to drive, babe? Cian says he will, or we can follow.” They took Cian’s offer. The night in the country was quiet. Cian cooked brilliantly, and served large bowls of oatmeal with plenty of raisins and spice, scrambled eggs, scones and pounds of bacon. A china pot poured seemingly endless streams of the best tea either had ever tasted into mugs the size of soup bowls. “Thanks for everything,” Paul said. “The ride, the place to change, breakfast.” “Our pleasure, lads. It’s nice to have young blood around.” Cian refilled all the tea-cups. “Grandfather’s funeral is this afternoon.” Dan took a breath before continuing. “You would be welcome to come.”

“Your uncle might feel different about that.” Corin was buried behind his paper. “Screw my uncle. I’m going. And you can come along. Being that you’re pack-guests and all.” The older men nodded and took Paul and Dan back into town. Paul wore his best dark shirt and a tie. He hadn’t planned on a suit. “It’s okay, lover. You’re there for me. Nobody will say anything.” Dan had a black suit with a black shirt and a grey tie. Paul thought he looked like a miniature mafioso. On the way to the farm, Paul called work and got a couple more days off. He called the airline and moved his ticket. “I can stay until Thursday, pup.” Dan’s eyes were swimming when they got out of

the car. He hugged Paul hard. “Thank you so much.” “It’s what mates do.” Paul wrapped his arm around Dan’s waist. Dan shrugged it off as they got into view of the farm house. Grandfather had been cremated. Papa spoke some words before taking a handful of the ashes. Mama spoke some words before doing the same. Dan’s sisters had their words and took their ashes. Dan stepped up. “Grandfather loved me. He understood me. He looked out for me and taught me what it means to be a werewolf.” He smiled at his parents. “You did your best, but you’re not weres. You raised me, and Grandfather helped.” Dan claimed his handful of ashes. “I’ll take these with me so that there will always be a little piece of home in Wisconsin.”

Zoltan and Rita and their large family were conspicuous by their absence. Paul couldn’t bring himself to care. It made things easier for Dan and that was all that mattered to him. Back at the apartment, Dan still didn’t feel like doing much of anything. Paul just wrapped himself around his mate and gave what comfort he could. They lazed through the rest of Tuesday and Wednesday, making one short trip down to Faw & O’Brien’s to say good bye before Paul had to leave.

*** Thursday came, and with it departure. They stood at the gate in the airport. Dan tried to look at least sort of cheerful and failed miserably. “I’ll be up for our birthday, BB. Like you said, I don’t own anything, so it shouldn’t be any trouble to move.”

Paul took a deep breath. “This may not be the time to say it, and maybe I’m rushing things here. When you come up, we’re eloping to Canada. Be my mate, not just as a wolf, but as a man too.” Dan’s face lit up. “Yes.” Heedless of the airport crowds, not caring who saw him, he flung his arms around Paul’s neck. “Thank you. Thank you for coming. Thank you for staying the extra days. And thank you for the promise. My mate.” He kissed Paul there in the airport. “We can do ten weeks apart standing on our heads.” “Damn straight. Which we aren’t.” Dan smiled again. “Go on, lover. I’ll see you in December. We have Grandfather’s blessing, remember.” Paul nodded, stole a quick second kiss and entered the boarding tunnel. When he turned for a

final wave, Dan blew him a kiss. He caught it with a wink and a grin. Dan watched the plane taxi out and then went home to start packing for Wisconsin.

seal skin by kara larson

They buried Kirsten on Saturday afternoon. Sea-haar collected over them and around them until Erlend worried about his newest baby, the little girl who cost Kirsten her life, and if the damp would be too much for her tiny lungs. But the peedie one, as the boys called her since she still had no name, was born of tough Orcadian stock. Almost ten generations of Kirkness men and women were buried in the graveyard overlooking the sea. And now Kirsten, brought to Sandwick as a bride because Orkney sounded romantic to her, would be put to rest here.

Women didn't die in childbirth anymore. Kirsten was transferred from Balfour to the maternity hospital in Aberdeen right before the birth because Dr. Ryrie suspected something was wrong. But even the specialists at Aberdeen weren’t prepared for the postnatal hemorrhaging. Not that there was anything that could be done about it now. Kirsten Mackenzie Kirkness died just a little over a day after her only daughter

came into the world, and she left behind a family who wasn't sure what to do without her.

Peedie, in his arms, began to wave her little fists, grizzling a little. He absently stuck his forefinger in her mouth so that the grizzle wouldn't turn into a full-fledged cry. He tried to pay attention to what the minister was saying as he read from his battered prayer book, but the words sounded like an endless drone. Erlend tried to focus on Peedie, fumbling in his jacket until he found the spare bottle his mother had handed him before they left for the service. But the sea-haar seemed to be clouding his head, wrapping him in thick fog that smelled of the sea. Even the sea, just a few steps away down the beach, seemed to be far away.

Peedie's whinging got louder as her small hands waved uselessly in the direction of the bottle. Her small face was clenched, turning a dark red color that only meant that a wail of epic proportions was coming. His sister nudged him

none-too-gently in the ribs and he put the bottle nipple to his daughter's lips. The tension in the crowd around him seemed to lessen, but one of the seals lying on the rocks in the bay seemed to think his response was lacking a little. The seal gave him a look of pure disdain. As if a seal, even with his great brown eyes, could know the sorrow of losing a mate. Seal traditions didn't include a ceremony that spoke of not parting until death— something that most people never thought of at twenty years old. Because women didn't die in childbirth in the 20thcentury. Especially delivering their third child.

The funeral ended, and neighbors and friends came up to give their condolences. Erlend’s two sons stood next to him, both with the same stoic look on their faces. Bryn and Kieran had both inherited his stubborn nature, something his mum said would help them in the days to come. It had been hard enough to get five-year-old Bryn to understand that Mummy really wasn’t coming back from the hospital, even though Peedie had come home three days before.

On the walk back to the farm, Mum offered to take the boys and Peedie—at least, that’s what he thought she said. In any case, he was left alone in the small cottage he and Kirsten had shared at the far edge of the farm. Kirsten hadn’t liked the isolation of the cottage, even if she loved its modern conveniences that some of his sisters’ homes lacked.

Their farm wasn't one of the biggest, or even one of the best, tracts of land on Mainland. The land mostly clung to the cliffs of the western shore, good for beef cattle and sheep and not much else. Mum and Dad supplemented the income from their farm by taking in boarders who wanted to be close to Skara Brae and the other tourist traps nearby. Not that you couldn't cross the northern part of the island in an hour by car anyway, barring the occasional tour bus traffic jam around the main sites.

Mum had exempted him from his normal duties around the farm for a little while. Midsummer vet duties didn’t amount to much, since calving and lambing season was long since past. Five years of veterinary school at the University of Glasgow hadn’t exempted him from the main jobs of the farm, like feeding and mucking, but Mum’s all-encompassing glare at his sibs had assured that he would be spared even this chore for a little while. It wasn't as if Kirsten was still around to watch the little ones. And Kieran and Bryn were still far too small to take care of Peedie, as helpful as they’d tried to be this past week.

But all three children were safely installed at Gran and Gramps' for supper, leaving him time to wander the shore. As much as he appreciated the company of his family, he was still tired of the clucking and the attention and the sympathetic looks. He didn't need another day of questions, of suggestions to hire one of the parish girls to look after the kids. Anna, his formerly favorite sister

out of the lot, had the gall to remind him of how often his veterinary duties took him away at night. As if he needed to be reminded of that fact.

Even Peedie offered no comfort. He could already tell she would have Kirsten's blue eyes. The boys looked like the Kirkness side, dark as the seals in the bay, so it was only fair that the child that killed Kirsten would be the child that looked like her.

It was simply hard to care anymore. He and Kirsten met in their first year of university, fallen in love in the prerequisite fairytale way, and he brought her home to the family farm. Her family called her crazy, throwing away what could have been a brilliant academic career to keep house for a poor vet in Orkney. But his wife had loved the romance of life above all things, and she thought it was fitting that the two of them settle down together. He knew she minded, sometimes, being a farmer’s wife. Kirsten was a city girl at heart

after all. But she had taken to life on Mainland with the same cheer that she did most things. And now he couldn’t imagine any form of life without her.

Sometimes it felt like the sea-haar had invaded his soul. It sounded silly, but it was so hard for him to think and react now. At home, Kieran and Bryn were trying their hardest to be the best boys they could, even if it meant Bryn almost burned down the kitchen trying to make breakfast. Neither boy had an ounce of romance in his soul, which was probably for the best. His sons understood, if anyone did, how easy it would be to break down now, and how hard it would be to pull them all up again.

A flash of gold caught his eye as he walked along the sand. He watched as a seal pulled itself out of the water. The seal's body began to ripple under its spotted gray-brown skin, convulsing until it looked like it belched up a slim human body.

Erlend stayed still as the human body stood up, long sand-colored hair hanging to its hips. The figure stepped out of the seal-skin and moved down the beach toward the headland, either not aware of his presence or ignoring him entirely.

Erlend knew the legends. His gran had told him the stories of selkies just the same as his mum told them now to his children. The selkie of Suleskerry, even the story of Ursilla and her web-fingered children were told on winter nights when the power went out and the television wasn't working. Kirsten had loved those nights and the stories, taking things such as the lighting of the bonfires at Hallowmas and Midsummer far more serious than he did.

But he still knew the tradition. If you caught a selkie skin, and hid it somewhere so that it might not be found, the selkie would be bound to you for as long as it was hidden. Why the selkie, with her long golden hair and longer pale legs, didn't

hide her skin better, he didn't know.

Not knowing why, he snatched the skin and ran as fast as he could. He made for his house, running as if the devil himself was after him. Slamming the door behind him, he bundled the seal-skin into a garbage bag to shove into the iron safe at the bottom of his wardrobe. He had laughed at Kirsten when she hauled the safe home from the ferry, saying that there was no need for anything like that in Sandwick. In Kirkwall maybe, where all the tourists were, but not here in lonely Birsay parish. To this day, all they kept in it were birth certificates for each of the children, and copies of their marriage certificate. Soon enough, Kirsten’s death certificate would join the paperwork as well.

But the seal-skin wouldn’t fit. When he peered into the safe, he saw the reason why. A pile of brightly-wrapped packages sat on top of the usual folder full of documents. Each was neatly-labeled

in Kirsten’s precise handwriting: “Happy Birthday, Bryn! Love, Mam and Da”.

Erlend leaned against the safe, chuckling weakly. It was just like Kirsten to plan for this. Bryn’s birthday was still a month away, but she knew that, in the chaos of the birth, chances were that their younger son would get forgotten. She had every birthday and anniversary hardwired into her head, never forgetting even the smallest thing. That would be one more adjustment.

He carefully removed the gifts from the safe, setting them on the top shelf of the wardrobe, somewhere Bryn hopefully would forget to look when he went on his annual present hunt. Then he settled the seal-skin on top of the certificates, slamming the safe door shut and sighing in relief.

The loneliness would drive him mad, sooner or

later. Maybe he should take Anna's advice and hire a girl to come in a few times a week, at least until school started again…

Erlend heard the back door open and shut, followed by the piping voices of his sons. His dad's voice answered them. "I'm sure your da has something for pudding, don't worry, boys…"

He moved into the hallway, surprised when Kieran and Bryn both ran at him full-tilt, throwing their small arms around his waist. At seven, Kieran was almost too old for hugs. And Bryn, still five, would reluctantly hold his Da's hand, but only when they crossed the street.

"Peedie skrecked all the way home, Da. Just like a banshee!" Bryn announced, looking at his little sister with pride. "She's a loud baby, innit she, Kier?"

"Gran gave her a bottle, but she fussed and fussed, Da." Kieran gave him a worried look. "Do you think she—"

Erlend had a suspicious feeling about what his oldest son didn't want to say. “Babies cry because it’s the only way they know how to talk,” he replied, swinging Kieran’s gangly body up to rest on one hip. His son rested his head on Erlend’s shoulder. “She probably wants a lot of things, and we just have to hold her and rock her and change her nappy until we figure out which one it is.”

After that, neither of the boys seemed much in the mood for pudding, not even Gran’s clootie dumpling. His dad stayed long enough to tuck the boys into their beds, hovering near the back door as Erlend fixed himself a sandwich.

“You’re all right, eh, boy?” His dad asked. “You seem a mite distracted.”

Erlend looked toward the open door of his bedroom, where Peedie lay in her basket. “It is to be expected, isn’t it, Dad?” He sat down at the kitchen table, feeling very tired all of a sudden. “Dad, do you—“

“Aye, boy?” His dad took the seat across from him, the one that Kieran usually sat in. “What’s the matter?”

He rested his head in his hands, not sure how to ask, or even if he should ask his father. Dad had never been one to believe in the old fairy stories. Mum was the one who named them all—kings and queens and ancient Earls of Orkney, names

that only myths remember. Dad always snorted and turned away whenever Erlend’s sisters asked for stories as a child. If Erlend asked about selkies now, his dad would probably call mental health services and immediately haul the boys and Peedie back to the main house.

“If I take some time off, Da, to spend with the boys and Peedie…” he began.

“You ought to name her, Erlend,” his father broke in reproachfully. “You’ll not be wanting her to go off to school known as ‘the little one’. I know the hospital granted you an extension, due to circumstances, but…”

Erlend grimaced before continuing. “But if I take some time for just ourselves for a bit…”

His dad put a hand on top of Erlend’s, squeezing gently. “Take what time you need, lad,” his dad answered gruffly. “And pay no mind to your sister and your mum. Do what you need to do for yourself and the young ones.”

One more brief squeeze to his shoulder and his dad left. Erlend sat at the table for a while, twisting the wedding ring that he still wore. Nine years of marriage didn’t seem like enough time. But at least Kirsten lived on in their three children. Some widowers couldn’t even say that.

He stared at his hands, feeling his mind drift away. Whatever daze he slipped into was broken by a sudden rap at the back door. It was an angry knock, which meant that it wasn’t any of his relations. It was possible that it was one of Kirsten’s, only some of who made it up in time for the funeral.

The naked man, crowned with a head of long sand-colored hair, was the last thing he expected to see.

“You have something of mine,” the man snarled with a hissing accent. “And I want it back.”

Erlend stared at the man’s face, his eyes trailing down the thin body. He stopped at the hips, not daring to look down further. It was easy enough to recognize the form of the selkie he saw earlier that day. Just as it had been easy to mistake the narrow hips and long hair for the backside of a young girl.


“Stuck with you now,” the selkie answered, his face looking as miserable as Erlend felt.

“I bind you to this house and this family,” Erlend said, the ritual words he remembered from the stories falling easily from his mouth. He backed away from the door so that the selkie could enter. “Do you—do you have a name?”

The man returned his stare, the same disdain in his brown eyes as he’d seen in the seal’s, just that morning. “Ronan,” he replied as he stepped in. “My mam named me Ronan.”

Erlend actually smiled at that. “Little seal.”

Ronan rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t get too used

to it. As soon as I find my skin, I’ll be back to the sea.”

They stared at each other for another moment before Erlend dropped his eyes. He looked at Ronan’s bare feet, noticing the long sandy toes. They weren’t webbed, which surprised him.

“Would you—would you like something to eat?” He said suddenly, moving toward the pantry. “There’s kippers somewhere, probably some haddock in the freezer. The neighbors keep bringing over casseroles because of the funeral and all and…” Erlend turned back to Ronan, his face burning. “I’m sorry, I’m just not sure what to do or…”

The selkie walked further into the kitchen. Erlend noticed Ronan’s careful grace, like a seal moving through water. Erlend found himself

staring at the selkie’s hips as he moved. He felt his face heat up, wondering if it was possible to blush even more.

Ronan gave him a speculative look as he took a seat at the table. “You could hand me my skin and be done with it. You aren’t some lonely fishmonger’s wife, so there’s obviously nothing that nights of passionate lovemaking will do for you.”

Erlend’s hands clenched at the idea. He hadn’t cried the prerequisite seven tears that the stories always said the girls cried into the sea, attracting the attentions of a selkie lover. Nor had he found a selkie maid as she danced on the beach under the moonlight. But Ronan, for all his brashness and sarcasm, was company. Adult company. Someone who was bound to him for as long as he held the seal-skin. Someone who, by the laws of magic and folklore, couldn’t leave him.

“I bind you to this house and this family,” he repeated slowly, now looking only at Ronan’s brown eyes. He could almost pinpoint the moment that the selkie’s resolve broke. Ronan’s jaw clenched and he swallowed, nodding. “Best show me where I can sleep then. You needn’t startle the bairns by keeping a naked man in the kitchen.”

Erlend blinked at Ronan, not sure of what the next step should be. The legends never spoke of a situation like this, or if they did, he must not have paid enough attention. “Do you need to sleep in the bath?” he asked, rubbing at his forehead tiredly. “There’s only the one, but it’s large enough for me, so it should be enough for you…” He trailed off as Ronan stared at him in disbelief. “Or I can take the couch and you can sleep in my bed,” Erlend amended.

He led Ronan into the small bedroom off the kitchen. Ronan seemed unimpressed, taking in the unmade bed and clutter without a second glance. The only thing that did seem to catch his interest was Peedie in her Moses basket. His littlest was still asleep, by some miracle. Ronan reached out a finger, gently touching the baby’s cheek. He turned to Erlend, a softer look on his face.

“What’s her name?” The selkie’s voice was soft.

“We couldn’t agree on one,” Erlend said, a bit embarrassed. He couldn’t meet Ronan’s eyes. “The doctor said that she wailed something fierce for such a peedie one, so Peedie stuck, and there hasn’t been time since—“

Ronan snorted. “You call her Peedie? Her

classmates will laugh the poor lass out of school.” He turned back to the baby, this time touching the sparse blond hair on top of her head. “That’ll be one thing we have to fix.”

“Fix? What gives you the right to fix anything in my family?” Erlend struggled to keep his voice quiet. Once Peedie took to crying, it was hard to quiet her.

Ronan’s reply was equally quiet, and equally full of anger. “The moment you stole my skin and bound me to you without even telling me your name.”

“You don’t have to stay here.” But looking at the selkie, Erlend had to wonder. Maybe in Stromness or in Kirkwall Ronan might get away with blending in. Most of the locals would just take him for another tourist, here on holiday. But

here in Birsay, in lonely Sandwick where the cows still outnumbered the people…

He sighed, then turned to the bureau in the corner and began taking out y-fronts and vests, a gansey his mum knitted last winter and some sweat pants. “These should fit,” he said, handing them to Ronan. “Erlend. Erlend Kirkness. Welcome to the family.”


“Why’re you in here, Da?” Bryn’s voice woke him up out of an uneasy rest. Erlend never realized how lumpy and uncomfortable the couch in his office was. Not that it would matter, since by year's end, the room would be turned into a nursery for Peedie anyhow.

Erlend sat up, rubbing at his eyes. Bryn still peered at him from the doorway, looking at Peedie asleep in her basket on the floor next to the couch. “Why're you and Peedie in here and not in the bedroom?” Bryn’s voice grew more and more shrill with each question.

“We have company, buddo, come to help us now.” He reached out, pulling Bryn into his arms. “Help me fix him breakfast?”

He felt Bryn nod against his shoulder, then scooped his small son up and carried him the few short meters to the kitchen. Kieran was already standing at the counter on his wooden stool, cracking an egg into a bowl. He gave Erlend a guilty look when he noticed them entering the kitchen. “I was just helping, honest, Da. I wasn’t going to cook them…”

Erlend put Bryn down, grabbing his oldest son in a similar hard hug. “Easy, Kier. Thank you for helping. And thank you for not turning on the stove again.”

At that moment, Ronan walked out of the bedroom. Thankfully, he was dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of sweats he must have found in the dresser. “The pup cries," he said, and Erlend could hear the beginning of Peedie's wails from the office.

“You’ve never dealt with little ones?” Erlend asked when he re-entered the kitchen, Peedie in his arms. He jostled her for a moment, shushing to her until she settled down.

Ronan looked down his nose at Erlend, eyebrows arched. “Females’ work,” he replied. The selkie

seemed to suddenly remember his surroundings, his eyes widening at the sight of Bryn and Kieran, who stared at him with huge eyes.

“He’s the guest, Da?” Bryn asked in a loud whisper, his small hands gripping Erlend’s shirt.

Erlend saw a brief smile flash across Ronan’s face at that. “Aye, buddo. This is Ronan, our guest. Can you get me one of Peedie’s bottles from the fridge?”

