For the rest of the evening and into the night, I lay next to Austin as he slept. While brushing his mane with the tips of my fingers, they slipped over a slight divot at the base of his skull. Werewolves were supposed to heal any injury—hell, even my foreskin grew back the night I went half-turn; however, this awful reminder was still here. Though fur hid it, the scar tissue over the depression was noticeable to the touch.
I had always doubted God existed, even while growing up in a staunchly religious household, and I always thought my parents were the worst. The blinders of privilege sure came off after hearing Austin’s story.
Why am I still here?
I couldn’t let go of the terror in his voice. Though he was this enormous beast, time froze for him that night. He had to grow up fast, depending on only himself for strength. A single pillar could support a simple structure, but it can’t hold up the weight of an entire highrise. Life was crushing him.
After today, I wasn’t going to let him hide in that garage alone. He was part of my family now, and I was going to do what I could for him.
The Next Morning
The other side of the bed was empty when I woke up. At first, I thought Austin had retreated to his usual sanctuary, but as I wandered the hall toward the bathroom, the door was closed and a bit of steam escaped through the slit at the top of the frame. He was actually showering.
Simon would sometimes go a week or more without bathing, and Austin hadn’t so much as looked at a bathtub since I’d met him. While they didn’t smell awful, their fur would attract twigs and dirt from outside, which would build up and get on the furniture. Perhaps my constant complaining finally got through to him. Now, if only I didn’t have to nag Simon to clean himself.
The old floorboards groaned as I padded through the house to make breakfast, but a sheet of paper on the dining room table with the word ‘microwave’ written on it threw me off. The house had a residual scent of burned bacon, and in the kitchen, a wrapped plate full of scrambled eggs and pancakes greeted me. Things really had changed between us, and it wouldn’t have happened without that bag of popcorn. The fission reactor analogy played out without me even realizing it.
After heating the meal, I drenched the pancakes in syrup before sitting at the table. The eggs were slightly overdone, and the pancakes were broken, but it was a solid five stars compared to anything I could do. I usually just ate a bowl of cereal if Simon wasn’t around.
The bathroom door opened and clawed footsteps trudged through the hall until a hilariously fluffy Austin appeared in the entryway.
“Holy shit,” I said, nearly choking on my breakfast. “What happened to you?”
He grunted, but said nothing else as he made his way into the kitchen.
“Want me to brush you?”
He poked his head out from around the corner and raised a brow.
“I’ve got a de-shedder I use for Simon,” I continued, making my voice sound enticing.
“You brush Simon?”
“Well, yeah. Doesn’t Adam brush you?”
He huffed sharply through his nose and disappeared around the corner again. “No.”
“Have you ever asked him to?”
“Did Simon ask you?” he asked, while shuffling around the refrigerator.
I let out a laugh and thought back to those first weeks of trying to improve Simon’s hygiene. “No, I kind of forced it on him.”
“Your fur is going to get knotted like that. Oh, and for future reference, this won’t happen if you keep the blow-dryer on low.”
Austin didn’t reply.
“C’mon, let me brush you,” I said, standing from the table. Only half the plate of breakfast was gone, but I was too stuffed to keep eating. I stepped into the kitchen and pulled the box of cellophane from the drawer. “I mean, unless you want to go out in public looking like a stuffed animal.”
“I’ll brush myself.” His eyes lowered again. The first time he gave me that look, I didn’t think much of it, but this time, it was much harder to ignore.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” he muttered, pouring himself a glass of water. Werewolves were kind of funny when they drank anything out of a glass. They would do this half-lapping, half-sipping thing because their lips were too thin and their teeth were too long to not dribble water all over the place.
“I’m getting the brush.” I wrapped the plate in plastic wrap before placing it in the fridge for later.
“I don’t want you to brush me!”
With the incident from yesterday fresh in my mind, I winced and shook my head. “Fine. I’ll leave you alone.”
“God damn it, can’t you take a hint?”
Now I was puzzled. “I told you I’d leave you alone, damn.”
“That’s not—” He let out a frustrated sigh. “Never mind.”
“Austin, tell me what you want. If you’re my friend, then just tell me what’s bothering you, and I’ll try to fix it.”