Bryn apparently didn’t hear, since he still clung to Erlend’s shirt. Kieran, being the brave seven year old that he was, manfully made his way to the refrigerator and brought Erlend back the requested bottle.

“Don’t forget to warm it, Da,” his son reminded him. “Gran says that Peedie can’t have it cold ‘ cause it’ll give her a sore puggy.”

Switching Peedie to one arm and trailing Bryn behind him, Erlend made his way to the stove. He handed the bottle to Bryn, who still wouldn’t let go of his shirt. All the while humming tunelessly to the baby, Erlend took the pot of water that Kieran handed him and set it on the hob. When the water was hot, he took the bottle from Bryn and put it in. Erlend could feel three sets of eyes on his back as he watched the bottle bob in the water. It was no surprise that Bryn and Kieran stared, since neither of them were used to a baby, but Ronan’s conscious attention was a little unnerving.

Once the bottle was warm, he handed Peedie off to Ronan. “Might as well make yourself useful,” he said quietly at Ronan’s startled look. He tested the temperature of the formula against his wrist

before handing the bottle to Ronan too. Carefully rearranging the baby in Ronan’s arms, he gave the selkie what he hoped was a comforting smile. “She’s a wee thing, but she won’t break. I dropped those two often enough to know.”

Ronan glared at Erlend before staring down at the baby. “Like this?” He touched the nipple of the bottle to Peedie’s lips and the baby immediately began to drink. Her small fists waved as her blue eyes focused on Ronan’s face.

Erlend looked at Peedie from over Ronan’s shoulder. “See?” he whispered in Ronan’s ear. “Easy as cake.”

"Don't get used to it," Ronan muttered back.

From there, breakfast proceeded rather quietly. Bryn and Kieran stared at Ronan as the selkie fed and then burped the baby, while Erlend watched everyone else as he fried up some eggs and ham on the stove. The boys were quiet as clams, something unusual. Ronan didn't seem to notice, he was so concerned with not dropping the baby. Once Erlend got the plates of food on the table, he took Peedie back. He was surprised at the grateful look Ronan gave him.

"I forgot--d'you eat regular food?" he asked quietly, trying not to catch the boys' attention.

"We don't eat just fish," Ronan replied with a sigh, as if it were the stupidest question he'd heard that morning. "We aren't.." He cut off as they caught the boys' attention again.

"Where're you from?" Bryn piped up, his mouth

full of egg. "Are you from Kirkness? That's far 'way. All our family's here, 'cept for Mam's family, 'cept they're here too 'cause of the funeral." Erlend choked down a laugh as his son gave Ronan a sad-eyed look. "Our mam died a coupl'a days ago."

Kieran smacked Bryn. "Stop it! It's not a joke, Bryn. Mam's not here anymore, so stuff it!" Erlend's oldest son pushed back his chair and ran from the room. He could hear the door to the boys' bedroom slam shut.

"That went well," Ronan remarked dryly, one eyebrow arched.

Maybe this wasn't the best idea for his family.

The first day went better than Erlend expected, even though he wasn't expecting much. Kieran spent most of the day in his room, refusing to come out. Bryn pestered Ronan with questions, bothering the selkie until Ronan finally snapped at him, and Bryn ran to his room crying. Peedie fussed the whole day, only quieting down if someone was holding her. At least she seemed to take a liking to Ronan, even if Ronan himself didn't seem too sure about how he felt about the baby.

Supper came, the boys both being so tired from their day that they slept through it. Peedie was awake and surprisingly calm for once, content to lie in her basket and stare up at the ceiling. Erlend had half a mind to put some stars or something on the ceilings of the five rooms of the house, just so that she'd have something to look at to keep her occupied. But she seemed happy enough, one hand in her mouth, the other one grabbing her toes.

"What are you?" Erlend finally asked as he carried the supper dishes over to the sink. This meal, as with the previous two, Ronan had attacked his food with the same delight.

"Selkie," Ronan answered tiredly, leaning back so that his head rested on the back of the kitchen chair. "Have you heard of the Finfolk?"

"Tricksters. My gran said they were troublemakers, all of them, nothing but sea demons," Erlend replied promptly. At his answer, Ronan actually sat up and opened his eyes.

"The Finfolk are, but they aren't any different than the selkies," Ronan said, resting his chin on his hand. "Your people are from the Norse lands and so are mine. But your Norsemen thought that the Saami, my people, were sorcerers and

shapeshifters, so they drove us to the ocean."

"But you were shapeshifters," Erlend pointed out as he dried off the dishes. "You turned into seals."

Ronan looked like he was about to disagree before he nodded reluctantly. "I'll give you that. But we weren't evil, like the Norsemen thought. We were just...different."

Once he finished drying the few supper dishes, Erlend put them back in the cupboard and then took his seat at the table. "So you still live in the ocean? Why don't you just come back to land? It's not as if there isn't enough to go around on the islands." It's true that some mainlanders were moving to Orkney, drawn by the history and mythology of the islands. But more and more of the old blood were leaving with each generation, tired of working tourism jobs or on the farms.

God knew that the fishing had dried up years ago, thanks to the commercial fisheries.

"The old magic still keeps us there. We can come to land on certain days of the year, and if someone steals our skins, we're bound to the land, but we can't come and go as we please." Ronan sounded so old at that moment, to the point that Erlend wondered what his age really was. "There aren't any sorcerers alive left to break the magic. And most of my kin aren't sure they would want to come back in the first place."

"But you still come to shore," Erlend pointed out. "There haven't been any new stories in years, but the lore is still alive."

Ronan dropped his hands to his lap, staring at them. "My mother was half-human," he said quietly. "When my gran went back to the sea, she

took her children with her. But that was years ago. I don't think any still remember us here." He stood suddenly, stretching. "It's late, and my body isn't used to this, yet..." the selkie said, still not meeting Erlend's eyes. "Should I take the couch tonight?"

When Erlend began to protest, Ronan smiled at him, still not looking at him. "We can argue over it tomorrow. Good night."

As Ronan disappeared into the front room, Erlend shook his head. "I don't know what to think," he told Peedie as he picked up her basket. Her eyes crossed as she tried to focus on his face. "Why do I do these things, eh, Peedie? Your mam always kept me out of trouble." He closed his eyes, leaning against the wall. "We've all got a lot to learn, I suspect."


He was surprised to find two small bodies in bed with him when he woke up the next morning. "He's not going to be our new mam," Bryn asked as soon as he noticed Erlend was awake. "Is he, Da?"

Kieran snuggled up to him on his other side. "We don't need someone here to help us," his elder son added, tucking his head beneath Erlend's chin. "We can get on just fine, us 'n Peedie."

Erlend wrapped an arm around each boy, holding them tight for a moment. "I know we can do just fine," he said, his voice shaking. "And Ronan knows, too. But we're going to need a little help for a while, and he's here to be that help." He sat up, bringing both boys up with him. He looked at each of them, more serious even than when he had

to break the news that Kirsten was dead. "This is to help your da out. You two have each other, and Peedie has all of us, but I need someone to help me for a little while." When Kieran opened his mouth to protest, Erlend squeezed him a little. "He's not going to replace your Mam. He can't anyway, since he's a boy, not a girl." That at least got a little giggle out of the boys. "Can you imagine him in a dress?"

"He would look silly," Kieran admitted with a watery smile.

He leaned over to kiss both boys' foreheads. "I just ask you to mind him as you mind me or any of your aunties and uncles. And if you want to talk to him about your mam, go ahead. I don't want you to forget, because if you forget, who'll tell Peedie about her?"

His sons were quiet for a little while. Erlend looked up, not surprised to see Ronan peeking in the doorway. The selkie actually flushed a little, the first sign of embarrassment that he'd shown.

"We're a family," Erlend said, his eyes on Ronan. "We're here to help each other, even if it's only for a little while. So why don't we try to get along, aye?"

"Aye, Da," came the boys responses. Maybe it would work out after all.


It was the fourth day before his mum called, worried. "There hasn't been a word from you four since Saturday. Are you sure you're all right?" He

could hear the anxiety in her voice, which meant she was one step from walking the half-kilometer to their cottage and finding out for herself.

Erlend looked over his shoulder at the kitchen where Kieran was showing Ronan how to make toast and Bryn was amusing Peedie by dangling a string over her basket. "Everything's fine, Mum. I promise." Ronan had only burned his hands twice warming up Peedie's bottle and Erlend had actually caught him giving Bryn an almost fond look yesterday morning. Kieran still for the most part ignored the selkie and Peedie couldn't tell the difference between people, so long as someone held her. "We'll come down for supper tonight." At that, Ronan gave him a panicked look and opened his mouth to protest. Erlend raised a hand to shush him.

"I worry, Erlend. You know that. You’re my wee laddie and I can't help wondering if--" His mum's voice caught in her throat. "Come for supper."

Even before he had hung up the phone, Ronan was already protesting. "I will not be dragged to your mam's like some housewife!" All that was missing was the hard stamp of the foot. Erlend covered his mouth, trying to hide a laugh. "What?"

Erlend shook his head. "Nothing. You don't have to go." Apparently his mind thought of it at the same time as Ronan's, who began to look guilty. "Second thought, just to make sure you don't burn the place down, maybe you should go with us."

"I'll not look for my skin," Ronan said quietly, his jaw clenched.

"I'm sorry that I don't trust you, yet," Erlend

answered back in an equally soft voice.

"Gran and Gramps are nice," Bryn added, tugging on Ronan's hand. "Gramps might look like he'll eat you up, but he's not a wolf. There aren't any more wolves here. Teacher says so."

"What're you going to tell them?" Ronan asked later as they trudged down the road to the main farmhouse. They could've piled into the car, but Erlend figured they could use the walk to calm down a bit.

"That you're a friend Kirsten and I knew from university. Mum and Dad have only been as far as Inverness, so you needn't worry about them knowing anything about Glasgow."

Ronan snorted. "Considering my grand knowledge of a city I've never been to. What if they ask questions about it?"

Erlend shrugged. "I could tell them you're dumb and can't speak."

As it turned out, Erlend didn't have to wait for his parents to ask. Bryn blurted it out as soon as they got to the door. "Da found a selkie, Gran! And he's gonna help us with Peedie!"

Erlend's mum shot him a questioning look. Erlend tried his best to smile casually and shrug. "Bairns."

His mum snorted, "Bairns indeed," and ushered them inside.

Throughout the meal, his parents were careful not to ask Ronan any questions beyond "how long do you intend to stay?" and "have you been to the islands before?" Ronan managed to answer both without glaring at Erlend too much. Even Kieran seemed supportive of Ronan, chiming in that the selkie was going to stay with them as long as they needed him.

"Which is forever'n ever!" Bryn said, grabbing Ronan's hand.

His mum and dad exchanged a long look, which was never a good thing.

After a tense enough evening, Erlend's dad showed them to the door. Ronan wandered on

ahead, Bryn and Kieran clutching his hands.

"You needn't make up some story so that folk will accept him," his dad said suddenly. "They might wonder at not even waiting until your wife was cold in the ground, but no one expects you to be alone forever."

"Dad, I'm not--" He looked at Ronan's backside, the long hair swinging behind him as the boys dragged him along. "He's a selkie, Dad. I stole his skin from the shore after the funeral. I can't--" He rubbed at his eyes with his free hand.

His mum came up to stand in the doorway with them, chuckling. "Only you, lad," she said, standing on her toes to kiss his cheek. "Only you would find the first selkie in thirty years and bring him home."

His dad looked from Ronan to Erlend and back again. "A selkie? Y'sure about that, boy?"

Erlend laughed. "If I hadn't seen him drop the seal-skin with my own eyes, Dad, I wouldn't be."

Ronan turned back then, watching them clustered in the doorway. "Are we going home ourselves or staying here for the night?" the selkie called across the yard. "You aren't leaving me alone with these two."

"Coming!" Erlend called back, kissing both his mum and his dad's cheeks. He ran after his family as fast as he could.


A week passed, and then two. Halfway through the third week, they'd fallen into a routine of sorts. He and Ronan still switched off every night, one taking the bed and one taking the couch. To compensate, whoever got the bed had Peedie duty. At the end of the first week, his mum dropped a bottle warmer off "so that man of yours doesn't burn down the house one night". Ronan altered between looking startled by the gift and angry at the suggestion. Erlend just shook his head and let it go, knowing that people would think what they wanted to think.

And apparently the neighbors were already beginning to think it. After three weeks of solitude and isolation, his sisters were beginning to chafe at the bit. Anna was the first to come by in that third week, not even bothering to ring first. Erlend was in his office, going over the breeding histories of some of the farm's cattle when he

heard the knock at the door. And because it was at the back door and not the front, he knew it had to be family. Family never bothered to go around to the front of the house. Half of the time, he was lucky if they knocked at all.

"Da! It's Auntie Anna!" Bryn called from the kitchen, where he and Kieran were watching something on the television with Ronan.

With a sigh, Erlend pushed his chair back from his desk and went into the kitchen. "Hullo, Sis," he said as Anna hugged him tight, kissing his cheek.

"That's the man, then?" she demanded in response. She nodded at Ronan and smiled. "Hullo there, nice to meet you, if you'll excuse us..."

Erlend let himself be dragged back into the office, not surprised to see Anna shut the door behind them.

"Mum said you had a man in your house. Bloody hell, Erlend. Don't you remember what happened to that head of social work just last year?" Of his four sisters, Anna had always been the most protective of the lot, especially since she was the oldest and he was the second-youngest and the only boy. Throughout Kirsten's stay in the hospital, Anna had pretty much been by his side, watching the boys to make sure they didn't get into any trouble and to make sure that Erlend ate and slept and actually looked at the new baby.

"Dammit, Anna, it's not like that!" He began to pace about the small room, trying to avoid the desk in the corner and the couch under the window. "We're not sharing a bed, if that's what

you're asking. And we're certainly not--"

"So he's just a replacement for your dead wife?" she asked softly, knowing him all too well. "If he's one of your chums from university, why hasn't he gone back, yet? Your in-laws left days ago, not that you paid them any attention." Anna reached up, brushing his hair out of his eyes just as she used to when he was small. "Erlend, we worry about you. This isn't healthy. And it's not Glasgow, where something like that might be okay."

"Anna, for the love of God--" Erlend stared down at her, wondering his undefeatable big sister became so small and fragile-looking. She had the same sturdy dark build that all his sisters had, but none of the Kirkness height that the rest of them inherited. "He's here to help me with the children," he repeated, not sure if he was trying to convince himself or Anna.

"Are you sure?" she asked in the same quiet tone.

"He's mine, and he'll never leave me," he said finally. "He can't leave me. I have his skin, so he'll have to stay forever--"

Anna wrapped her arms around his middle, drawing his head down to rest on her shoulder. "Shhh, Moppy, shhh." She rubbed circles in his back the same way she used to when he was a boy. When he finally quieted down, she pulled back from him with a small laugh. "Look at those tears lippering over those eyes," she said, wiping at her own face.

When he attempted at smiling back, she gave him a squeeze. "So you really think he's a selkie come to shore?" Her eyes were serious this time.

"You were always the ones asking for the tales," Erlend said, "not me. But I saw him leave his skin, and I snatched it up, just like the stories said."

"And now he's stuck with you until you release him." Anna looked at the closed door and sighed. "Baby brother, how do you manage these things?"

He chuckled a little. "Kirsten always said I needed someone to keep me in line." He looked at the door too, picturing Ronan there, his long hair falling into his face as he watched the television with the same intensity as Bryn or Kieran.

"Just watch yourself, aye?" Anna took his hand, squeezing it. "We're here to help you, Erlend.

You know that, right?"

He nodded, leaning down to kiss her cheek. "I know. I promise."

She left not long after, pausing only to make small talk with Ronan and kiss each of the boys farewell. "You'll come down to the house soon for tea or supper," she reminded Erlend, glancing at Ronan as she left. "And you'll remember what I said." "Aye, Miss Bossy-pants," he replied, smirking slightly.

"Watch your tongue, Moppy," she sassed back, lightly smacking him on the arm. "I expect you to keep him in line, Ronan," she called as she headed down the back steps to her car.

"Moppy?" Ronan failed miserably at hiding his smile.

Erlend rolled his eyes. "I had a stuffed rabbit when I was even littler than Bryn, so the girls and Mum decided to call me Moppy and it stuck..."

Ronan snorted. "That's one bit that I won't forget." He leaned in close, breathing in Erlend's ear. "Moppy."

Erlend could feel his warm breath against his neck, resisting the urge to turn his head closer. "Little seal," he muttered back, nudging Ronan with his shoulder.

Ronan laughed. "I guess I deserved that."


When the boys were asleep that night, Ronan got up to go to the office, since it was his turn.

"Wait," Erlend called out.

Ronan paused in the doorway. "If this is about Moppy this afternoon--" the selkie began.

Erlend shook his head. "It's not fair, making you take the couch half the nights," he began, not sure where his mouth was going with this.

"So you're giving me the bed permanently?" Ronan's mouth curved up into a half-smile.

"Half of it." Erlend rushed on. "It's a large bed, and neither of us take up all of it, and there's no sense losing sleep every other night when I go back to work soon--" He looked down at his hands, clenched in his lap. "Which we haven't talked about, either."

Ronan made his way back to the table, taking the seat across from Erlend. "You aren't letting me have my skin anytime soon, are you?" the selkie asked finally.

Erlend raised his head, not surprised to see the miserable look on Ronan's face. "No," he

answered quietly, feeling even worse than Ronan looked. "I can't."

Ronan gave a short laugh. "I understand. The lore teaches us that the price for dancing on land is the risk of getting caught. And you did catch me."

Erlend reached out a hand, covering one of Ronan's. "You're all right with it?"

"All right? I can't say that I'm pleased with it, but I accept it." As Erlend's face fell, Ronan continued in a rush, "Not that I mind it. You don't beat me, you haven't forced me, and your wee ones are pleasant enough when you get used to them."

"But?" Erlend prompted, his hand squeezing

Ronan's. He was surprised when the selkie's long fingers intertwined with his.

Ronan took a deep breath. "But I'm not your wife. And I'll not be your housekeeper. And if we're going to make this work, you need to remember that I am as male as you. Just...different."

Erlend smiled a little at that. "You said that your mother was half-human. Did she tell you stories about growing up here?"

"That was so long ago..." Ronan trailed off. "We don't measure time in years as you do. We don't age in years either. Grey seals might see thirty seasons if they're lucky, but selkies stay around a lot longer than that." He looked around the kitchen, most pointedly at the refrigerator and the television that sat on the counter next to the

microwave. "The world my mam knew, when she was small as Bryn, is nothing like the world today. The language is different. You've forgotten most of the Norn-speak, except for a word here and there."

"Peedie," Erlend said softly, looking at his daughter in her basket at his feet.

"Peedie," Ronan echoed. "For the ancestors' sake, Erlend, please name that child. I know that the hospital gave you an extension, but doesn’t that end in a fortnight?"

"What about Olivia? The olive branch was the first sign of hope that the dove brought to Noah after the flood waters receded." Erlend reached out his free hand to trace Peedie's round cheek.

"Liv, for life," Ronan said, following Erlend's gaze. When Erlend shot him a questioning glance, the selkie smiled. "My mother's name."

"How many are there of you, if you live so long?" A part of him knew that Kirsten would have loved this opportunity to know the truth behind the myths that he grew up with.

"Fourteen thousand gray seals around Orkney, and maybe one percent of that are selkie." At Erlend's surprised look, Ronan laughed. "Did you think there would be more?"

"Less, actually. No one's seen your kind in years," Erlend answered.

Ronan shrugged. "We're more careful about it in this age of science. The old ways are dying out, and so are we." His tone was light, but Erlend could still hear the sorrow in it, and the fear. "We were just as human as you were thousands of years ago, but when the Norsemen drove us into the ocean, we grew apart from you. Our lives were longer so we didn't have to cram as much passion into them as you do. Children grew fewer, and now…" He spread his hands out. "What do we have left?"

"Moonlight dances on the shore to lure young blood back into the gene pool," Erlend suggested half-seriously. "Why were you out of the water that early? I thought that you liked the night."

"Less chance of getting sunburned," Ronan answered in the same light tone. "Why were you out walking the shore at that hour? Shouldn't you have been getting supper with your family?"

Erlend conceded with a nod. "Point." He yawned. "About that bed situation..."

Ronan cocked his head at Erlend, studying him carefully. "Do you snore?"

"That was Kirsten," he responded, trying to ignore the slight twist he felt in his heart.

"Well, no lass has ever complained of my snoring, so I suppose we shall be well-suited to each other." Ronan stood, scooping up Peedie's basket in his arms. "But if this one cries in the night, you get to deal with her."

Erlend followed the selkie to the bedroom, not

sure of the next step. "The first time. The second time is yours."

Once they got to the bedroom, and Peedie's basket was installed in its place at the foot of the bed, Erlend found himself staring at Ronan. The selkie stared back, seemingly not sure of the next step either.

"Pajamas," Ronan said suddenly, going to the dresser to rummage in the drawer that Erlend had cleaned out for him. Kirsten's mother had packed up most of his wife's belongings the day before the funeral, storing some in the attic for the children when they were older, but taking most of them home to Glasgow with her.

Erlend reached for his own pajama pants, stripping down to his vest. He turned around before shucking off his pants, leaving them in the

corner like he always did.

"That might be the first thing we consider making a rule about," Ronan said from the other side of the room. "Cleanliness isn't godliness or any of that rot, but we have to keep this place in better shape."

"A housework schedule then?" Erlend asked as he tied the drawstring on his pajama pants.

"If need be." Erlend heard the sound of covers being turned down on the bed, and the mattress springs sighing as Ronan lay down. "Ready?"

It was strange to see the selkie lying there, his head resting on Erlend's own pillow. At least he didn't take Kirsten's side. He wasn't sure what he

would've done if Ronan had chosen the left instead of the right.

"Right." He got in beside the selkie, drawing the covers up to his chest. Ronan turned off the light on the bedside table. They lay in silence for a few minutes until Ronan actually spoke.

"You've never had a man in your bed before, have you?" It was more of a question than an accusation, but the normally self-assured selkie sounded nervous.

"Not even platonically. You either?"

He could hear Ronan's sigh of relief. "Not that there's any expectation..." Ronan continued. "Because this is for comfort purposes."

"Convenience," Erlend added, staring up at the ceiling.

A hand reached out to grab his. "I'm not your wife," Ronan said softly. "I don't want to be, and I won't try to be."

Erlend took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "I know," he answered, squeezing the hand back.


Summer passed, and Bryn turned six. Erlend had one more chance to thank his wife’s foresight, even though the “Love Da and Mam” tags on all the gifts made even Bryn pause for a moment

before he ripped into them.

They created a schedule and more or less stuck to it. Ronan proved to have a better head for finances than Erlend did, so he took over the bills. Erlend's dad even talked of having Ronan help out with the accounts for the farm, in addition to the invoices for Erlend's vet clients. The boys seemed to settle into their summer routine just fine, alternating days at cousins' houses and library programs and just running wild on the farm. Peedie was finally sleeping through the night and growing to be a happy, well-adjusted baby. There were still fights as they all adjusted to living with each other, but it seemed like everything was getting better.

Ronan even learned to drive, much to Erlend's surprise. That had been a royal row, starting with Ronan's distrust of anything that moved faster than he did, and ending with now eight-year old Kieran pointing out that someone would need to

drive, if Da ever got kicked in the head by a cow and fell unconscious. Bryn's offer to drive the car was the last straw, and Ronan finally agreed. Procuring the paperwork necessary to get Ronan a license proved to be a bit more of an effort, but Anna proved that money could indeed get you anything, especially if you knew the right people.

It was around mid-July that they actually started going out in public again, beyond visiting the market at an off-hour or running over to one of his sisters' houses. Tongues wagged, but the local parish didn't put up as much of a fuss as Erlend originally thought. Orkney wasn't as liberal as the city had been during University, and that was a decade and more ago. But because he and Ronan never flaunted their relationship, whatever it was, no one seemed to question. Bryn, of course, being the tale-teller that he was, announced to everyone that he met that his da's friend was a selkie. Most of the adults laughed and accepted that that was the way Erlend

Kirkness wanted to explain his new companion to his boys. Some of the older folk did give Erlend a look suggesting that they suspected something entirely different. Plenty of divorced wives and young widows still dropped off casseroles and other food to make sure that the bachelor cottage was well-fed, and probably for a chance to see any illicit homosexual action that they could. But all the local priest did was shove pamphlets into Erlend's hand about adjusting to grief and support groups, as if the church itself had given up on him.

But throughout the summer, he and Ronan still danced around each other. The touches to the hand became more frequent, nudging each other with their shoulders, carefully avoiding each other's eyes as they undressed and dressed each day. Erlend knew the patterns from his own courtship of Kirsten, and couldn't help wondering what his late wife thought about all this, wherever she was. But his body hadn't forgotten what it was like to share close space with another warm body, and there was something about the selkie's company that Erlend never found in Kirsten's

good-natured personality. It was a challenge, but it drove him to see if he could outwit Ronan, just to see how the selkie would react.

It was a rainstorm that finally broke their fragile peace. Erlend was out at a farm in Orphir when he got the call, trying to soothe a colicky horse. His mobile phone rang twice before he finally answered it, wiping his gramps' colic recipe out of his hair that the horse had chosen to spit back at him. "'Lo?"

"Da?" It was Kieran's voice. Erlend could barely make it out over someone howling in the background. "Da, you have to come home. Ronan's not moving an' Bryn won't stop crying and you need to come home right now."

"What's wrong, Kier? Did Ronan fall?" Erlend dropped the water bottle on the ground,

immediately grabbing his coat and heading for the car. Aaron Stedness, the horse's owner, followed him out to his car.

"Erlend, what's wrong? You're white as a ghost."

"Emergency, Aaron. Sorry," he said, struggling with the car door. "Kier? You still there, buddo?"

"Da, he's not moving and are you coming home yet?" Kieran's voice was shaking. "I called Gran's house but no one was there."

"Where are you, lad? I'll be there in just a minute." Erlend tried to soothe his son. "Are you at home?" The number was Ronan's mobile phone, another thing Erlend forced him to take, so they could be anywhere on the island.

"We're at the shore. Bryn wanted to show Peedie the sea."

Erlend cut across the Kirbister road up to A965, then sped over to the road between Lochs Harray and Stenness to get home as fast as possible. He was out of the car almost before he stopped it, running down to the beach as fast as his legs could carry him. The rain, which had been threatening to fall all day, decided at that moment to pour down. Erlend stumbled down the path to the beach, trying to avoid rocks and mud puddles that suddenly barred the way.

He spotted Bryn and Kieran clustered around Ronan's body, prone in the sand. Kieran held Peedie, who wailed with all her might. Bryn just stood there, crying silently. "Boys!"

Both boys ran over to him as fast as they could. "What happened?" he asked, hugging them both in turn.

"Ronan tried to go into the water, and the water spit him out," Bryn hiccupped. "An' now he's not breathing."

Erlend fell to his knees beside Ronan's body, listening to the selkie's chest. His heart was still beating, but when Erlend moved to listen to Ronan's mouth, he couldn't hear any breath.

"C'mon, you stupid seal," Erlend muttered, tipping Ronan's head back. He pinched Ronan's nostrils shut, putting his mouth over the selkie's. He breathed into Ronan's mouth until he saw the other man's chest rise, then breathed in twice

more. Pulling back, he began thumping just below Ronan's sternum, like they taught at that silly class in University. "Don't even think you're getting away from me that easily."

He breathed and pumped twice more before he heard a coughing sound. Erlend barely made it away in time before Ronan coughed up a lung full of seawater. "You stupid, stupid seal," Erlend said, drawing Ronan into a hard embrace. Ronan leaned against Erlend's shoulder, coughing more seawater down Erlend's back in deep, wracking coughs.

"I wasn't trying to get away," Ronan choked, his arms wrapping weakly around Erlend. "I just wanted to see if I could go back. But I can't go back. I can't."

Erlend pulled back from Ronan, cupping the

selkie's face in his hands. "Is it that terrible, here with us?" Ronan shook his head, his wet hair hanging in his face. "No! But I…"

Erlend leaned forward, kissing him hard. "Then don't you ever do that again," he said fiercely, his eyes burning. "I can't lose you. We can't lose you."

Then Kieran and Bryn joined the huddle, slumping over Ronan and crying into his wet shirt.

"No more swimming for me, then," Ronan promised, his voice cracking as he rested his head against Erlend's.

"No more swimming," Erlend echoed, trying not to think about his mouth against Ronan's and how much it hurt him.


That night, Ronan kept avoiding his eyes as they fixed supper and then put the boys to bed. A visit to the local doctor's had declared Ronan fit, if exhausted. Dr. Nelson had warned Ronan to take it easy for the next couple days, with a rather pointed look at Erlend. At least neither of them blushed this time, even if they didn't mention it the entire way home.

As soon as the boys were asleep, Ronan went into the bedroom and shut the door. Erlend kept Peedie out with him for company. She cooed to herself in her cot, kicking her legs as Erlend

finished up washing the dishes. When he peered at her after he finished, she looked solemnly back with Kirsten's wide blue eyes.

"I know how to do it, don't I, lass?" he asked, picking her up and rocking her. Peedie babbled something back, latching on to the buttons on Erlend's shirt with one small hand. "I didn't mean to, but the thought of losing him…"

"You get used to having someone around," Ronan's voice broke in from the doorway. He stood there shyly, fiddling with the belt of the bathrobe he wore. "I meant it, Erlend. I wasn't trying to go back. I just wanted to see..."

Erlend put Peedie back in her cot, making his way over to the selkie. "You're not a substitute for my wife," he said slowly, looking Ronan in the eye. "But you are part of my family, and a part I


Ronan smirked at him. "Is this where you get soppy with me like on the telly?"

"Prat," Erlend said with a laugh. "I'm trying to tell you how much you mean to me."

Ronan bumped his shoulder against Erlend's. "I already know that, numpty." Then his face grew serious. "Did you mean it today?"

"Mean what?"

And Ronan's lips were pressed against his, arms wrapped around Erlend's body. As far as Erlend

was concerned, nothing had ever felt better than Ronan's body pressed up against his.

"Only if you do," Erlend answered hoarsely.

Ronan's answer was another kiss as he pulled Erlend toward the bedroom door.

They stared at each other from the safety of opposite sides of the bed. Erlend wasn’t used to this subdued Ronan. The selkie had never been shy about his body before, especially since Peedie wasn’t old enough to care, one way or another. Even his blatant nudity from the first night would have been more welcome than this awkwardness.

“I don’t know what to do,” Erlend finally admitted. “I never…”

To his surprise, Ronan blushed. “Me either,” he said, sounding relieved. He laughed at Erlend’s shocked look. “There are those selkies that are called to like sexes, but most of us stick with the ways of breeding—male to female.”

Erlend crawled across the bed to where Ronan sat, touching the selkie’s smooth cheek with one finger. It still annoyed him that Ronan never had to shave. From what he’d seen, the selkie’s body was smooth all over, except for the waist-length hair that fell from his head.

“But this is—this is agreeable to you?” Erlend traced the high cheekbones and slanting eyebrows, the long slope of Ronan’s nose.

Ronan kissed his finger as it brushed over the selkie’s lips. “Aye.”

They undressed slowly. Erlend found it hard to keep his eyes off the selkie, after months of avoiding any glimpse of the lean body. The selkie was pale in spite of the time he spent in the sun. Side-by-side next to Erlend, Ronan seemed delicate and small. Erlend knew first hand Ronan’ s wiry strength, though, even if the selkie tended to shirk from heavy lifting duties to protect his own fragile limbs.

He couldn’t resist touching the milk-white skin as it was revealed, leaning in to taste Ronan’s collarbone, then one rose-colored nipple, and finally the line of Ronan’s narrow hip. The selkie’ s groin was as bare as a child’s, making the hard length of his cock all the more impressive. At least that was familiar territory. Erlend actually laughed in relief.

“What?” was Ronan’s offended remark as he edged away from Erlend’s questing fingers.

“I hoped—you’re the same,” Erlend gasped out finally, dragging Ronan close. “We’re the same.”

Ronan nuzzled Erlend’s cheek. “I could’ve told you that.”

When they were both finally bare and on equal footing, Erlend took Ronan in his arms again. They lay chest to chest, Erlend’s hard bits finding pleasure in rubbing up against something that wasn’t his own palm.

“There’s—there’s ways of doing this, aye?”

Ronan muttered as they stroked and moved and thrust.

“We’ve already done the shirt-lifting,” Erlend replied, panting. “Just a wee bit more…”

It was a sticky mess between them now, but in Erlend’s relaxed state, he didn’t mind it at all.

“I meant,” Ronan said a bit later, stroking Erlend ’s short hair, “that there are other ways of doing this.” His hand stroked down Erlend’s arse, fumbling a bit there. “Other ways,” he emphasized.

Erlend moaned softly. “My flatmate at University mentioned those once, when we were pissed one night.” He thrust against Ronan’s hip as Ronan’s

fingers began tickling at his arse. “You need slick, aye? Something. Check the drawer.”

He heard rummaging and Ronan’s triumphant laugh. “KY Jelly? Presuming much, Love?”

“From the doctor. Kirsten…” He groaned as Ronan’s slicked-up fingers traced from his balls to his arse. “Ronan…”

It was sharp pain and feeling too full, followed by a burning he didn’t think was possible. But when Ronan found the angle, Erlend saw stars. “Aye, Love, that’s it…”

He was surprised they lasted as long as they did. This time, the mess was more contained, even though he doubted the sheets would ever be the


“Good?” Ronan asked, kissing his shoulder. Erlend rolled over, capturing Ronan’s mouth with his. “We could wait a while, and let you find out for yourself, eh, lad?”


Erlend looked at the number on his mobile phone, not surprised to see that it was the cottage's main number.

"Where are you?" Ronan's voice asked. "The secondary school needs Peedie's birth certificate for something."

"I might not be home ‘til this evening. John Isbister's cow is expecting twins." Erlend shifted the phone to his other hand. "Can you take the certificate up to the school before it closes?"

He could hear Ronan having a conversation with Peedie in the background. "Peedie says she'll drive it up." Even after all these years, Ronan still wasn't entirely comfortable riding in a car, much less driving one. "Or I could call your mam."

"Tell Peedie she can drive in five years, just like the rest. And aye, call my mum. She'll be happy to."

"So, where is the damned thing? I can't send it off if I don't know where it is," Ronan prompted. "I'm

not blessed with the second sight or anything."

"Check the safe in our wardrobe. The combination is Peedie's birthday."

He could hear Ronan making his way to the bedroom and then shoveling off the pile of clothes that had hid the safe for so long. "So there is something under there. I thought it was just your laundry basket. So you just dial in the numbers and it opens?"

"Aye. And her certificate should be on top of the pile. If not, it'll just have to wait until tomorrow."

"Except tomorrow's Saturday, remember, Love?" Ronan reminded him. "A Saturday when the bairns are off at your sister's and we have the day

all to…"

There was a shriek in the background. "I don't wanna hear it!" Erlend could hear Peedie shouting. "You've already scarred me for life, Ronan!"

"I'll let you get back to that," Erlend said with a laugh. "If Mum wants to take her shopping as well, there should be some extra cash in the breadbox."

"And spend an entire afternoon to myself? Whatever would I do?" Ronan whispered into the phone. "Unless I stay here and think of what I'll do to you tomorrow…”

Ronan was cut off as someone yanked the phone

from him. "I'll make sure he goes with us, Da," his daughter said into the mobile phone. "Gran and I will make sure he has something presentable to wear." Presentable to a twelve year old though wasn't the same as presentable to a fifty-year-old man, much less a selkie.

"Don't frighten him too much, peedie lass," Erlend said. "You aren't the one who has to live with him in that sense."

"But we're not talking about that," Peedie replied quickly. "And he's making faces at me, so I'll give the phone back to him. Later, Da!"

"So you're resigning me to an afternoon of shopping in Kirkwall?" Ronan asked. The selkie sniffed. "Taking me for granted, you are."

"Just want you to look pretty for me when I get home," Erlend whispered into the phone, smiling a little.

"We'll see about that." Ronan's voice got louder. "So I'll get the certificate and have your Mam run it up to the school, and then Peedie will be able to start secondary in the autumn, aye?"

"Sounds right. See you in a few hours, Love."

Then Ronan said something he rarely did on the telephone. "Love you, Erlend."

"Love you too, Ronan."

It wasn't until he was driving home that night that Erlend realized what was also in the safe. It was all he could do to stay within the speed limit as he crossed Mainland, hoping Ronan would still be there when he got home.

But the sight of his youngest children sitting on the front steps gave him all the answer he needed.

Peedie threw herself into his arms as soon as he got out of the car. Bryn followed behind her.

"I'm sorry, Da. I tried to get the skin from him, but..." Erlend held out his arm, taking Bryn's lean body in his arms as well. "It was inevitable," he whispered to their heads. Peedie still fit under his

chin, but Bryn was almost as tall as he was. "I should've hid it better. I should've given it to him years ago. I should've…”

Bryn pushed back, and even in the twilight, Erlend could see that his eyes were red. "He had to go, Da. You saw how thin he was getting. It was time. They aren't meant to stay on land forever, not anymore."

Peedie looked up at him, tears streaming down her round cheeks. "He left a letter, Da. And he looked like he might've stayed. We thought he was going to for a moment, but then…”

Bryn shook his head. "He had to go back," he repeated. "Here, Da." He rummaged in his pocket for the folded up note. “Ronan said for me to give you this.”

Erlend herded the two inside, not surprised to find lunch still on the table and the house a general mess. Over the years, they had divided up the housework between them, with the children doing most of the cooking. After almost twelve years on land, Ronan still couldn't--or refused to--cook reliably.

He sat down at the table, staring at Ronan's graceful handwriting. From the creases of the note, it looked old, as if it had been written years ago. "Dear Love..." it began.

Dear Love,

We both knew this day was coming, and I wish with all my heart that I could stay. The ancestors know that my gran tried, and even my mam

tried. It's just not meant to be. The Norsemen divided our fates years ago, so our kinds have grown apart. We don't love like you anymore, or share your passion for all things. Long life isn't a comforting thing when you spend most of it missing the ones you love. Which will surely be my fate.

By right, I owe you nothing. You kept me prisoner all these years, not that I didn't love the shackles and cage. You gave me your children, something I never expected to have. And I'll miss them more than I can say, so much that probably only you will understand.

But the old magic does give us one gift, one saving grace. With our skins, we are allowed to return to the sea. And with our skins, we are allowed to call others to the sea with us. I can't now, because the bairns are still young and need you, but when you're ready, Erlend...

Call for me, love. The seven tears are all it takes. And, I promise you, we will be together again.

Yours. Always.


Erlend didn't even notice his hands shaking as he finished the letter. He took a deep breath, trying to hold back a sob. The letter was dated four years ago, which meant that Ronan had planned for the eventuality of finding the skin. The "Yours. Always" at the bottom, however, was probably written only hours before.

"Da?" Bryn's voice was worried.

"It's all right," he answered hoarsely. "It's all right, buddo." He tried to smile, but his face crumpled instead.


He stared out at the sea the next morning, watching the seals play in the bay. One particular gray seal seemed to return his stare with brown eyes that he'd know anywhere.

"If I promise not to hide your skin, will you come back sometimes, just for a night?" he called down to the seal, trying not to hope. "It'll be years before I can come to you, but as you said, years are nothing when you live so long."

The seal held his gaze, looking as if he was considering the offer. With deliberate slowness, the seal nodded his head once before disappearing beneath the water.

Erlend let out a breath that he didn't even realize he'd been holding. It wasn't forever, just until the children were settled and grown. A lifetime of love for his children, and a lifetime of loneliness, building up seven precious tears.

alpha by ba tortuga

The ground felt good under his paws, solid and firm, just a little damp, just a little cool. Autumn was coming, Cage could smell it in the air, sharp as a knife where the winds cut through the trees.

He was getting tired, slowly but surely the moon had stopped calling and the extra energy had started to fade, the urge to run and run and hunt easing as he neared home.

A hare crossed his path, right before he turned

toward the den and his nose twitched.



His direction shifted, motions quiet and sure, nose on the ground as he tracked.

So intent was he on his trail that he missed the big black blur that came at him until the last minute, when it hit him and sent him rolling over and over. Heavy snarls filled the air as his attacker went for his throat.

No. No. His den.

Instinct took over, teeth flashing as he fought to find his feet, to defend his territory with all he was, fur to bone.

The Other was bigger, maybe stronger, pushing at him, teeth snapping only inches from his throat. The ground churned beneath their paws as they fought, back and forth.