“It’s not you,” Austin said, sauntering back into the living room, grabbing the brush that was lying on one of the end tables. He plopped down face-first on the couch. “Brush me.”
“Are you sure?”
He groaned in response. This wasn’t his usual moodiness; instead, this took on an almost child-like petulance. I supposed it was better than him nearly choking me to death, so I grabbed the brush and set to work on his dry, damaged fur.
“Jeez. I’m going to need to get the spray conditioner.”
“I live in a house with two werewolves. I like to be prepared for these types of emergencies, plus… sometimes it’s the only way I can get Simon to not smell like a garbage can.”
Austin was quite dapper in his newer fatigues that didn’t have holes in them, and I did a bang-up job on taming that mess he made with his mane. In the short time I’d known him, he never changed those pants. Even when he shifted into his half-turn form, he didn’t remove them.
After assuring me he was okay, I allowed him time in his garage alone, but I gave him a limit. He could only stay there for an hour, then he had to come back out and sit with me. When I laid down the rules, his tail tucked between his legs and he nodded without protest. Nothing about his attitude made sense, and it shifted randomly. He’d either be aggressively bull-headed or fall into this weird submissive state. Either way, I had to be careful not to set him off again.
My phone rang, and the caller ID read ‘Brat.’ It had been a while since Adam had called me, and I’d forgotten about the Carmina Burana ringtone I’d set for him the last time we argued.
“Simon and I are halfway there. We’re on a bus.” His tone was unusually snippy.
“Are you okay?”
“I hate Simon.”
I could barely stifle a laugh. Though I didn’t know for sure when it would happen, I knew it would eventually. Being stuck in a car for twelve hours with the world’s most annoying werewolf took patience and finesse not a lot of people had. Hell, I barely had it.
“I can hear you smiling.”
“Where’s Simon right now?”
“Laying against the window, snoring. God, he’s got morning wood and everyone’s looking at him.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” I said, still trying not to break out into a guffaw. “How was Derrek?”
“Amazing as ever, when he wasn’t wrecking Simon’s ass.” His tone had a bitter bite to it again. “At least he gave me a swimming lesson before I left. That’ll tide me over until I either turn or go on a horny, bloodthirsty rampage.”
“I take it sex with Simon isn’t doing it for you anymore?”
“He hasn’t done anything to me the entire time I’ve been with him! I was expecting him to pull over whenever I was in the mood, but he just kept singing and torturing me with puns and awful dad jokes.” A low growl rumbled through the speaker. “I was so sexually frustrated that I nearly dehydrated Derrek.”
He didn’t do it. I had expected Simon to jump at the chance of screwing Adam up and down the highway, but he actually took what I said to heart. Simon was going to get the best hummer I could manage when he got home.
“Sorry you had to go through that.”
“Well, sorry you had to deal with Austin’s shit. So I guess we’re even.”
I grinned again. “Austin’s been doing pretty well. He actually made me breakfast this morning.”
Another low growl came through. “What do you mean, breakfast?”
“Pancakes and eggs. It was more out of pity than anything, considering I nearly burned down the house yesterday.” I had to dial that back a bit. The goal was to annoy him, not drive a bigger wedge between him and Austin. Hopefully, when Adam got back, they would sit down and talk things out with one another. I’d already laid the groundwork, and all Adam had to do was not be insufferable…
Shit. Was he even capable of that?
“Ha!” There was that shitty tone of voice I missed. “At least he didn’t let you starve. Have you guys been fighting?”
“No, he’s been in the garage, mostly. Probably missing you.”
“Wow, did he actually say he missed me?”
“Of course he did. He’s been a wreck without you.”
The garage door opened, and Austin walked into the living room. “Art, wanna go for a walk?”
“What was that?” Adam asked. “Was that Austin?”
“Uh, yeah. You want to talk to him?”
There was a moment of tense silence.
“Who’s on the phone?” Austin asked.
“It’s Adam,” I said, holding the cell phone out.
His shoulders slumped a bit before grabbing it away from me.
“Hey,” he said, his tone returning to its usual grouchiness. That wasn’t at all what I hoped would happen.