He managed a sharp bite to one ear, another to the big male's flank as he tried to keep his throat, his ruff away from those teeth. The ground beneath their feet gave way and he jumped back, landing hard and snapping his teeth in the air in a direct challenge.



The Other came in again, answering him with bared teeth and wild golden eyes, pushing him hard, going for his vulnerable lower back legs.

Cage ended up scrambling for higher ground, claws scraping on the stone and bark left exposed on the ground. He could taste blood, sharp and metallic on his tongue and it tasted like prey.

Bounding after him, the Other seemed tireless, seemed to grow larger, the ruff standing up around his neck. That tail had to be twice as full as Cage's.

A pure fury filled him, sure as the sunlight that was lightening the sky. Hold on. Hold on. The sun was coming and he wouldn't lose his home. He wouldn't .

They circled, both of them growling and bristling. The Other leapt at him again, almost catching him, just missing.

He dropped low, snarling and trying for the Other's paws, anything to slow it down, to give him time.

He missed by inches, the Other leaping back, then bounding for higher ground, toward the sun. Damn it.

Cage took the risk, running toward his den as fast as his legs would carry him. The change still left him confused and weak, vulnerable.

He skidded to a stop a foot short, the Other right there in front of him, snarling, teeth bright in the rising light.

Without stopping to even think, Cage lunged, teeth bared as he howled out his fury, his frustration.

He thudded hard to his very human back just as the sun crested the rise, hitting them fully. The Other had thrown him without breaking the skin, snarling loud. The sound cut off though, mid-stream, becoming more of a...grunt.




Man, come on. You can stand up. Youcan .


"Fuck..." Now that? Was so not a wolf sound.

Cage rolled up on hands and knees, blinking down at his hands, the torn nails, the mud. Yeah.

Okay. See? Changed.

Good dog.

The Other was bigger as a man, too, wide shoulders and muscled arms braced as the guy looked at him, dark brown eyes wide. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

"This... this is my place."

" long? How fucking long have you been in my den, you fucking pup?"

"Your den? I won it in a challenge, fair and square." He had the scars to prove it, the big grey

had almost killed him, but he'd done it and he wasn't leaving. "Get the fuck out of my way."

"Jesus. It's been mine for years. What the hell?" The guy stood, unsteady, blood streaking the left side of his ribs.

He scrambled to his feet, breath coming in quick pants. It wasn't his problem. It wasn't. His bed was in there, waiting for him.

Those big hands clenched into fists, the hair covered chest filling with air as the guy breathed deep, preparing for the next round, maybe.

Man, he needed a big rock. Not that he could pick it up to throw it right this second, but a big rock was better than no rock at all.

The guy staggered, growling low and ugly. "I'm fucking tired. I'm going in there to sleep. You can come or not. But don't fuck with me, Pup."

"It's mine." He wasn't giving it up. Hewasn't . "Find your own place."

"Thisis my place. You really want to go again?" The man couldloom . That was for sure. He was all cut muscles and heavy brows and hot brown eyes.

No. No, he really didn't, but he would. This place was his.

Cage launched himself toward the door, praying for the element of surprise to work, just this once.

It didn't. He collided with that heavy form, the smack making both of them grunt, the momentum forcing them to the ground. Luckily he landed on top.

"Find your own place." He scrambled for the door, something in his shoulder popping as he muscled it open.

"No! Goddamn it." They tumbled again, the door swinging crazily behind them as they rolled across the kitchen floor. "I left this place with a friend. What the fuck did you do to him, you little prick?"

They landed, the big guy on top this time, straddling him.

He covered the urge to whimper with a snarl, both hands pummeling at whatever bit of hard, hairy body he could reach.

They fought until he was exhausted, until he could feel blood running down his hands from scratches he'd left. The body pinning him down got heavier, the fight weighing both their limbs.

There wasn't a fucking inch of him that wasn't screaming, wasn't begging for his bed, for a long few days of sleep and healing and dreaming. Things got a little swimmy, his eyes crossing as he fought to urge to sink under.

One hand finally closed around his throat. "You can stay, you don't try anything. Got it? I need to rest..."

"This is my den." He gasped, snapped as he fought. "F...fair and..."

Moon and stars, he was tired.


"We'll fight about it later," the guy said, hauling him up off the floor so his feet dangled a little. "Now we rest."

He didn't even have enough left to argue, so he

sorta... hung there and blinked. Then he was in his bed, the smells comforting and right. His bed. His home.

The Other slid in next to him, heavy and warm, smelling wrong and odd and yet familiar. LIke the scent that had lingered when he first moved in.

Finally he just snuggled in, let the black and quiet pour over him, the heat around him defying the threat of autumn in the air.


The light shone brightly when Roman woke, and damned if he wasn't starving. Really. His belly felt concave. He needed food, and he hoped to hell the little wolf cub had some.

The cub. Lord. Roman rose up on one elbow and looked down, one hand settling in a disturbingly proprietary way on the kid's hip. This one had fight. Grit. It amused and astounded him.

He stared at the kid, really looking, noting smears of blood he'd left. Looking for anything else that might tell him a tale.

Compact, but not small, covered in a rough pattern of scars and bites that proved the cub was a scrapper. The kid didn't smell of a pack, didn't look starved, smelled strongly of male and musk and blood.

His stomach rumbled and Roman grinned. He could eat the kid alive, but not that way. Really.

Sighing, he rolled to his back and stretched, pondering eggs. Surely there had to be eggs.

A sharp yip sounded and the kid vaulted out of the bed, looking like someone'd just rung his bell, eyes wide as saucers. "I. Uh. Fuck. Who."

"The guy who kicked your ass last night. You got any eggs?" He'd best start out like he could hold out. He needed to eat, but he'd slept hard enough to save some energy if he needed to fight.

"Fuck you." The words would be more threatening if the kid wasn't swaying so bad. He could remember that, when the change was still fairly new and it took it out of you, made you weak as all fuck.

Made you disoriented too, and Roman took advantage of it, slipping out of the bed and prowling, pacing. "That'll come. Or the other way around, at least. But now I want food."

"People... people in Hell want ice water." The cub's nostrils flared, curious to learn him.

"I know. Trust me. I've been there." Hell had to look a lot like Death Valley at midday. "Come on, kid, I know you have to be starving."

The cub nodded, still blinking. "You made me lose my hare."

Then he got a look at the tight, sweet little ass as the cub padded toward the tiny little kitchen. Hell, he had to admit, the cub was taking care of

shit, the cabin neat as a pin.

"How was I to know you were living in my house?" Little fuck. He followed, his own nose twitching as he breathed in deep, getting a good taste of the kid's scent. Yum.

"It's mine. I earned it." Oh, that was a growl, there.

"You earned it from a coward who gave it up when he was charged with protecting it for me. I fucking built this place, from the crooked edge of the foundation on the north side to the not quite plumb wall in the guest room." Let that stew a minute. He could do his own growl.

"If you're fucking stupid enough to leave it with a

coward, that's not my problem." The kid had a cast iron skillet in hand now and Roman'd be damned if the little shit didn't look like he could use it.

Roman muscled in, pressing the kid back against the counter, holding him there. "Well, I'm back now, aren't I?"

That upper lip curled, the growl sharp and sure. "And you can turn around and leave the same way."

"Nope. Mine. And since you're here..." He cupped one hand behind the kid's neck, leaning down. "What's your name?"

"Cage." All the kid's muscles went tight, fighting

him, pushing against him.

It was the scruff thing that was making the kid all rumbly, but he had to, to prove dominance. "I'm Roman," he said, bending more and pressing his lips to the pulse beating hard at the base of Cage's throat. "And you're mine now, too."

"No." Pheromones poured between them, the air flooded with them both.

God, yes. Cage smelled like...home. It was crazy. They'd fight. The kid would see to that. But damn. Roman growled low, licking. "Yes."

The pan clattered to the floor, the kid's hands landing on his shoulders with a slap, muscles bunching. "No."

If the no meant no, the pan would have hit his head. Smiling, Roman pressed the advantage, rubbing his cock against the tight belly, biting a little. "I think we can work this out, Cage."

"I don't..." Oh, right. Cage didn't, with that pretty cock curving up to rub against his thigh, belly tight and hot against him.

"Don't think. This can be easy. We can be pack..." That hit him hard and sudden, the need to make that. He'd been wandering too long. Lone wolf. He'd wanted to come home to Johnny. Why not Cage?

"I." The kid slipped out from under him, leaving a strip of skin, he'd bet. Those eyes were wild, a

bright sharp blue that just screamed confusion. "Who are you?"

"I told you. My name's Roman. Roman Elias. This is my place. My den. It has been for a long time." He wanted to lick the sore spot Cage was fidgeting against, wanted to soothe. "I bet it smells like me still. I bet that's why you could sleep with me."

He got another one of those unconscious nods. "I didn't steal it. I won." One hand traced down the tanned belly, the scars there deep, ropy.

He lowered his voice, letting it come out as a rumble, a sound cubs heard from birth. "I bet. You're good, Cage. You're tough. But there's safety in numbers."

He could see it, see how that sound hit Cage and settled him, made the kid tilt his head and swallow and stare.

"Yeah. Just like that." Roman moved close again, his hand smoothing down Cage's shoulder and arm. "Let's just eat, yeah? Not think a minute. Just relax."

"I..." Cage sniffed, sniffed again, belly rumbling. "I have bacon. Good and thick. I traded for it."

"Then you make bacon, and I'll make the most amazing eggs you've ever had. Fried or scrambled?"

"I like scrambled." Those blue eyes searched his,

so off-kilter he almost laughed. Almost, because sure as shit that would piss the kid right off.

His lips didn't even manage to twitch. "Cool. I like them scrambled well." He met Cage's eyes with his, holding them, sure and steady. "It's okay."

"Okay." The way the kid licked those lips made him want to howl.

He held it in, held off on the urge to grab his cock and stroke, too. "Bacon, hon."

"Yeah, it's in the fridge." Again he got tempted with that ass, this time with a bright red scratch on the top from the edge of the cabinet. Bacon and eggs and milk were pulled from the old fridge, the

kid pouring a huge glass of milk and gulping it down, before pouring another. "You want one?"

"Yeah." Hell, yes. He could smell what it would do for him, all of that good shit like carbs and vitamins and just comfort.

He got a glass filled to the brim, the kid still twitchy, not shaking, focusing on the food and the milk. He could see all the little things that had changed. Things fixed up a little here, chewed a little there.

Literally chewed in some places. Lord, the kid must have been going through a chewing stage in wolf... Roman sipped his milk and watched. The bacon would take longer than the eggs.

"What are you looking at?"

"You're all scraped up. We should take a shower after breakfast, get patched up." The eggs cracked easily into the little clay bowl Cage handed him, and Roman concentrated on that, knowing when to back off. He'd nip and growl some more when Cage got cocky.

Cage didn't answer, just dug out bread and a slab of butter, slathering the butter on thick white slices and shoving it in the oven, sort of grunting and muttering to himself.

Okay, maybe he needed to get the kid sorted out now. Setting the eggs aside, Roman pounced, covering the kid's ass and back with his body, his teeth sinking into the back of that vulnerable neck.

The cub yelped, hands scrabbling on the counter, body arching underneath him, trying to throw him off. Roman just went almost boneless, putting all of his considerable weight behind his teeth, pressing down. He could feel the panic, the fight as Cage panted and struggled, even as that compact body sank to the ground.

Smart cub. So smart. Roman went after him, covering him, just pressing down all the way to the floor. He knew the kid needed total submission to understand, to really know.

Breath coming quick and harsh, Cage finally stilled under him, just the softest noises filling the air.

"Shhhh." He bit down gently before moving back

to turn Cage to his back. He nuzzled the throat, then the belly and then the soft, fuzzy balls, Cage shivering under him but holding still. "Good. That's good."

He got a quiet little sound - not quite a moan, not quite a whine. The cub's scent was hot, strong, male and promising. The only thing that might burn was the bread, so Roman covered Cage with his body again, rubbing back and forth, their cocks pressing. His whole body rocked at the feel, involuntary but so, so right.

All those muscles bunched, arching beneath him and rubbing back. Cage's lips parted on a growl, eyes rolling and wild. Roman bit down against the skin of Cage's throat, feeling it nearly split beneath his teeth, licking it to soothe after. He just kept rubbing, needing so bad.

Cage's cock started leaking, leaving wet lines on his belly, his prick, this new scent filling his nose and making his lip curl. His mouth watered, making him reach between them and pull at both their cocks, rubbing his own pre-come into Cage's skin, too, pushing them back and forth.

Cage pushed up, long tongue sliding over his shoulder, tasting him, licking at him as Cage humped up into his hand. He growled. So long. Too long. Grunting, he smacked down against Cage, biting, licking, snarling his fuckingjoy . His teeth scraped along Cage's throat, the thin skin catching, the salty taste filling his mouth. Heat sprayed over his hand, Cage howling with it, the sound almost surprised.

There. Right there. Roman came so hard he saw stars, his head snapping up and back, his vision filled with nothing but Cage and the look on the cub's damned face...

His hands were busy, even as he came floating down, rubbing his scent into Cage's skin. Marking the cub. Claiming. His.

So his.

They rested a long while, until Cage shifted under him, a short, sharp bark telling him how uncomfortable the floor was. He finally let Cage up, holding him just long enough to make sure the cub knew it was *his* choice.

Then they were both up. "How about those eggs?"

The growl of Cage's belly was answer enough.


Cage paced from bathroom to bedroom, heart pounding, head just whirling.



Was he supposed to leave now? Beat Roman with a shovel? Pounce the sorry son of a bitch and fuck him?


He'd thought this place was far enough away from everything that he could just stay here, hide. Live. Not fight all the fucking time.

Cage growled, heading for the door. He needed to run, to move, to think.

He almost ran smack into Roman, who was coming back in, wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt that showed off every muscle. "Hey, Cub. Going out?"

Yes. No. Shit, if he left, was he fucked? What were the goddamned rules?

"Not a cub."

"Uh huh." Those eyes were dark brown and had crinkles at the corners as Roman smiled at him. "Well, don't get lost. I've got steaks to cook."

"This is my home. I won't get lost." Steaks. Uhn. God, he was still hungry.

"So, how did you manage to beat Johnny anyway?" That big body brushed his as Roman went by, hauling a couple of sacks.

"We met. We had a fight. That was that." Sort of. Basically. With a lot of details left out.

"Yeah? You'll have to tell me all sometime... You like potatoes?" It was surreal, how this guy acted like this was all normal and shit.

"Yeah..." He frowned, just blinking.

"Cool. I'll toss some of them in, too." Was that a laugh? Was that bastard laughing at him?

It raised his hackles, made him growl under his breath, heading straight for the door.

He landed hard enough that the whole house shook, Roman's full weight on his back, his breath whooshing out as Roman pushed him down. "Don't you growl at me, Cub."

"Not a fucking cub." That would have been more impressive if he could breathe.

Heavy bastard.

"Then stop acting like one. Be civil, you hear?" A hard bite hit the back of his neck, Roman shaking his scruff a little before getting up off him.

He bared his teeth, swung his legs around hard enough to tug Roman's right out from under, the big man slamming onto the floor. "Watch your fucking tone while you're in my house."

A low snarl was his only warning as Roman leapt

up and came at him like a flash of lightning. Damn. Jesus, the man was fucking fast. Cage rolled, faking a dart to the left before heading right, sliding to a more defensible position by the door. One hand swiped his leg, leaving a terrible sting. They both turned, both prowled back into fighting stances.

His toes curled, fingers wanting to be claws, a howl wanting to push out and tell everyone--everyone--that this was his house. Lips pulling back from his teeth, Roman came at him again, weight pushing at him, snapping at him. He dropped low, pushing through, trying to get Roman off balance. The scent of them together was distracting, made him confused, dizzy.

The feel of Roman's mouth smacking against his made it worse. When Roman pushed in with his tongue, it all went to hell, his whole body just betraying him. Their chests slapped together, nails dragging along backs and arms and chests as they

growled and moaned and tried to eat each other alive. Roman rolled, putting him on the bottom and humping against him, hips moving hard and fast as the kiss grew teeth and drew blood. His fingers tangled in the thick, dark hair, and if he couldn't figure out whether he was pulling toward or away? He could live with that.

They rubbed, their clothes seeming wrong, harsh against his skin. Roman moaned for him, bit his throat. The bites made him wild, made him growl and snarl and bite back a whine. Rearing back, Roman ripped at his shirt, tossing it aside. Then he got more of those maddening bites, on his shoulder, just over his nipple, right above one hipbone.

His skin was on fire, burning and aching, cock leaking and hard in his pants. Growling, Roman opened his pants, fingers hard and callused, pulling at him. The sounds were just...amazing. Eyes rolling, he arched, legs scrabbling for

purchase on the wood floor. Oh. More. More. Now.

"More," Roman echoed out loud. They moved, a predatory dance that just rocked his world. Roman bit him again, hanging on like a fucking pit bull, his shoulder throbbing.

He rolled, trying to get on top, trying to get more. Fuck if that big bastard didn't push him back down so hard he saw stars. But he got what he wanted, Roman covering him, their cocks rubbing as the man opened his own jeans and got them both in one hand.

"Uhn." His hands opened and closed, balls going tight as stones. Yes. Yes. He needed.

"Uh huh. Fuck. You smell good...Jesus, Babe." They'd take up the issue of the man and his pet names later. Now they could just come together and apart with sharp jerks of their hips.

"Want. Want." He wrapped one hand around Roman's hip, moving them faster.

"Yeah. Now. God, come on." Roman tugged hard, moved harder, and bit even damned harder, a bruise blooming under his skin. He jerked and shot, eyes rolling, heat spraying between them, his nerves just singing.

Not two seconds later Roman came on him, heat sliding across his belly, wet and good. Their scent. Oh, God. They rubbed together, his mouth watering, cock trying to jerking and come back to life again.

"Mmm. Fuck, yes. Needed that." Not that Roman stopped moving. The man slid and slipped on him, their come rubbing in.

He leaned up, lips finding Roman's throat, tongue sliding on the skin. Good. Now it was Roman's turn to "uhn", the sound vibrating against Cage's tongue. "Gonna get me going again."

This was a bad thing?

He nuzzled in, rumbling as the scent of Roman filled his nose, the flavor filled his mouth. Hot. So hot. Roman pushed him a little, detaching his lips from that throat and pushing him more toward the chest. Yeah, the man wouldn't want him at the throat or belly. He bit one collarbone, just to let Roman know that he wasn't just going to submit.

He wouldn't. His home.

He got a chuckle, Roman's hands sliding on his skin, soothing him like a pup. It worked, though, making his eyes half close as Roman scratched at his back.

Oh. He groaned and stre-e-e-e-e-etched, the sensation as right as hunting.

A low, rumbly, totally inhuman sound made him want to whine, made him want to curl in and beg. Or toss Roman down and fuck him. Cage bared his teeth, lips rubbing over Roman's skin, needing that flavor, that scent.

"Careful, Cub." Roman yanked him up for a kiss that sent him spinning, sharp teeth cutting into

lips. He wasn't sure whose blood it was that he tasted. He pushed, shoving hard enough to roll them, landing on Roman with a thud.

Roman grunted, feet and hands scrabbling, teeth bared. "Fuck, Cub. What the hell..."

He straddled the thick thighs, pushed right into the kiss, tongue forcing Roman's lips open. Not. A. Cub. Whether it was surprise or Roman humoring him it didn't matter, because that hot mouth opened to his, letting him in to taste and feel. Yeah, the man was up for another round. Seriously up.

It eased him and he rubbed, exploring the sharp teeth with his tongue, finding out the soft spots, the smooth spots. Roman grabbed his ass, hands hard and rough, digging in. Pulling him into a rhythm. He growled out his pleasure into Roman's

mouth, hands dragging along Roman's ribs. Good. Smelled good.

They smelledright together. There was something about Roman's scent, something in how it mixed with his that made him crazy. The way Roman buried his nose in Cage's throat and breathed hard once the kiss broke told Cage he wasn't the only one who thought so.

"Mmm..." He nuzzled Roman's temple, tongue slipping out to taste, to explore.

Bead of sweat ran under his mouth, Roman groaning against his skin, licking him in return. That rough tongue had goosebumps rising.

He couldn't help his sounds, the low rumbles and

soft growls that just built inside him. Good.


They rolled again, suddenly, his back clunking against the floor. Roman rumbled, biting at his shoulder, hips rolling against him.

Damn it. He rolled up, trying to get a place to bite himself, to make Roman feel. They rocked back and forth, grunting and pushing each other to the limit, all snarls and teeth. Fuck, it was amazing. His cock was full, aching, leaking everywhere it slid against Roman's skin. Roman pulled him up with a hand on the small of his back. They rubbed and rubbed like a pair in heat, licking and biting until one or other of them was gonna just explode, he was sure.

He wasn't sure which of them shot first, which of them bit deep and which of them scratched. He just tumbled, all heat and teeth and claws and good.

They lay panting together, Roman licking his throat with long, rough strokes. "Better, Cub."

"Not a cub." He hummed, throat working.

"No. Not a cub. Mine, though." So sure, so solid.

He rumbled, but his chin lifted, letting Roman have more.

"Mmmhmm. God." At least Roman sounded like he couldn't quite believe it either, even if those touches never faltered, Roman's mouth working.

"I..." Okay. For now. It felt so right. Asshole.

Later they could work out who was gonna win this pissing contest. After. When he could think. For now he'd just feel.


Well, the kid had stopped pacing a little. Had stopped vibrating and sniffing the air. They'd managed two days in a kind of peace. Roman was getting a little...prowly himself, though. Feeling the need to run.

He just didn't know if he could, at least not doing it and having the kid go nuts again when he got back, ruining the work he'd done.

"Hey, Cub," he finally said, walking up and squeezing the kid's ass as he looked in the fridge. "Wanna go out?"

"Out? Where?" The kid was a housebody, working hard on the knives and tools that he traded.

"Out for a run. Hell, we can take food. Come on, let's just go." No one would come while they were exploring.

"Okay." He got a quick grin, the sudden look all cub and curiosity and need to go and play.

"Cool. We should take some food just in case we suck at getting something, but we won't need water. I know where all the springs are." He'd bet anything Cage didn't. He probably stayed in until hehad to get out.

"I can hunt." The cub packed a few things, though, starting to bounce, to twitch, nose wiggling.

"Good. Come on." He clapped the kid on the back, heading out, grinning huge as he stretched his arms and back.

Cage followed, moving quick and heading

straight for the trees, herding him a little.

Oh no. No way. Roman immediately broke the other direction. The kid had to understand. He wasn't gonna be out-alphaed. That got him a growl, the cub following close behind.

Grinning, Roman pushed the speed, really racing now, stretching out his legs. And cussing the limitations of human bodies. He was surprised as Cage kept up, short legs moving faster, covering the ground.

Hell, the kid pushed him, prodding him, and if he'd been a deer or something he'd bet the damned cub would be snapping at his ankles. They hit the rocky slope that led up from his little valley then, and Roman scrambled, knowing every damned hole and stone.

The cub could hunt, could follow him without even seeming to think, so fucking focused.

Pure exhilaration. That what it felt like to have someone so good with him. His heart raced and he all but howled, changing direction abruptly, heading across the scree toward the first spring.

Cage followed, sounds less and less human, more feral as they moved.

Yeah. Come on, Cub, he thought. Show me what you can do. He leaped over a fallen tree, landing hard and jolting himself before picking up the pace. Cage landed on his heels, close enough to smell. Yes. Hell.

He was actually torn for a minute between moving on and turning and throwing the cub down right there on the ground. God. Then the smell of fresh, clear water overtook him, and that was that. The spring, then.

The cub stopped, sniffed, a pure, happy bark sounding. Roman barked right back, taking the last quarter of a mile at a dead run, seeing if Cage could keep up. His legs took the lead, but Cage stayed close, panting at his heels. Roman skidded to a stop where the spring bubbled out of the ground, creating its own little stream. He leaned his hands on his knees and panted, grinning like a fool. "Good one, Cub."

He got a nod, a lopsided grin, Cage slumping to the ground with a thud.

He chuckled. Okay, yeah, he still had it. All that pumping iron while was stuck in the city, he figured. That and running on a treadmill like a show dog. Jesus.

Cage stripped his shirt off, letting Roman see those fine muscles shift and ripple. Fingers twitching, Roman went to the spring and pulled up a handful of water, slurping it down before moving aside to let Cage have at.

Cage drank, the sun turning that skin to gold. Damn. Roman gave into his baser urges and pounced, his lips fastening on the kid's throat. He could get used to that bark, that deep, surprised sound that he got every time he got that throat. Licking it gave him all of that scent, all of that taste of sweat and musk and Cage. He bit down gently, giving some warning before biting hard. Hard.

Cage went stiff and still, hard as stone underneath him. Caught between the urge to fight and the instinct to submit, the cub just fucking vibrated, pheromones pouring from them both.

Deliberately Roman rolled to his back, letting Cage have the top for a moment, letting the kid relax.

He could see his mark, dark and wet, visibly throbbing in his cub's throat. Cage leaned down into him some, lips parted. Roman guided him, letting the kid kiss him. No biting. That was his job. The kissing, though, that he loved. Seemed like the cub didn't mind it, tasting him nice and slow, focused on it, on him. Those lips were full, swollen from his nips and nibbles, just a little red. Such laser-like focus just seemed weird in someone Cage's age, but he liked being on the receiving end. End. Mmm. Cage had a fine ass, and Roman squeezed it with both hands, loving

the resilience.

A little rumble pushed into his lips, Cage's hips arching, tight little butt rolling in his hands.

Roman let his fingers slide, his thumbs digging into the muscle as his middle fingers and pinkies teased the seam of Cage's jeans. Cage's motions slowed, the look in those eyes all tied up in a mix of worry and want and need. "Shh. Come on, Cub. Nothing you don't want, okay?"

Poor confused kid. Wasn't his fault Roman knew exactly whathe wanted.

"Okay. Yeah." That was enough to ease Cage, to put that focus back on the kisses, one after another, slow and deep and wild as all fuck.

Roman arched up, humping, happy as anything. Yeah. Damn. "That's it, Cub. Like that. Hot," he murmured between kisses, between touches.

"Uh-huh. Good. Good." Oh, that hunger was something and all his, whether the cub knew it or not.

Panting, all but growling continuously, Roman started working those jeans off, too, wanting the cub naked in the sunlight. That skin fascinated him, and he wished to hell he could remember what the kid looked like in the fur.

Cage tugged his shirt up, mouth moving down to taste his skin, teeth threatening his nipples. Chuckling, Roman shifted, let the kid gnaw on

him a little. That he didn't mind. If he moved down to the belly...well.

"Taste good." Those bright eyes stared up at him, mouth sliding down his breastbone, slow and stubborn.

"Uh-huh. I bet you do, too." The jeans gave with a rip at the seam, and Roman rolled them, pushing Cage down again and licking down toward the straining cock.

"Those... those were my pants." Uh-huh. And that was a beautiful belly and a heavy, wet-tipped prick.

"They were. You don't need them. It's not so cold today." Just crisp. Pretty, pretty fall weather that

made the world seem bright, made the kid's skin glow.

"I will." Cage moaned, stretched out long, offering that belly without even thinking.

"We'll get you more..." Of course, keeping the cub naked and needing sounded good. Roman licked down, nuzzling the shallow navel, nibbling the trail of hair. The scent was rich, male, and addictive, Cage curling up around him, moans sounding so much like growls. Cage's cock nudged his cheek, his neck, leaving hot, wet kisses.

He could handle that. He surely could. Roman took a bite at one hipbone first, leaving a nice, lurid mark. Then he went to investigate the shape and feel and taste of Cage.

Cage made a shocked little sound, eyes wide and almost glowing, watching him. "R-r-r-r-roman."

Meeting those eyes for a moment, Roman opened up and sucked Cage in, lips sealing around that thick, pretty cock and sliding down. And down. Nice.

"Uhn." Cage's hands opened and closed, the cub's hips bucking and rolling, pushing up toward his mouth.

A low growl escaped him, vibrating along Cage's cock. The kid was on fire for him, hot drops sliding down his tongue as his mouth rode up and down. Cage spread like a practiced whore, thighs tight and sheened with sweat. Yeah. Yeah, just like that.

He stroked Cage's ridged belly, rubbed his thumbs in circles along the sharp hipbones. The cub made him crazy, and Roman wanted to taste Cage's come, so he pulled harder. A lot harder. It didn't take any more than that, salt and heat just poured into his lips, cock throbbing on his tongue.

Licking and sucking, Roman cleaned Cage right off. Happily. Cage murmured and rumbled, the cub gone boneless and melty.

Roman moved up the cub's body, rubbing a little desperately, his jeans irritating his prick unmercifully. It took a little for Cage's fingers to work, to get his cock free and wrapped in those strong, smart fingers. Fuck. His back arched and his head fell back as he rode that touch. Yeah. Please. Yeah.

Cage nuzzled in, kissing and licking his throat, the threat there just enough to drive him wild, to make him hump and snarl.

His come spilled out of him like nothing going, hot and wet against his skin and Cage's hand. His howl echoed through the trees.

"Pretty." Cage groaned and gentled his touch, fingers slick with seed. "Smell good."

"We do, don't we?" They smelled right together. Even better out in the open than they did in the house.

"Uh-huh." Cage blinked slowly, eyelashes

tickling him.

"We can't nap here, Babe." Roman grinned. It was too unprotected. But he knew a place not far. "Come on, let me up."

"Hmm? 'kay." Those eyebrows went down a second, then the cub hopped up, offered him a hand.

Taking it, he hoisted himself up and grabbed the clothes strewn all over before leading the way. There was a natural lean to of rock and trees where they could rest before running some more.

"Uh-huh..." he tried to think. He really did. His hands moved, more like paws batting at the overgrowth, but hey, he tried. But he just couldn't

think with anything but his cock.

Cage's hands were on his ass, squeezing, caressing. Rubbing then disappearing, then coming back. The kid was just fascinated, and Roman would bet it was in spite of himself. He tossed the clothes into the little opening and beckoned. "Come on and curl up with me, Cub."

"Not a cub." The pup puffed up, coming right to him.

"Uh-huh. This is my bolt hole, Cub. Remember that if you ever need it, okay?"

"Okay." Cage sniffed and looked, learning it and Ramon knew--knew--Cage would remember.

"Just in case." He couldn't imagine anyone coming after Cage, but then he hadn't been able to imagine needing to leave his home for as long as he had, either.

Those hands were on him again, quick, random little touches that were more about exploring than arousing. So curious, his cub. They got settled, the clothes helping soften the hard ground. Roman grabbed Cage and pulled him close, nuzzling his throat. It was easier this time, faster for the cub to accept him, relax and let him have what he was going to take anyway.

Praising with a happy growl, Roman licked at the spot just under Cage's ear, the scent good there, strong. What was it about this kid?

Cage rumbled, the sound deep and heated, hands petting him in long, slow strokes. His eyes slid closed as he stroked back, his fingers lingering at the small of Cage's back. That got a little growl, Cage's hips shifting just a little. Mmm. Right there.

"So, what happened to Johnny, Cage?" He asked it casually, voice low and even, hoping for a knee-jerk answer.

"He was gone when I woke up. I was hurt bad."

"You said you two fought?" It was just...if Johnny could go when the kid was unconscious, why couldn't he have killed the cub? Not that Roman wanted Cage dead. Not at all.

"I guess so. We must have." His hand was brought over to the heavy scars on his cub's belly. "It's all fuzzy. I remember I took his eye."

Roman stroked them, thinking on it until he figured thinking was overrated. Exploring was better. Cage hummed as his hand slid to one lean hip, then petted the lightly furred thighs. He wanted to hunt with Cage, howl and follow the moon. Soon. They would soon. It would seem like an age, but the moon would come their way again. The kid had fought so well, he would have to hunt even better. Cage's body flowed under his fingers, shifting with each press and rub.

Their noises joined together, rumbles and growls and soft pre-verbalizations that settled inside him and sort of echoed. They learned each other, slow but sure, every movement careful and slow, both of them touching and licking.

Cage nuzzled, tasting his fingers, his lips, his jaw, the touches gentle enough to not raise his hackles. He shifted a little, rubbing along Cage, letting their bodies fall naturally into line together. They fit well, hand-in-glove, and Cage's stretch proved he wasn't the only one to think so.

A deep bass rumble escaped him, sliding along Cage's skin. God, it felt good. He'd been lone wolf too long. Cage arched, the look on that lean face pure pleasure. Maybe he wasn't the only one. "Mmmm. Cub. I swear. I'd much rather have you than Johnny."

"Not a cub." His throat got nipped, just the tiniest bit.

"Oh, now. None of that." He grinned, pinching that fine ass. Justfine . It felt good enough that he

did it twice.

Cage squeaked, twisting against him. "Watch it."

"I can't watch it and lay like this at the same time, Cage. Figure out what you want." Stifling a laugh, he rubbed where he'd pinched.

Oh, that growl was almost cute--frustrated and rough, all fuss and bluster.

It was his turn to nip. Then lick the bite. Cage's chin started to lift, to expose that throat, then it dropped quickly. Oh, sweet cub. Roman licked all along one collarbone, then up, sorta tilting Cage's head up with his nose. Then he licked back down the kid's throat. Roman could go for months on the mixture of arousal and need and reluctance

in those raw little cries. His teeth never sank in, but they threatened, letting Cage feel what he wanted. Man, he wanted it so bad, that hint of submission. Not all of it, though. Cage was way more intriguing when he fought a little.

Cage's hands curled around his shoulders, holding on, digging in. Man, he had to hump just a little. Okay, a lot.

"Horny bastard." The words would be more impressive if they weren't all growl.

"You bring it out in me, Cub. I swear you do." His cock tried valiantly to rise, twitching madly.

"It's the scent. It drives me crazy."

"You know it. It makes me hard, Cub. Makes me want to fuck you." The bomb just dropped, and Roman waited, wondering what Cage would make of that. Cage's eyes went wide, stared over at him in pure shock. To soothe the cub, he nuzzled and kissed all along the side of Cage's neck before taking a deep kiss right on the mouth. "I told you," he said when he pulled back. "Nothing you don't want. But I'd like to."

The tension eased, eyes searching his for a long minute, then Cage licked his chin. Cage nodded, giving him that little bit of trust, relaxing against him and starting to move against him, slow and easy.

"Oh, good, Cage." He figured pup would have the kid tensing up again. "We don't have to do that now, but I sure as fuck hope we will someday."

Cage looked at him and he could fucking see all the confusion and conflict and desire in those eyes. Christ, hadn't the pup ever had a pack? He'd bet not. He'd bet the kid had been lone wolf since his momma kicked him out of the den. Roman would show him, though, show him how good it was to have another.

Rumbling low, Cage explored him, petting his skin. The heavy eyelids closed, Cage focusing on touching him, feeling.

That was it. That was the look he should always see. Lost in pleasure was a fantastic one for Cage. Roman kissed his upper arm, his shoulder and throat, tongue sliding out to taste.

"Mmm..." Cage's fingers stilled for a bit, then started moving again. Oh, yeah. Someone liked that.

"Mmmhmm. Just feel for a bit, Babe. Just let me love you." His cock had made the rise again, hard as anything, pressing against Cage.

Those fingers danced over the tip of his prick, the touch enough to make him growl. "I. You smell good."

"You do too." It would take repetition, emphasis. But they'd get it. That got him a nod, a soft lick to his shoulder. The lick made Cage moan, nuzzle closer with open lips.

Anything that easy, that good had to be right.

There was something that had brought Cage to him. Roman rolled a bit, nuzzling and licking, his hands moving on that skin.

Cage's lips wrapped around one nipple, pulling and tugging while Cage's fingers dug into his hips.

"Uhn." His eyes rolled, the slow, easy loving starting to go hard and fast as he moved, his hips rolling. "Like that, Babe."

Cage was hungry, eager, those lips fastened on his skin as Cage nodded, rumbled.

His hands cupped Cage's ass, pulling, rubbing them together hardr and harder. He had to growl a little when Cage tried to hit his neck again. Cage backed down, though, only a little sound

arguing with him, pushing him.

He rolled the kid hard on his back, his teeth closing on Cage's Adam's apple, everything going still while they discussed it. He felt Cage's whimper as the pup fought to keep it in. Stubborn little shit. Stubborn and strong. It was as endearing as it was frustrating. Licking where he'd bitten, Roman verbalized, rumbling and soothing with his hands and lips. It felt like one step forward, two back. He got his whimper then, all caught up in a moan as he licked and tasted. Cage's chin lifted, body arching to get closer to him, to touch him.

There. There. That did it. Roman went back to loving on Cage, licking, kissing, his cock pressing. He reached down and cupped Cage's prick, squeezing. So eager, Cage's cock pushed right into his hand, shaft sliding on the palm as the pup's hips jerked and humped.

"Good. Yeah. Good." Okay, less than coherent, but it was positive reinforcement, right? Fuck, that felt hot, wild, making him want to howl.

"Good..." Cage groaned, fingers finding his prick and wrapping around good and tight. "Good." They moved again, lining up, their cocks slipping and sliding together. Yeah. That was the thing. The perfect ticket. Cage's eyes went wide, lips parting on a low cry. "Roman!"

"Yeah, Pup. Come on. We just need to..." His hips pushed and rocked, his orgasm rising along his spine.

Heat sprayed up against his belly, Cage's fingers sliding and scratching along his spine. Roman grunted, letting that little bit of pain push him

over as he shot, loving how pleasure made his head spin. Yeah.

The pup was boneless and quiet beneath him, relaxed and panting nice and easy.

Again. See, when the kid stopped thinking...Roman curled around him, happy as a pig in shit that their day out was going so damned well. Cage hummed and snuggled, lazy and sated, close to napping with him.

"We should get back, Babe," he said. They'd napped already. Time to go home.

Cage nodded. "We should. You make me sleepy." His shoulder got nipped, the bite stinging.

"We wear each other out. Come on, we can run home and curl up in that big old bed..." They could snuggle. Snuggling was good. He was a fan.

"First one home gets to choose supper." Cage grinned, eyes just lit up as the little shit rolled from under him, scrambling away.

They left their clothes behind and just ran for it. Roman would like to say he let Cage win, but the pup had just enough of a head start on him...


The moon was filling.

He could feel it and the change was still unusual enough that he made him growly and restless, had him pacing from workshop to cabin to woods over and over, day and night.


He needed to hunt and feed and...




Cage sort of got lost in his head, coming around at the near edge of the trees, mouth opened as his nose wrinkled, he was sniffing so hard.

"BOO!" Roman jumped right out in front of him, hands flying up to push at his shoulders.

He yelped and sprang back, leaping forward to pounce Roman and possibly pound the man into the dirt. Roman went down, laughing like a maniac, struggling against him.

"Ass." He growled and snapped, adrenaline flooding him and making him shiver. "What were you doing?"

"I was coming to see if you wanted to run." They'd done that once before, stripping off and running through the woods.

"You startled me." His nostrils were flaring, his heart thrumming in his chest. "I like running."

"I meant to. Adrenaline is good for the soul." Roman rolled them, pinning him on the bottom and rubbing on him, scent heavy and hot. "And other things."

Roman's shoulder felt good, trapped in his teeth. "What other things?"

Lord, Roman was hot, heavy.


"Your cock. Makes it easy to just get all hyped up and wanna fuck." Roman grinned, showing his teeth. The man had a one track mind.

"You always want." He pushed and rolled Roman over, just managing to bite the soft belly before spring up and running like hell.

A deep growl chased him, then he heard footsteps pounding, Roman coming after him. Fuck, the man was fast.


Fuck. Run.



The trees blurred, nothing but the leaves beneath his feet and the footsteps behind him reaching him. The lunge nearly took him down, but Roman's hand slid off his back, just catching in the pocket of his jeans. The denim ripped, his feet and head going forward, hips and ass caught for second before the seams let go and he went tumbling.

Snarling, Roman scrambled up behind him, rough growls all he could hear over the beating of his own heart. That heavy chest pressed against his back this time, pushing him down. He snarled back, fighting it, pushing back as he scrambled to get to his feet again.

They rocked back and forth, Roman clawing at his back a little, splitting his shirt, too. Fucking asshole. He rippled, snapping at the air, teeth clicking together in sheer fucking frustration. A low, hard sound made his hackles rise and then Roman was biting his nape, teeth hard and deep into his skin. It was the best thing he'd ever felt. And the worst.

A sharp howl tore from him, a mixture of pleasure and panic and things he couldn't understand that poured out of him. Grunting, Roman licked where he'd bitten, the rasp of a rough tongue making him shiver, making it all seem like too much and not enough. All the while

that big body pinned him, one arm sliding under his chest to cradle him.