Adam’s voice came through the speaker, but was muffled enough that I couldn’t understand.
“Sounds boring.” He stood there, examining his claws while nodding and grunting one-word responses before finally cutting Adam off. “Listen, I’m gonna go for a walk with Art. I’ll see you when you get home.” He disconnected the call and handed the phone back to me.
“Austin! Did you just hang up on him?”
“No. I told him what I was going to do and ended the call.”
“Yeah, that’s called hanging up on someone.”
As the phone rang again, the ringtone seemed angrier to me.
“Come on. They’re gonna be here later, and I just want to walk with someone.”
“Why don’t you walk with Adam when he gets back?” I asked, pressing the button to silence the phone.
“Yeah, maybe when he gets here, but you’re here now. So let’s go.”
The phone rang again.
“Hold on,” I said, holding the phone to my ear. “Adam?”
“What the fuck?” he screamed over the phone, his voice a slightly higher pitch than before. “The asshole hung up on me!”
“He’s just…missing you.” I glared at Austin who rolled his eyes.
“He sure has a funny way of showing it.”
Austin pulled me toward the door. “I need to go. I’ll talk to you later.”
The other end went dead silent.
“Okay?” I asked, expecting some kind of answer, but the connection went dead. “Austin.”
“When he gets back, you need to try to get along better with him. He may just be your kuu mate, but he also cares about you.”
“Fine,” he grunted, letting out a heavy breath.
“Where are we going?”
“There’s a barbeque restaurant where I saw a bunch of werewolves last time. I thought maybe I’d take you there for lunch after we browse the town a bit. I need to pick up some things from the hardware store.”
“Oh, I’ve been wanting to go to that barbeque place since we got here,” I said, locking the door behind me. “Are you sure you’re okay going into public? I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.”
“It’s fine.” He kept his eyes forward, and his expression was stone-like. I could tell he was forcing himself into this situation, and while I was elated he was trying, I didn’t want him to become overwhelmed.
“If you start to get anxious, tell me and we’ll leave.”
Later that afternoon
“Oh God, I’m so stuffed,” I muttered before a belch left my throat. “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten that much.”
Austin was sitting on the couch next to me with his feet up on the coffee table and a contented look on his face. He hadn’t said much since we got back; in fact, most of our walk and time at the restaurant was spent in silence. It was a little uncomfortable, but I didn’t expect him to turn into a chatty Cathy after one day. This was going to take some time, but at least he was on the right path.
Muffled angry chatter from outside grew louder, and Austin’s ears pointed upward before turning toward the door. He didn’t react at all; instead, he turned up the television volume.
“Sounds like they’re home,” I said right as the door swung open.
“Hold on, I got another one fer ya,” Simon said as he followed a very irate Adam inside. “Did you hear about the dairy cow that jumped over the barbed wire fence?”
“Make him stop,” Adam said as he walked into the living room, throwing his backpack on the other loveseat. He eyed Austin and I. “You guys look comfortable.”
I patted my stomach. “We had a big lunch.”
“Is that… barbeque I smell?” Simon asked, his mouth salivating as he folded his arms. “I thought we weren’t gonna spend money goin’ out to eat? You know how much I wanted to go to that place.”
Adam sat down on the loveseat, his orange eyes shooting knives at me. “You guys went out to eat? Together?”
“It was just lunch.” I looked over at Simon. “And I didn’t buy, but the prices are pretty good. Maybe I’ll take you there this week.”
Simon grinned, wagging his tail.
Adam stood up and walked over to us before burying his nose in Austin’s mane. “You actually took a bath?”
“Yup,” Austin replied, tearing away from the tv show.
“You smell good.”
“You smell like Derrek.” There was a slight growl in his voice.
“Oh come on, don’t give me that look,” Adam said, crawling onto Austin’s lap. “I heard you missed me.”
The werewolf tossed me a sideways glance, and I nodded for him to respond.
I started to understand what was wrong with their dynamic. When Austin and I were together, I didn’t keep trying to talk to him; instead, I waited for him to initiate the conversation. Simon did the same thing, which is why Austin preferred being around him the last week or so. Adam, on the other hand, had this loose party mentality where he was the center of attention. He was good-looking and outgoing, so he never had an issue picking up human guys or werewolves, but his extroverted personality clashed hard with Austin’s more introverted state.