His mind was rabbiting, but his body betrayed him, relaxing into the arm that held him, into the heat that surrounded him. He had never heard the sounds that Roman gave him now, not from anyone. He knew them, though. Deep down in his bones. They meant to calm him and excite him at the same time. His head fell forward even as his entire body started rolling and moving, wanting to rub.

Thiswas like the hunt. It sang in his blood, urgent and instinctive. Roman made it so good, so hard to think and resist and...oh. God, Roman's mouth felt good just below his ear. Just like with the hunt, Cage stopped fighting it, knowing that it wouldn't work, that the beast knew what he needed.

"Mmmmm." That rumble vibrated along his skin, Roman rubbing harder against him, actually sliding him along the ground. His hips rolled, pushing back against Roman, fitting against the muscled body like a hand in glove. He almost had a minute to think when Roman lifted up, cold air blanketing his backside. Then that perfect weight was back, and Roman's skin felt hot and smooth against his, that cock prodding his ass.

His breath caught, eyes going wide, but his body didn't still. It just pushed back, ass rubbing against Roman's shaft, like a... Like a bitch in heat.

He whimpered, head tossing.

"Shhh. Shhh." Roman licked him, sucked up hot blood under the skin of his upper arm before moving to kiss his neck. Those hips never stopped

moving, that hard prick never stopped poking. God.

His hips started shifting, rocking, pushing back to meet the hot touch of Roman's cock. It slid along his crease, down to rub against his balls and back up again. All the while Roman held him, that strong arm never once giving way, keeping him up, keeping the angle just right.

Cage closed his eyes, stopped thinking and let the deep groans that wanted out free. Roman. Oh. Roman sat up on his knees, pulling up, and Cage felt himself pop up, his back to Roman's front. Roman's cock got trapped between them, pressing up, and one of Roman's hands dropped to touch Cage's cock. It made his eyes roll back.

His head dropped back against Roman's shoulder as he tried to catch his breath. Good. Good.

"Yeah, good." Had he said it out loud, or had Roman just learned to read his mind? The man worked him like there was no tomorrow, keeping him trapped in sensation.

He relaxed into Roman's rhythm, rocking and shifting, lost right there in it. Roman didn't take it any farther than driving him crazy, and finally that big hand squeezed, pulling all the way down and stroking all the way up. The head of Roman's hot fucking cock tapped at his hole, and that was it. It was all over.

The world sort of shifted as he exploded, his whole body going limp and lazy in Roman's arms.

"Mmmm." He felt Roman shoot against his ass,

coating his cheeks, his thighs. So hot, like the guy was just a furnace. Damn. Solid as a rock, Roman held them up, stroking his belly, rubbing his own come into his skin.

He turned his head, licked and lapping at Roman's jaw and chin, moaning low.

"Better, Cage?" Roman was trying to stop calling him pup. He chose to take it as a sign of respect.

"Mmhmm. Better." He felt good. Energized and settled all at once.

"Good. Me too. The moon will come soon enough."

"It never seems like it's soon enough, right before." He'd never talked to anyone about it, not since he'd been forced from the den.

"That'll settle a bit, once you get older." There was no condescension there. Just the truth, the voice of experience.

"Yeah? It gets easier?" He wanted Roman to say yes, to say he'd fit back in his skin one day.

"It's always gonna tug. But it does get easier to handle, to feel like you can reel it in." Roman kissed his neck, his jaw. "And it helps to have pack."

Pack. The word intrigued him and worried him

and fascinated him. Drew him. "Good."

"Yes. Good. Home. You know, it's kinda cold." He got a chuckle then, Roman's breath on his ear. "We ought to go take a shower."

"Mmm..." He hummed, nodded. He liked being in the water with Roman. Being slick.

He dangled for a minute as Roman rose, then set him down, laughing and looking rueful. "We're tough on clothes, Babe."

"You have a mouse in your pocket, Roman?"

"Well, if you'd quit running from me..."

Smacking his ass, Roman started for the cabin, muscles moving so smoothly under that tanned skin.

He started following, body moving before his brain quite caught up.

It was pretty damned cold by the time he caught up, so he was glad of the hot water when Roman shoved him in the shower and started washing off leaves and come and dirt. Cage tugged Roman in with him, fingers spreading the bubbles over Roman's skin, the bubbles popping under his fingers.

Roman laughed for him, mock growling and worrying at his shoulder, no teeth involved though. He vaguely remembered playing like that, once. Long ago. His fingers remembered better, tickling and teasing, hunting for sensitive spots.

Now Roman just hooted for him, tickling right back, fingers not harsh or hard, just playing. Tormenting him. It relaxed him, deep into his bones. It was good, both of them splashing and snorting, laughing together.

They ended up just leaning on each other, soaping each other up, the occasional chuckle still escaping. Nothing urgent or sexual was going on. They just basked.

They stumbled out before the water lost its heat, drying themselves off roughly before leaping for the sofa with the piles of blankets and pillows. Nests. They liked their nests. He ended up snuggling in close - not tired, but not wracked with nerves anymore. Settled.

"Soon, Pup. Soon the moon will come and we can run. We'll get our first moon together. I can't wait to hunt with you." The words came soft and low, Roman stroking his back.

"I can't remember what you were like, I was too scared." Oh, hunting. He was good at that, loved the running and tracking and thesmells .

"You'll probably want to fight me to begin with. Just remember I won't hurt you. You're just so used to being on your own..."

"Yeah. I haven't. I can remember others from before, but not very well. As soon as I got old enough to drop my balls, they sent me away. Too many males for one pack, I guess." His hand found his belly. He'd been cold and scared for a long time after, but he'd learned things, worked.

He'd managed until the full moons started changing him. He'd managed well.

"Well, I think we're just enough." He could feel Roman's smile against his neck, and one hand joined his, petting his belly.

"Did you... Were you on your own?" Weird. They didn't talk much, but he was curious, curious about how everyone else lived.

"I've always been in smaller packs," Roman said. "Two or three bachelor males, at least since I hit puberty. But somehow..." Roman trailed off. "Well, they've all been dropping like flies."

"Yeah? I can believe it. Your guy left me close to the bone."

"Which is just weird. Johnny was kinda...lazy." Shrugging, Roman licked his throat a little, almost grooming him.

"Huh. Maybe he changed." That felt so good. Comforting deep down.

"Could be. I was gone longer than I expected, and if he had to go it alone, maybe his instinct got better. I'm glad he didn't do you in, Pup." Oh, that was nice. Real.

"Me too." His fingers found Roman's skin and started petting, long slow glides over hairs and skin and muscles.

"Mmmm. We ought to think on food at some point, Pup." Roman kinda...swarmed over him, pulling the covers up more to keep the cold out.

"There's stewed chicken. I could make dumplings." He liked dumplings.

"Oh, I'd like that. You cooking. And I love dumplings." Heavy, warm, Roman just made him feel good, deep inside. Made him settle.

"Okay." He sighed and snuggled, relaxed deep down.

"Later. We'll eat later. For now, just rest, yeah? You'll need your strength come full moon."

Yeah. To run. Hunt. It would be good.

It would be the best full moon in a long time.


Full moon!

Roman's skin tingled, feeling way too damned tight. Night needed to fall. He kept pacing, walking back and forth to look out the window of the cabin, growling every time he saw the sun, no moon yet in sight.

The fifth time he turned around, Roman came face to face with Cage, and it startled him enough that his hackles rose and he snarled a little. Cage blinked and snarled back, teeth bared and eyes just flashing. The pup didn't jump back though, didn't back away.

Shit. Roman sighed, running his hand over the top his head, ruffling his short hair. He'd let Cage chop at it for him rather than go into town, and it was uneven. "Sorry, Pup. Sorry. I'm just..."

Cage nodded, leaned in to lick his chin once. "Soon. It has to be soon. Ihurt ."

"I know." There, something to focus on. He put a hand behind Cage's head, stroking the nape of the pup's neck. "I know. I remember. Hell, I'm super itchy."

The pup rumbled softly, head falling forward. "Oh..."

Those strong fingers landed on his belly, dragging along his skin, scratching.

"Yeah." He used his thumb to push into the tense spot just beneath the pup's ear, humming as he twisted into Cage's touch. "That helps, huh? Unh."

The kid just couldn't let up on his belly, but Roman didn't mind. It felt fucking amazing.

"Uh-huh. Good. Good." Cage kept scratching him, easing his itch as they began to pant.

God. He rested his forehead against Cage's and let his eyes fall half closed. This is why a man needed a pack. This was why going it alone sucked. The sounds they made filled the cabin little chuffs and groans, growls and rumbles. Each sound was less human, more feral and good and right.

Fuck. Johnny had never been any good at this. He'd been far too human, and all about the women, at least in theory. Oh, he'd bent over well enough when they were about to change, but the little prick was nothing like Cage. Cage was so damned giving, despite his caution...

And you know, there was the whole Johnny running off thing.

The longer they stood there, the less he thought and the more he felt, just Cage and male sweat and right. His chest and shoulders were explored, tasted. Cage moved against him, rubbing and giving him something to rub against. Somehow he had to get Cage naked, too, but his hands just forgot how to work, feeling clumsy and useless. Their scent curled up around them, making his nose twitch and his mouth water.

"R-r-r-r-r-roman." His name just rumbled out, Cage nudging him, sliding their cheeks together.

"Mmmmmrrrr." He grumbled right back, his hands kneading at Cage's skin. "Pup. Moon..."

Cage nodded, head lolling, teeth gleaming in the light. "Mooooon."

Sure enough. Suddenly there it was, just outside the window, almost, so close they could touch it. He'd completely lost time. Roman all but howled as his body began to make the change.

The pup pulled away snarling and growling, tearing frantically at his clothes.

Yes. Yes. The last of their clothes melted away and Roman ran to the door of the cabin before he lost the ability to open it, letting out his first howl of the full moon. His body twisted, changed, making him shudder and growl.

He could hear snarls behind him, hear the sound of claws scrabbling on the dirt, the scared whines sharp on the air. Roman turned back, waiting for the young one, waiting to reassure and nuzzle, licking the young one's face when he got close


Those eyes rolled a little, a soft whimper sounding as paws stomped on the ground. Then Cage huffed, long tongue sliding on his muzzle.

There. There. The pup always knew what was best once he stopped worrying. Once he accepted. Roman huffed a little, turning to lead the pup on a run, letting the joy of the moon sing in his veins.

The young one was on his heels, nipping and playing. He could feel the pure joy, the need to run and hunt and smell.

Everything felt so muchmore like this. His senses were so much sharper. Roman veered up a trail that a human would never see, the scents pulling

him that way, the scent of food. Rabbit.

The pup stopped, sniffed, entire body shivering. A single short bark sounded, alerting him.

Roman turned back on his tail, looking into those glowing eyes in the growing darkness. Yes. Play. Hunt.

Cage smiled at him, teeth gleaming and white, and then the muscles bunched and the cub was off, crashing through the leaves toward their prey.

Barking, Roman followed, rushing through the underbrush that tore at his fur. He ran hard, stretching out flat to the ground, his tail up. His claws dug into the ground, driving him faster, bringing him closer and closer to the cub. Soon he

was nose to tail, following the shape of that furry body like a shadow. The pup hunted by pure instinct, much like he had, once. It was a joy to behold.

The cub pounced and the rabbit gave a scream, legs kicking violently as it tried to escape.

Roman prowled around in a circle, letting Cage have the kill, letting him choose to share. Or not.

Cage tore the rabbit apart, the scent of blood flooding his nose. His stomach growled, wanting so badly as Cage's muzzle dug in. Then the big head swung toward him, the bloodied teeth dropping the organ meats for him. Offering him the most tender bits.

Oh. Carefully, giving it the attention it deserved, Roman took the pieces, snapping them down once he had them in his mouth. Such a good pup. Such a fine pack mate.

Cage fed happily, snuffling and wagging and panting.

He just watched, licking his own chops to clean his whiskers a bit. He just loved that pup, so much, already. In this form it was a fierce, hard thing, making him want to howl it to the world. Cage bounced over, all pup in his joy, his excitement, eyes shining bright and sure. All the little noises fell around them--chuffs and rumbles and little barks.

He took a moment to nuzzle, to rub their muzzles together and praise Cage, love on him, making little sounds of his own. Then Roman took off

again, knowing that meal wasn't nearly heavy enough to have him sleeping away a full moon.

They chased up and down, covering acres of ground before stopping to lap at the pond, the moon bright and huge in the water.

The minute Cage stopped drinking, Roman turned and pounced, teeth latching on to Cage's tail. He took the pup down, rolling over and over, playing rough. Cage barked and snapped, grabbing his ear and gnawing.

They played tug of war with fur and skin and limbs, but those sharp teeth never closed too hard. This was calculated fun. Not war.

Cage went up on his hind legs, landing on his

shoulders, teeth on his ruff.

Twisting, he shoved his weight into Cage, rolling them down, nuzzling the soft belly fur just once.

Oh, pale. Sweet. Cage stretched, paws pushing at him. That long tongue was lolled out, Cage easy in his skin.

Up again, and running, wanting the pup to follow him this time. He needed to see how well Cage could follow him, how well the pup understood him.

Besides a few distractions--the light, an owl, a flock of bats--Cage did well, following and running, keeping up.

He ran and ran, following his nose, tracing something...something elusive. Something he couldn't quite make out but it was familiar. All the while he listened for Cage behind him, proud as he could be of the pup.

He heard Cage squeal to a halt, heard the low, hungry growl. He spun around, saw the old buck standing there, too big, too strong to take down, but so tempting. Snapping at Cage's tail, he growled the pup off. That rack could kill in no time. Not to mention the power to stomp. But where there was a buck...

Cage whimpered and danced, entire body straining toward the buck, wanting to hunt so badly.

No. No, that was his job as the head of the pack, to decide what acceptable risk was. All he had to do was let out a sharp bark and the buck bounded off, crashing through the undergrowth.

Cage rumbled, muscles tense and vibrating, wanting so badly to chase, to run. He snapped again, putting the kid in line. They had time. They would feast. But not yet.

Cage's bright eyes rolled, teeth snapping at the air in sheer frustration.

Leading the way, Roman followed the buck's back trail, knowing if there were more they'd be trailing behind.

The pup stayed on his heels, sniffing and

following the trail, tail straight and still.

So ready. So intent. The pup had to have wanted, had to have gone hungry. It had been a long time since Roman had experienced that, and he'd lost some of the urgency Cage still had. Moving up the side of the trail, Roman let Cage take the lead again. He needed to get it out of his system some.

Oh. Look at his pup run. The moon lit the kid up, made Cage shine and glow, each muscle limned.

Damn. Roman put on the speed, making sure he could keep the kid under his sights, make sure he didn't go after more prey too large for them.

He smelled the doe at the same time Cage did, both of them lifting their noses to the wind.

Time for Cage to learn concerted hunting. He sent the pup heading off to cut the doe off in front while Roman himself slipped up a bank of dirt and leaves to track around the back. He would heel her while Cage got her throat.

She didn't hear them, not until it was too late, Cage popping up in front of the doe, all fur and teeth and hunger. Roman slid neatly in from the rear, his teeth closing hard on her delicate leg, snapping the bone like it was a tin twig. She fought, but it was too late. Cage crushed her throat before she could make a sound and she collapsed into the leaves with little more than a twitch and a grunt.

This time they both tore in, but he let Cage have the heart and liver, as the pup needed his strength. The scent of blood rose hot and good around

them, making them both snap and growl.

Cage's muzzle lifted to the air, the howl satisfied and strong, ringing through the air and making his fur stand up on end.

Once they had eaten their fill it was time to find a place to curl up. Someplace to sleep off the meal nose to tail. Roman knew just the place. Nipping at Cage's back legs, he let out a sharp bark and headed off at a run.

Cage followed, stretched out and beautiful under the touch of the moon, claws digging into the cold dirt.

Panting, Roman lunged up over the rocks, through a small gap in a ring of trees and right

into the glen he'd missed like he'd a sore tooth while he'd been gone.

It looked the same, the dappled light barely showing it off. Something was different, though, and Roman began sniffing, looking for whatever it was that ringing the alarm in his head.

Cage plopped down, lapping his paws, cleaning himself, tail wagging in slow motions.

Obviously, it didn't bother Cage, so it was something only he could see, or smell or...Something shone brightly in a moment, bleached white, and Roman nosed over it, something familiar in the scent, a memory that had his tail standing up and his ears going forward.

He heard Cage's curious sounds, heard the padding of Cage's feet behind him.

He put his nose right to the weirdness and sniffed deeply, springing back and barking. Oh, God. It was Johnny. Or what was left of him.

Cage pushed up, growling low, nostrils flaring. Dead. His packmate. Dead and the pup hadn't even admitted to it. There was no way the kid could have been fuzzy enough, even after a hard fight, to forget tearing someone up the way Johnny had been.

Johnny had been a fuck up, sure, but he deserved better, deserved more than a hidden grave on a lonely hill. Roman turned, lunging at Cage. Goddamned pup could have fucking told him.

The pup scrambled back, feet sliding on the fallen leaves.

His teeth missed the pup's throat by scant inches, and Roman growled, stalking forward, filled with white hot rage.

Cage shook his head, whining low as he backed away, teeth just bared. When the pup's hind end hit the trunk of a tree, Cage snapped, teeth clicking.

That set him off, his brain shorting out; all he could see was red. Springing off his back legs, he went right for Cage, snapping low at the last minute and trying to go for the leg.

Blood filled his mouth and Cage yelped, teeth sinking into his ear, fire pouring into his head as Cage tugged. He snarled, biting again, shaking his head violently. The sudden snap of bone satisfied something deep inside him.

Cage's panicked scream filled the air, the bites against his head and face becoming more and more desperate.

The pup didn't have the right to be fucking scared. He hadn't run Johnny off. He'd fucking killed him and left him for dead. Roman snapped, tearing flesh with is teeth, pulling until Cage tore.

The cub yanked away, blood pouring from the drawn up foreleg as Cage scrambled away from him, heading for the opening of the trees. Roman chased, nipping at Cage's heels, but the taste of Cage's blood had sobered him, and his heart

wasn't in the killing. He'd make sure the pup was well away, and let it go. Cage was too young, too green.

He'd probably just been afraid to tell the truth. But it sure as hell meant Cage couldn't be his pack.

Cage didn't look back at him, didn't head back toward the house, just went straight for the trees. By the time Roman stopped snarling and chasing, the pup had disappeared into the shadows.

Roman stopped, panting, his tail drooping. God, he felt old. He tipped his nose up to the sky and howled for what he'd lost in less than a minute of time. His best friend Johnnyand his lover.

He had a feeling he knew which one he would miss more.





He ran until he collapsed, then Cage crawled, dragging himself along the fallen leaves.


What had he done? Where had he offended? He'd followed. He'd hunted. He'd run. So many rules. So many rules and he'd never been pack before and Roman had known that and said it didn't matter and that they were, but they weren't and…

There had been hatred in those dark eyes, black fury at him.

At him. Driving him away.

The ground before him dropped and he fell, screaming as the bones in his leg crackled and ground together with a white hot pain. Bad. Bad. He fought to stand on three legs, holding his foreleg up, the blood matting on his fur, dripping

onto the leaves. Leaving a scent where others might know he was injured.

He stopped and emptied his stomach, covering the stench of his own blood, then he moved on, blinking up at the sun.

The sun.

He shivered, waiting to change, to lose the wolf, but it didn't happen. Someone would help him. Someone would. He'd find a road and before the next moon, he'd get some help and…

The sun fell on him and he thought about being a man, but nothing happened. Nothing. He. It wouldn't.


That was worse. He'd lost his home, his tools, his mate, his territory, all in a matter of seconds. Now he'd lost Cage.

His howl echoed in the trees as he poured out his fear, his pain, his complete and utter confusion.

He called and cried until he was too tired to be scared anymore, then he started limping along. Shelter. He needed somewhere to stop.


Roman was missing Cage like a lost limb. Goddamn, he wondered for the nine hundred and ninety ninth time, why had he been so hasty?

Sure, Johnny had been his friend, but that was the way of the pack. The weakest went the way of the dodo. Cage was no rogue hunter; he was just a fucking kid when it came to the ways of the wolf. He didn't know any better.

Hell, maybe Cage didn't even remember killing Johnny, if he'd been hurt that bad. The rage that came in the wolf form faded with the human, and Roman knew now he should have waited until the kid could explain.

Finding what was left of Johnny hadn't been easy, but Roman had buried the remains, high on Johnny's favorite hill. The first snow fell right

after, and Roman was damned glad he didn't have to dig on frozen ground. He just marked the grave with a big stone and a lot of scent, and that was that.

That had been…well, a while ago. Now he was just alone and wandering and waiting for the next full moon so he could try to catch Cage's scent. He was really thinking of finding the pup and dragging him home. Even if the cub had lied to him, Roman had gotten used to having him around. And damn, if he took Cage back in as pack, he could teach the cub to never lie to him again.


He could hear the laughter of the others, feel the teeth on his heels, driving him away and away. Cage rolled and growled, snapped and bared his

teeth as he went.

He was not pack.

He was no one's mate, no one's kin.

Run. Run, Cage. They laughed at him, the yips and barks insults and mocks. Run, Pup. Run away. Not pack. Not. Outsider.



He growled out his feverish sorrow, but kept running, scared to stop, scared to turn around and see Roman there among the others, hating him.

Hunting him.

Driving him.


The moon was on him. Roman felt it like a hundred ants crawling up and down his spine. Run. Run, run, run, the moon told him. Find Cage.

Roman growled, pacing in front if the window, really waiting for the moon to pop up above the

horizon. His skin danced, like water droplets on a hot skillet. He needed to go.

The moon finally broke the treeline, and his body went crazy, the heatpainfree sensation of changing overtaking him. Then he was on all fours and ready to go. He stopped just outside the back door of the cabin and howled, just in case Cage was nearby. The pup was so young he might answer instinctively, without thought.

An answer came, but it wasn't Cage. No, it was a new voice, one Roman had never heard, and his hackles went up, his lips curling back in a snarl. It was one of his kind, not a normal wolf, and it had full blown aggression in its throaty howl.

Roman took off and a run, his body flattening to the ground, ready to chase the interloper off his ground, his territory. No one came without his

approval. No one but Cage, and Cage was his pack now, for all that Roman had said he wasn't, had driven him away. Yeah, okay, so he'd decided to take Cage back, so wh...

The big intruder hit him low and fast from his right, bowling him over, sharp teeth snapping closed like a the jaws of a crocodile only inches from his back leg.

Roman leaped away, twisting to snarl and grab for the big bastard's jaws. He couldn't help but notice two things. The wolf outweighed him by a good twenty pounds, and the son-of-a-bitch was missing an eye.

"I took his eye." Wasn't that what Cage had said?

His distraction almost cost him his fucking life. The big gray wolf almost took his throat, the bottom canines scraping across his flesh, opening it so that blood splashed out on the crust of snow on the ground. Roman growled and turned on a dime, snapping, fury giving him strength and speed. Not fear. Just fucking raw rage.

This was the bastard that killed Johnny. This was the one who'd fought Cage and lost. This was the fucker who had broken up Roman's pack.

Barking and snarling, both of them rejoined the fight, the big gray tearing in with a single-minded intensity. Roman fought just as hard, his admiration for Cage growing when he thought of his little pup fighting this goddamned monster.

A surprised yelp left him when the intruder snapped the end of his tail right off. Pain fueled

his strength and Roman all but doubled back on himself, latching on to the other's throat and holding on. He hadn't caught the jugular, but the big wolf was screaming, so he must have really done some damage.

The big gray tried to back off, but Roman held on, shaking his head back and forth, his paws slip-sliding in the snow. The other howled, snarling and pulling and finally broke free, leaving a patch of skin a good two inches around in Roman's mouth. A heavy trail of blood followed the other all the way to into the forest, and Roman was tempted to follow, but when he took a step, he realized that he was dripping blood, too.

And that he had other fish to fry.

If he had thought he needed to find Cage before,

heknew it now. He had to find Cage, had to make sure the pup knew it was okay to come back home.

That Roman had been wrong. So wrong.

They were still pack. And he'd find Cage if it was the last thing he did.


The hare was in a trap, still and frozen where it had died, and he moved carefully, watching for hunters, but too hungry not to take the bait. The snows were coming; he could smell them and he knew once they fell, there would be no hunting.

He would only dream, then. After the fevers had passed, he thought that wolves should never dream, that only men should dream. He was not a man.

Cage grabbed the hare and jumped back as the bigger snare snapped shut, missing him. He growled at the metal teeth, marked it. His home. His home now.

His den.

The first snowflakes started to fall and Cage picked up the hare. He would take it with him to his little den. He would take it and hide it for…

He finished gulping the meal, fur and all, before

his thoughts stopped. Cage chuffed, sniffing around for bits he'd lost before padding back to his den.


The snow kept falling. At first he'd been fascinated by it, then scared as the light from the little cave faded each day.

Now, Cage didn't care.

The more snow that fell, the warmer his den was.

He curled in tighter, licking and biting at the pink skin of his leg, soothing himself, crooning to

keep himself company. The spring would come and he would learn to hunt with a bad leg, learn to work without his arm strong.

It would come.

It would.

His tail covered his nose and he dozed, dreaming of running and hunting, of dark eyes laughing with him, loving him.

In his dream he could hear Roman calling to him. Not that mournful, lost howl he'd heard that last night, but a sharp, I'm coming sort of way. It echoed in his ears, making him whine.

He let himself remember the little house, his tools, the shower that fit them both. The smell of eggs in the kitchen and pack in the bed.

It made him warm, deep in his bones.

He heard Roman again, heard that low growl that meant Roman was frustrated, was trying to wake him up. Then a cold, cold chill hit his nose, the cave seeming to go bright and light as the dawn’s sun poured in.

His eyes popped open and he scrambled back before he even saw who had discovered him. Damn it. Damn it.

Like the heavy barrier of snow was less than

nothing, a big muscled body popped into his cave, shaking like mad to get the white stuff off. A body he recognized. A man he knew.

Cage fought the urge to whimper; he hadn't gone back, he hadn't encroached on Roman's territory at all.

His heart pounded and he knew, without a doubt, he couldn't outfight Roman this time. Still, if he was going to die, he would go fighting. He braced himself on three legs and bared his teeth. This place was his.

His own.

Roman didn't attack, didn't even feint or circle. No, the damned big asshole grinned, kneeling and

lowering his head and looking Cage right in the eye, making this familiar half-growl, half-whine.

What game was this? He kept sliding against the wall, not giving Roman an opening. He could run. If he could get to the opening, he could run.


He did whimper then, the word cutting into him like a blade. Cage took his chance, running for the cave opening as fast as he could.

If he could make the riverbank, he could go downstream before Roman caught him again.

They collided with a smack, Roman's arms closing around him, and they hit the ground with a thud, making Roman grunt and curse. "Pup! No. Cage. Please, wait."

His foreleg ached, the damn thing not cooperating as he scrabbled at the ground, barking furiously.

Like he'd never been rejected, refused, Roman twisted and wrestled him, heavy and hot against him, pushing him back from the mouth of the cave, back almost to the wall. That big bastard took him right down, too, human teeth closing on his throat.

Gentle as could be.

Cage's eyes rolled, body screaming at him to fight, instinct making him still and stay, trembling and waiting for Roman to tear into him.

Instead, Roman stroked his fur, his muzzle, making these almost subvocal noises that eased him, stopped his shaking a little.

Finally he closed his eyes, too hungry and tired and confused to fight anymore. He didn't understand.

Of course, he hadn't understood anything in days, why should today be different?

A low, sweet growl ghosted across his throat, Roman nuzzling right up to him, breathing in time with him.


Roman was warm.

Another low rumble sounded, and then damned if that confusing son of a bitch didn't move them again, putting him on his feet.

"Come home with me, Cage."

Cage thought about being human. Thought about losing his fur, about paws becoming hands and...

He couldn’t. He was lost.

"You heard me. I said come home with me." Roman moved close again, warming him, nosing his neck. "I can explain..."

Explain? He was an outsider, alone. Denied. Cage shook his head, staring down at his foreleg with the scars, the fresh pink flesh, the lump from the break making it still too sensitive to hold his weight. He hadn't imagined it all.

He hadn't.

Roman had turned on him.

"I can, Cub. I was wrong. You have to come home. It's as much yours as it is mine." So reasonable. So calm. Roman touched him, stroking his ruff, dark eyes serious.

He shook his head, convinced suddenly that he had finally frozen. That his hunger and wounds were worse than he understood. Cage bared his teeth.

Roman had driven him away.

Like Roman could read his thoughts he said, "I know. I'm just fucking glad I didn't kill you. I need you, Cub."

He wanted to lean into that touch. He didn't understand. He shuddered, whining low. He didn't


"Shhh. Let me get you home. Let's get some food in you, curl up in our bed, and I'll tell you."

He backed away. No. No. He didn't want Roman to hurt him there. He had loved it there. Loved Roman there. If Roman was going to fight him, he wanted to do it here.

"I'm not joking. Don’t pull away from me. Have I ever lied to you, Cub? Ever? I was wrong. Come on, Cage, it's fucking cold."

It was cold.

He dropped his head, too confused and exhausted to fight. Roman stood beside him, big and strong, and he headed into the snow, gait unsteady as he fought the snow, his foreleg.

Roman kept on him, kept him moving, leading when the snow got too deep, lifting him and carrying him when he slowed down. But never once did Roman turn on him. It was unreal, like a dream, and Cage couldn't understand it anymore, so he stopped trying. He just kept moving.

When the cabin came into sight he wanted to howl, sure that the cruel joke was almost over, but Roman went right up to the door and let them in, just like that.

Cage limped in, finding a protected spot beside the wood-burning stove that kept the cabin warm. He couldn't stop sniffing, stop smelling the

familiar and the new and the different. The place was trashed, shit laying everywhere. Broken shit. Some of it looked like it was cobbled back together, but a lot was just...kindling. It had been such a good house. He keened softly for it as he lapped at his pads, his toes, cleaning and warming his feet.

"Yeah. I kinda got...itchy. Went a little nuts. We'll put it back to rights. Come on, Babe. Bed." Oh. Roman. Stoking the stove and then wandering right toward the bedroom.

No. No. He didn't think so. He could sleep here where it was safe and warm.

Cage curled into a tight ball, paws over his nose. Napping.

Napping first.

Then thinking.


Roman swerved at the last moment and headed for the shower, and that was when he realized Cage wasn't with him. It concerned him that Cage wasn't back in his human form, wasn't able to talk to him and get all this shit fixed. Maybe the cub just needed doctoring.

Roman wandered back through the shattered front room, shaking his head. He hadn't fixed up the place at all after the fight. He'd just dropped everything and gone to find Cage. Now he found

Cage curled up by the stove, and Roman squatted down, his hands running automatically over Cage's ears.

Cage whimpered a little, then those eyes popped open, staring at him. The cub was skinny, fur all rough, and that leg. Damn.

It was the eyes, though, so confused, that did him in. Roman scooped Cage right up off the floor and hauled him to the bedroom, holding tight when the cub would have struggled. He needed to dose that leg.

Cage panted, trembling in his arms, little sounds filling the air like the cub was trying to talk to him. Hell, he probably was. The damned fool should be human at this phase. He got Cage settled on the nest of covers, stroking the thin back and the long nose. "Gonna get some stuff for

your leg, Cub. Don't go anywhere."

Cage curled up into himself, watching his every move. Staring at him. Worried about what he was gonna do, he'd bet. All he did do was go to the bathroom and get antiseptic and some bandages and shit, coming back to sit carefully next to Cage.

The bandages were nosed, Cage shivering a little. He could feel the muscles in the cub's body shift and shudder, the hint of the man right there, right under the surface.

"It would be easier to treat you as a man, Babe. Just a thought." He kept his voice low, coaxing. Kept all his moves easy.

Cage groaned and muttered, head tossing a little. The cub was trying, Roman could see it. It was like Cage had forgotten his form.

"Come on, Cage. Come on. I can't spoon with you like this, can't take you to the shower and wash you. You remember how we fit? How good it is? Come on." God, he hated to see the cub in this kind of pain. And it was his fault.

Those eyes met his, filled with confusion and hurt and a bone-deep betrayal that rocked him to the core. Then Cage moved off the bed, howling as the wolf disappeared, leaving him a naked, swaying man kneeling on his floor.

Fuck. Oh, fuck. He knelt next to Cage, sliding his arms around the pup, nuzzling into the thin shoulder. "It's okay, Cub. I got you. It's okay."

"I. You. You. What do you want? I stayed away."

"I know." He gave a rough chuckle. "I had a time finding you."

"Why?" Cage wanted to lean into him, he could feel it. He knew.

"It was...out in the woods. It was Johnny. I thought you didn't tell me..." And in his wolf, he wasn't very reasonable, was he?

"What? I told you. He left. We fought. He left." Christ, the kid didn't evenknow that the bastard who'd come wasn't Johnny.

"You fought someone, Babe. Someone a Hell of a lot stronger than Johnny." Fuck, he was amazed Cage was still alive. "You've got grit, Cub."

He got a look like he had lost his mind. "Don't call me cub. We're not pack."

Roman growled, the urge to show Cage how pack they were almost too strong to resist. Instead of tossing Cage down and covering him, though, he kissed the cub right on the mouth, as gentle as he could be, probably not gentle enough. Cage whimpered, eyes searching his frantically, the little sounds less human now, more wolf.

Licking Cage's lower lip, he pulled away just enough to nuzzle Cage's throat, that skinny belly,

licking and growling. The old scars were right there, reminding him that his cub was a fighter, was strong.

Once he was satisfied that Cage wore his scent, Roman pulled back and stared right into those eyes. "I was wrong. It was another who killed Johnny, who came back for you right before I hunted you down. I'm sorry."

"I told you. Your man left. He ran. I bit his face, took an eye. He ran. I told you." Cage shook his head. "Another? Who?"

"A killer, Babe. Just a fucking rogue killer." Stroking Cage's back, he rose, lifting Cage with him and settling them on the bed, curling with him.

"I don't understand." The cub curled around the hurt arm, knees drawn up.

"I'll say it until you do." He knew how it was, to be injured and disoriented. How it fucked with you. "You didn't kill Johnny, Cub. You didn't."

"I know."

"Well, I thought you did when I found his fucking body in the woods, torn to shreds!" Goddamn it, he had apologized.

Cage pulled away, scrambling back off the bed, eyes flashing as the cub moved out of his reach.

"You... you didthis because of something you thought ? For something like..." The crooked arm was raised, Cage's voice a deep growl. "You leave me alone or I will make you sorry."

Oh, he didn't fucking think so. "I thought you'd lied to me, Cub. What the fuck was I supposed to think?" He reached for Cage, gonna knock some sense into him.

Cage snapped at him, slapped his hand away, snarling. "Don't fucking call me cub."

"Damn it, Cage." Lunging, he wrapped around that too thin body and took Cage down on the bed, using his weight to hold them down.

"Motherfucker." Cage gasped, teeth on his throat sharp enough to sting.

Growling low and deep he pushed Cage down and bit down on one shoulder, making the cub feel it, hoping it would shock the fight out of him. The cub's instincts were stronger than anything, generations and generations of hierarchy in those veins and Cage groaned, snapping at the air, fighting the urge to submit.

Cage was stronger than he had been, for all of the lost weight and injured body. Damn. Roman pressed down, his mouth at that pretty throat, sucking up a bruise. The taste was. Damn. His. His cub and he wasn't fucking losing Cage again, goddamnit. That chin lifted, Cage's throat working under his lips.

That was it. That was what they both needed.

"Mine. My Cage."

"Roman." Yes. Yes. Cub. He felt Cage shudder, melt and go limp beneath him.

God, yes. Rumbling, he moved up, rubbing against Cage's body, scenting him all over. They were together. Together. His. His pack. Cage moaned, lips open, tongue hot on his skin.

They kissed again, deeper this time, desperate and needy. Reestablishing the bond. God, he'd missed this, missed Cage in his bed and he wondered how he'd ever thought Cage would lie to him. When Cage's fingers wrapped around his upper arms, holding on, tugging him close, it was all he could do not to howl his need. So good. Trusting him, wanting him still. His cock ached, and he rubbed harder, the soft skin of Cage's lower belly so hot against him that he did cry out,

a hard, barking sound.

"Need. I." Cage twisted under him, wild for a second like the needing was too much, too big for the cub.

"Shh. I got you, Cage. Gonna fly." They would, too. Roman reached down, twisting so he could grab Cage's cock.

"I didn't. I dreamed of you." The words ended in a sharp cry, Cage humping up toward his touch.

"I searched this house for you every night. Tore it up..." There. Fuck, yes, there. He got both of them lined up together, squeezing their pricks, lapping at Cage's sweat.

"Wanted. I thought. Roman." The words didn't make a lick of sense, but it didn't matter because Cage was coming, howling with it, and that scent hit his nose like a flood, all salt and heat and Cage. Roman bucked, his body taking over his mind, and he howled back, calling his pack as he came, loving Cage so damned much it hurt.

Cage was still underneath him, breath panting on his jaw. He needed to bandage his pup up, feed Cage, get them in the shower and then in the bed for about. Oh. Ten years or so. He kissed Cage's forehead. "Come on, Babe. I need to get you cleaned up. And then we can rest. Together."

"I... I forgot how to change back."

Nodding, he stroked Cage's sweaty hair back off

his face. "It can happen. You were hurt. I've got you, though. Okay?"

If both of them were thinking that he was the one that did the hurting, neither of them said it. "Okay. Clean would be good."

Taking another kiss, he rose and lifted Cage up. Shower first. Then bandages. Then food and sleep. He was gonna take care of Cage. They were pack. That was his job.


He slept for days, it seemed like, and when he didn't sleep, he ate. They didn't talk much; Roman watched him and he watched Roman and they put the cabin back together. It had taken a while to

understand what had happened--that Johnny wasn't who he thought and that there was a rogue out there, one who was trying to kill them for their den.

His arm healed, Roman doctoring and nuzzling and touching. It was maddening and wonderful and the whole thing confused him and he ended back in the bed, dozing and not thinking.

Waiting for the moon.

Roman crawled into bed with him, long and warm and firm against him. One big hand settled on his back, rubbing gently. The silence stretched, but it felt good to cuddle. He snuggled in, lifting his face to lick Roman's chin, say hello and yes and pack.

"Mmmm." The deep bass rumble sounded good, vibrated against his skin, Roman saying hello back, hello and need and warm.

The Roman-scent filled his nose and he searched for more of it, lips and tongue exploring, sliding over Roman's skin. Rolling, Roman covered him, legs pushing between his, giving him something solid, something to push against. That mouth touched his, lips and tongue sliding on his.

The cold outside stayed there, the heat they created together soothing him to the bone. He wrapped his legs around Roman, their thighs sliding together. He could see every individual eyelash, each pore of Roman's skin, the firelight painting them both with a deep orange glow. Roman kissed him until they were both breathless, until they rocked madly.

Roman slid everywhere, the man's flavor in his mouth, the scent on his skin, deep vocalizations in his ear. Inescapable. His. Roman was his, as much as the other way around. He arched when Roman stroked the scars on his belly, then his hip, his thigh. Heat. Love. Yes.

Those lips slid down over his shoulder and upper arm, leaving a trail of stinging kisses. And testing his muscles. Always so concerned about that arm.

Cage chuffed and nuzzled, caught somewhere between pleasure and something bigger than. Pack.

They just moved together for a long time, their shadows crazy and huge on the ceiling, Roman calling to him with each growl and yip.

It was the slide of Roman's fingers down along his cleft that sent him over the edge, seed pouring from him as his cock jerked against Roman's skin.

"Cage." Roman groaned against his skin, bit just enough to light a tiny spark in the muscle. Then Roman was coming for him, scent joining his in a way that meant home.

It was easy, to lean in and lap at Roman's lips, the curve of the strong jaw. "Smell you."

"Mmmhmm. Love you, Cub. Know that, right?" Roman said it like he said it everyday, sleepy and rumbly.

"Yeah. Yours." He nodded, blinking good and slow. "Pack."

"Good." Grinning, Roman licked his chin. "Wanna make eggs and bacon?"

"Always hungry." He rumbled and stretched, joints popping. "You make biscuits."

"I can do that. We're going to have to provision soon." He got that sideways look that said Roman didn't want to leave him alone.

He nodded, licking his lips. He didn't want the change to come. He wasn't ready. "I can go."

"I don't want you to go alone, Babe." There was something there in Roman's eyes. Not fear, but wariness. For him. Not of him.

"He'll try to take the cabin, if we both go. He'll watch."

"I know, Babe. But he might try to take you down..." Roman kissed the corner of his mouth. "I say the best defense is a good offense."

He wasn't sure exactly what that meant to Roman, but he was willing to go along. For now.

Mmm. Kisses.

That big bastard knew how to distract him, smiling against his mouth, licking at his lower lip. Damn that felt good. He groaned low, chasing that tongue with his lips, the urge to play inescapable. Roman growled happily and bit his chin lightly before stepping back, just daring him to come and get that bare body.

He tensed, getting ready to pounce and nibble. Lick. Rub. Bite. Oh. Focus.

Backing up, Roman seemed to tilt off balance, foot coming down on something, maybe the rug. Roman tilted. Cage pushed forward, ready to grab him, help.

Which was when Roman took him down, rumbling as they rolled over and over on the floor. He landed on top, though, Roman laughing up at him.

Oh. Bitch. Cage growled, leaning down to nip Roman's throat, marking the man as his.

"Mmmm. Cub." Those dark-assed eyed twinkled, Roman loving on him, licking his chest while big hands cupped his ass.

His hips jerked, without any thought, just pushed up into Roman's hands as he nuzzled in, lips exploring. Roman grunted, rolling with him, moving him so that Roman could get to more of his skin, sucking up marks where the other bruises had faded. Replacing them with something good.

His arm was licked and nuzzled, too, each scar touched like Roman could erase it. Roman just kissed him all over, loved each and every scar,

even those Johnny had left on him. By the time Roman was finished, Cage was melted and blinking, cock aching it was so hard, heart pounding in his chest.


"Yours. All yours, Cage." Roman was just as hard for him, just as hot, hips rolling against his. Over and over.

Cage nodded. Yes. Yes. His. He needed. "Please."

"Want in you. Need it." So careful. Roman had been so damned careful with him since finding him again. Now. They needed now.

He surprised himself by nodding, by spreading his thighs. He. Yes.

Roman just growled, grinning wide and white and big bad wolf before rolling away for a moment, reaching, muscles sliding under skin and hair. He followed, staying close, hands mapping the way those muscles moved, the way that skin felt.

"We need some...ah. There." Quick as anything, Roman turned and kissed him, pulling him up. "Bed, Lover. Might as well do this right."

It was easy, really, to nod and tuck himself under one of Roman's arms. Of course, that gave him access to the soft, fuzzy belly and he took it, tickling and nuzzling. Chuckling, Roman

shivered, belly rippling for him. "Watch it, Cub. I'm needing powerful."

He dared to bite harder, not enough to hurt, just enough to make Roman feel him, feel his own need.

Laughing, Roman opened the little bottle of whatever that smelly stuff was and squirted some out, catching it. "Hungry pup. I love it when you do that. Gonna get inside you, Babe."

He nodded, nuzzling close before turning onto his belly, trying not to shake as his hips canted.

"Shhhh." Patting his butt, Roman bent to lick at his spine. "Gonna be good, gonna make you feel so right." Long fingers, wet and cool, pushed

against his crease, against his hole, gently opening him, relaxing him.

He melted into the sheets, thighs spreading as Roman's fingers pushed him. That wasn't bad. No sir, that was the most amazing thing, Roman's fingers in him, pressing him down, stretching him so wide he cried out. Roman kissed his neck, licked each bump along his spine, those fingers working in and out, in and out. He couldn't quite think, couldn't figure out whether to move or be still, toss his head or jerk away or push closer.

"Roman." The name tore from him, just pushed from him.

"Yes. Now." He could feel Roman moved up behind him, those fingers slipping away, then the head of Roman's cock was against him, pushing in a little. Then deeper. Harder.

His head lifted, eyes wide as the mixture of burn and stretch slid up his spine. Roman's hands landed on his, curling tight and squeezing. They started rocking, starting moving together, Roman pushing him like always, making him crazy. That man just poked him and prodded him and proved that he had it in him to do everything he didn't know he could.

Roman was everywhere--in his body, in his nose, against his skin, throughout him. Cage couldn't fight it, didn't want to, and he dropped his head forward and offered Roman his nape. The man took it without a pause, surging into him, up over him, teeth sinking right into his skin. Roman's. Roman's pack.

He howled, seed shooting from him, balls aching and hard, Roman's shaft so big inside him. So


One more thrust, all the way deep, and then Roman was coming inside him. Filling him right up. Hot and wet, Roman gave him everything, including a long, low howl, possessive as hell.

It was all he could do to nod. Agree. Roman's. Yes. Pack. He. Uhn.

They fell, and he thought maybe it was good they had moved to the bed, because wow, heavy. Roman licked at his throat, his neck just beneath his ear, breath hot and heavy. So warm. He hummed and settled, the weight and pressure above him familiar, deeper than his bones.

"I know what we'll do, Babe. We'll get rid of that

fucking lone wolf, and we'll have our place and we won't have to worry."

"You think he'll come back? With both of us here?"

"I think that crazy bastard will try anything. He's not right, Babe. He's too bold. Too ready for a fight." That growl boded ill for anyone who tried to take what was Roman's.

"I fought him once, Roman. I'm stronger now. He can't take us both." He'd almost died, but he knew. Heknew . He was pack now.

"No, he can't. We'll take him." That seemed to be that. Roman got even heavier against him, sort of working toward a doze. Which meant no eggs and

bacon if he let that happen.

"Mmm... you were hungry..."

A different kind of growl sounded, Roman's belly actually vibrating against him. "Uh-huh. Food good."

They started laughing, both of them chuffing and growling together.

By the time they managed to get breakfast he was feeling pretty damned good, and a lot more confident that they would be just fine. He had a place with Roman now. No matter what.


The moon was on them. Roman felt it in his bones, from the top of his skull to the bottoms of his feet. It was time. Time to hunt. And tonight, they had a specific target.

Roman had felt the other out there the last week. When he went outside to do anything, when he stood in the open door, anytime he and Cage might be vulnerable. Someone was watching. It was time to clean house.

The cub had gone quiet about two hours before, all but vibrating as the afternoon moved toward evening. At this time of year that didn't take long. Roman wandered over, rubbing a hand up and down Cage's back.

"All right, Babe?"

"'M fine. Worried. But fine." Cage pushed closer, moving toward his touch.

"Nothing to worry about, Babe." He had a feeling Cage was more worried about how this would affect them than he was about kicking ass. The cub's trust in him was returning, but it was a slow, twitchy process.

Cage nodded, but the little wry laugh wasn't comforting. Roman shook his head; he could damn near hear the 'what if’s rolling around the kid's brain.

"You think too much. Sometimes you just gotta

go on instinct." He proved the point by biting at the cub's shoulder, getting those endorphins rolling. The pup growled, pulling away for only a second before pushing back and slapping their chests together. It was like that every time, had been from the beginning, Cage fighting him for a half a minute and then pushing him to mark that sweet throat. Always pushing to be reminded who led the pack.

He'd bitch if it wasn't so fucking hot.

Cage dragged him down for a kiss, the act sudden enough to surprise him. Roman went with it, cupping one hand behind Cage's head to hold him still, taking control of the kiss just as suddenly. He could eat the cub up. He really could.

Cage opened for him, moaning and panting into his lips for a moment before those lips wrapped

around his tongue and the cub started sucking. Heat surged through him and Roman moved, pushing Cage back until they hit a wall, a picture falling to the floor with a crash. Roman ignored it, his hips rolling forward, the contact making him grunt.

Their teeth clacked together, the flavor of blood between them sudden and Cage jerked back, eyes rolling, lip curled.

"I've got you," he murmured, bending to kiss at Cage's throat, to lap at the mark he'd left there. "I've got you."

Cage nodded, cheek against his temple, hands sliding over his shoulders. The stocky body was stiff against him, though. Wrong. Wrong as Cage's whisper. "He's here. Outside. I saw him."

A low growl escaped him, vibrating along Cage's skin. "Soon, Babe. Soon. We have a better shot when the moon comes."

"Our den." Cage's snarl buzzed with a real fury. "He can't have it."

Yes. That was what he wanted. He wanted Cage to think in terms of theirs, together. "You know it, Babe. Can you feel it? It's coming."

The change would be on them in no time.

"What if I can't change back?" Again. Lord, is that what the cub was stressing? Roman almost laughed--all the shit that could go wrong and...

The moon poured in through the window and he couldn't even answer, the change slamming into them.

Roman snapped at the cub when he would have let out a howl, then let out a low bark, making his way to the back of the cabin, ready to circle out behind their prey. Cage took a few tentative steps, then followed, foreleg holding strong. The cub kept a distance between them, nostrils flaring, sniffing out their prey.

Such a good one, his Cage. Quick to learn and willing to work as pack. Roman nosed the door open and they melted out into the night, only one low ruff needed to tell Cage which way to go. He could smell the other now. The bastard had left scent like he had a right to.

Cage's lips curled up in a snarl, hackles raised. The pup was vibrating, low rumbles pouring from him.

The glow of eyes flashed for a tiny moment and Roman was off, making himself the lure to draw the other in, making Cage the heeler. They would take the bastard down once and for all and have him for dinner.

The outsider was smarter than he looked, though, and he heard Cage's bark, high and sharp, followed by the snarls as the fight was on.

Damn it.

Putting on a burst of speed, Roman circled back and waded in the fray, snapping at the big gray's vulnerable back legs. His pup was holding his own though, teeth snapping and tearing, pushing that big bastard back into him. A loud yelp sounded when Roman's teeth closed down, and damned if that asshole didn't bounce away, skin tearing, but that leg still intact. Snarling, Roman went in lower, faster, his tail up for balance.

Cage knew which eye was gone, the cub circling to attack from that side, over and over. When Cage got purchase on the throat, the big grey screamed, using all of his strength to shake Cage off. As soon as Cage backed off Roman was on, going in with all his strength for that throat. Now. It had to be now.

The scent of blood and fear filled the air, then the air as his teeth snapped over the grey's windpipe, crushing it, the world gone red.

When he felt the other's breathing begin to slow Roman let go, letting the body flop to the ground so he could throw back his head and how his triumph to the night.

His den. His home. His pack. His voice echoed out, letting everyone know that he would defend what was his.

He turned to Cage, making sure the cub was with him, wasn't injured, sticking his muzzle against Cage's side, sniffing. The cub jumped away, refusing to let him that close, teeth flashing in warning.

Roman stopped, head tilting as he stared, an enquiring noise slipping from him. His tail went up, wagging a little as he tried to encourage Cage

to come to him. Cage stared for a minute, then a soft little yelp sounded, Cage pushing in close, tongue lapping his muzzle.

There. Oh good. They circled each other, licking and panting, just making sure they were both okay. Then Roman scratched some dirt over the body and turned toward the woods, running a few steps and looking back to make sure cage was ready to run. He was. The moon was calling him.

Cage chuffed, eyes bright and sparkling, the moon caught in him. So fine, his mate, silver and black and bright. Cage took off, giving him that tail to chase. It was like an irresistible toy, a fan, waving madly as Roman ran after, and he barked, spurring Cage on. Playing.

Playing. Cage leapt up on a rock, the dark top just sticking up out of the snow.

Hell, yes. Roman slipped a little as he cornered, his feet going out from under him, and he went down, skidding across the leaves and snow on his side. He bounded up and shook, taking after Cage, who was chuffing madly at him.

Cage's nails scraped on the stone, then the snow flew, Cage bounding through the white, snapping at the bits that flew up into the air.

They hit together when Roman rushed, rolling over and over until they stopped with Cage on the bottom, Roman wagging and pushing Cage deep in the snow. Then he was up and off, daring Cage to come get him. His tail was nipped; he was driven and then given that fine flank to chase himself.

They bounded through the snow, occasionally getting lost in deep pockets, having to call to each other to make their way out. They played until Roman was exhausted and ice began to form between the pads on his feet, until the sore places on his jaw started to really hurt where the big gray intruder had bitten down.

Then it was time to quit, time to find a place to get warm and sleep.

Cage was limping some by the time they stumbled back to the cabin. Their cabin. Roman shouldered the swinging door open and Cage followed, shaking the snow from his fur.

The fire had burned low, but the great thing about a pot bellied stove was how long it would glow, how long they could lay next to it and stay

warm. Roman nosed Cage to the best spot, licking at the cub's stiff fur.

Cage returned the favor and, by the time the sun rose, they were curled together, warm and dry and sound asleep.

Roman shifted his now human body and listened to joints pop. They'd need to move to the bed, he figured, grabbing the quilt down off the rocking chair next to the fire and wrapping it around them.

Later. He would move later.

Maybe next full moon, he thought as he went back to sleep.


The spring would never come.


He was going to be trapped in here in the cold by the snow forever and they'd never get to hunt again.

Never get to run.


Was he whining?

Cage rolled his eyes at himself and started pacing again, pleased that, if he was whining, at least it wasn't out loud.


Roman glanced up from the book he was reading. "Are you needing a good beating, Cub?" The teasing light in those eyes told him that would never happen, but that Roman was ready to play.

He bared his teeth a little, nostrils flaring as the scent of his mate hit him. Good. So good.

"Uh-huh." The book went flying and Roman came at him, looking like a blur of denim and flannel, big hands reaching for him. Cage feigned a move to the right, then scrambled left, knowing Roman would catch him, cover him. He didn't have to make it easy though.

He felt Roman slide by, those thick wool socks making for great slippage. The look on Roman's face was priceless, all goofy surprise.

He hooted, grabbed Roman's ass as the man slid by. Woo! He won!

The crash when Roman went down wasn't so amusing, but the kicking feet and cursing? Hoo yeah. That was hilarious.

"You... you okay?" He went to check, chuckling, reaching down to help Roman up.

"Uh-huh." Roman grabbed him, quick as a snake, and hauled his ass down on the floor, rolling to cover him. Oh, sneaky asshole. Always turning things to his advantage.

"Bastard." He nipped Roman's jaw, heading for that tanned throat.

"Yup." Cutting him off, Roman kissed him, licking his lower lip and holding him close. Yum.

His hands slid down Roman's spine, rubbing and rolling, massaging all the way down.



Growling happily, Roman let the kiss go on and on, pushing it until they had to break apart, gasping for air. He actually had little sparkles in his eyes, things swimming for a moment.

"Mine, Cage." Roman's voice sounded blown, rough and ragged, all for him. That long cock was hard against his belly, even through stiff denim, poking and prodding.

"Yours. Want." He lifted his chin, baring his

throat for his mate, his Roman.

"Yeah, Cub. Cage. Too many clothes." Roman could go from playful to serious as a heart attack in less than six seconds, and now the man was ripping at Cage's clothes, getting him to naked.

It was a pain in the ass to work Roman's jeans open, to push the fabric away and get the slap of skin on skin. They managed it, though, both of them humming when their flesh met, both of them groaning when they rubbed together. The biting and growling started as the heat grew, Roman's skin going slick as they moved.

Roman touched him everywhere, all over, just exploring him until he thought he might explode. Every scar got attention, just like before. These days he was proud of them; they had made him strong enough to defend his home.

It didn't hurt that the different sensations--sharp on his unmarked skin, distant and fuzzy on his scars--were enough to make him howl.

Grunting, Roman moved closer, more, licking and biting. They finally got completely naked except for Roman's fuzzy socks, Roman spreading him so that dark head could come down, that amazing hot mouth dropping on him like a ton of bricks.

Cage howled, hips jerking, fucking Roman's mouth with a sheer desperation. Please. Yes. He. Oh. Uhn.

Rough and wet, Roman's tongue worked the underside of his cock, rubbing up and down until

he wanted to scream. Roman spread him with an iron grip, working down to lick and his balls, rolling his sacs, pushing them back and forth. He gave a sharp bark, just managing to warn Roman before his cock jerked, seed pouring from him in bone-rattling pulses.

Chuffing, Roman licked him clean before rising up over him and grabbing his hand, putting on that burning hot cock. "Babe. Please."

He nodded, rubbing fast and hard, tongue wetting his lips as he watched the tip of Roman's cock move in and out of his fingers.

"Uhn." Hips rocking, Roman moved and rocked and growled and loved on him, those dark, dark eyes watching him.

His thumb rubbed the tip, spreading the wet heat around, pushing into the slit. The scent of Roman was everywhere around him, strong and male and rich, enough to make him whimper. When he pulled harder, his fingers closing hard against Roman's skin he got a howl, those hips pushing Roman's prick into his hand. Roman came for him, hot and wet, Roman's eyes rolling back into his head.

Licking his hand clean, Cage couldn't stop moaning at Roman's flavor, bitter and salty on his tongue.

Roman joined him, tongue touching his on that strong hand for like, half a second before Roman kissed him, long and slow. Deep. Good.

Mate. Oh. His fingers tangled in Roman's hair,

holding them together as the kiss went deep.

"Mmmm. Love you, Babe. Keeping you. Hear me?" Roman snuggled up to him, arms around him, holding him close. Safe.

"Mmhmm. You have to. You like my house."

about our contributors


Angel is a regular contributor to Torquere Press and has several single shots as well as anthology stories. She's a truck driver who uses her loading and down time to scribble.

Sara Bell

Sara Bell is a thirty-something freelance writer living in upstate Alabama with her sexy, baldheaded husband and two

beautiful, exceptionally bright daughters. When not busy chugging away at the keyboard, Sara can be found burning cookies for school bake sales and logging time as the family taxi driver. To learn more about Sara and her work, or to contact her directly, please visit her discussion group at ouch/

Camilla Bruce

Camilla lives in Norway. She is currently working hard not to finish her MA. Preferring the darker corners of fiction, she usually writes dark fantasy/gothic suspense, all of it male gay erotica, as that's her preferred poison of choice. She has been previously published in anthologies and zines

Rob Knight

Who is this Rob Knight guy, you might well ask. Good question. I am a writer. An editor. I am a connoisseur of fine gay fiction, both erotica and mainstream. Lately I've bent my talents toward assembling anthologies for the e-publishing venture Torquere Press. In the past I've worked for newspapers and publishers, websites and magazine distributors.

Why gay fiction? Well, it appeals to me on a lot of levels. Aside from the purely physical that is. Though that's a big part of it. There's still a certain amount of subversion to writing and editing gay fiction, an underground excitement. An element of the taboo. And it's an area of literature that deserves more discussion and recognition. The relationships in gay fiction are rich and deep. They resonate with emotions that everyone feels at some point or another, but the intensity is just that much more.

Of course, on a purely shallow level, I like men kissing.

Kara Larson

A career student and wannabe medievalist, Kara would like to be a bard when she grows up. She'd settle for J.R.R. Tolkien, though. Speaker of dead languages and purveyor of useless knowledge, Kara has been living with an epic world in her head since she was eight years old, and might even write about it someday.

Sean Michael

Often referred to as "Space Cowboy" and

"Gangsta of Love" while still striving for the moniker of "Maurice," Sean Michael spends his days surfing, smutting, organizing his immense gourd collection and fantasizing about one day retiring on a small secluded island peopled entirely by horseshoe crabs. While collecting vast amounts of vintage gay pulp novels and mood rings, Sean whiles away the hours between dropping the f-bomb and persuing the kama sutra by channeling the long lost spirit of John Wayne and singing along with the soundtrack to "Chicago."

A long-time writer of complicated haiku, currently Sean is attempting to learn the advanced arts of plate spinning and soap carving sex toys.

Barring any of that? He'll stick with writing his stories, thanks, and rubbing pretty bodies together to see if they spark.

A. Steele

Ms. Steele is the thirty-four year old mother of two. After having moved to frigid northern Canada eight years ago, she quickly discovered that the best way to stay warm on a long, winter night was to pen every hot, homo-erotic fantasy she'd ever indulged in. Here's hoping they keep you as toasty as they've kept her.

BA Tortuga

B. A. Tortuga enjoys indulging in the shallow side of life, with hobbies that include collecting margarita recipes, hot tub dips, and ogling hot guys at the beach.

A connoisseur of the perverse and esoteric, BA's days are spent among dusty tomes of ancient knowledge, or, conversely, surfing porn sites in the name of research. Mixing the natural born southern propensity for sarcasm and the environmental western straight-shooting sensibility, BA manages to produce mainstream fiction, literary erotica, and fine works of pure, unadulterated smut.

With characters ranging from supernatural demons to modern-day cowboys, alternative illustrated men to Victorian dandies, the addiction to history and atmosphere is everpresent, and laced through with sensual pleasure.

Cat Zheng

Cat Tzeng enjoys basking in the warm light of the

computer screen and affecting a look which suggests the planning of artistic masterpieces, great literature, or at the very least, a world takeover.

Sadly, regardless of whatever deadlines might be looming, the real truth is that Cat is merely contemplating what to have for dinner.

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