“How about we have some fun?” Adam gave the werewolf another sniff. “How’d you get your fur so soft?”
“Art brushed me.”
He turned to me. “You…brushed him?”
“He was really poofy.”
“Hah,” Simon cut in. “Turned it on high?”
Adam slid off of Austin’s lap and walked into the hallway without saying anything, turning left toward the back door.
I got up and started after him, but stopped to give Simon a kiss. “Meet me in the bedroom in a bit.”
“Oh boy,” Simon said, scrambling off of the loveseat. “I’ll go clean myself up just fer you.”
Austin remained where he was, his attention back on the tv show as if he was oblivious to what was going on. Part of me wondered if he was doing it on purpose, or if his lack of concern was unintentional. For now, I needed to find a way to get them talking.
I pushed the back door open just as Adam was sitting down on one of the lawn chairs surrounding the fire pit.
“Hey,” I said, sitting in the chairs across from him. “Sorry about Simon.”
“Is there something wrong with me?”
“What? No! Of course not.”
“Simon didn’t touch me the whole time we were gone and now…” He trailed off, looking down at his hands. “Am I ugly or something?”
“For fuck’s sake,” I said, crossing one leg over my knee. “You’re probably one of the hottest guys I’ve ever met.”
Adam smiled. “You think so?”
I nodded. “The reason Simon didn’t do anything is… I kind of got jealous and made a big stink about it.”
“What’s the big deal? We fuck werewolves. That’s kind of our thing.”
“How would you feel if Austin and I slept together?”
“I’d feel sorry for you.”
“Well, we did, and I kind of liked it,” I lied, gauging his reaction. Sure enough, had his skin been lighter, it would have flushed as he bit down hard on his upper lip.
“Are you going to fuck both of them now at the same time, you fucking slut?”
“Whoa, calm down!”
“I’m not going to calm down! You fucked my kuu mate,” he shouted, shooting up from the chair which flipped backward. “He’s bathing now, and he’s making you breakfast and taking you out to eat… What the fuck, man? He doesn’t do any of that shit for me!”
“We didn’t actually have sex.”
“No, I’m proving a point.”
Adam paused and took in a deep breath before setting his chair upright.
“Sorry, I don’t know why I snapped like that.”
“It’s because you feel the same way about Austin that I do about Simon.”
Adam’s gaze shifted to the ground as he sat back down on the chair.
“Austin’s in a very vulnerable state of mind right now, but he’s trying, even if it seems like he’s not. When you go back in, just sit next to him quietly and see what happens.”
“What are you implying?”
“Nothing! It’s just, after being with him alone for a day, I learned things are going to take time. The guy’s been trying to isolate himself for a while, and it’s hard to get him in the mood to talk. If he starts to feel comfortable, he’ll start talking.”
Adam leaned forward, eying me suspiciously. “What exactly do you know?”
“Not more than you do,” I lied again, remembering my promise from yesterday. Even though it was Adam, it wasn’t my place to tell Austin’s story. “Just trust me on this.”
“I think I need a break from werewolves. Simon was—” He paused and ground his teeth. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“He grows on you.” I gave the half-turn a sly smile. “Like mold. To be honest, I think that’s what keeps things interesting between us. We’re so opposite that somehow it just works.”
Adam stood and stretched. “Let’s go out somewhere. I found a gay bar downtown that doesn’t look too bad.”
“We’re not allowed to drink, remember?”
Adam grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the chair. “The mayor said it was illegal to sell alcohol to werewolves. I saw a half-turn in town earlier nursing a frozen margarita, and God damn it Art, I want a drink after all this.”
“I guess you’re right. I’ve got a bit of extra money, and we don’t get to spend nearly enough time together.” Another opportunity fell into my lap, and with how tense things have been lately between Adam and me, this might be good for both of us. “Simon’s going to be disappointed. He’s kind of sitting in the bedroom waiting.”
“Do it later. I’m sure he’ll live.”
Later that evening
“That was fun,” Adam slurred, holding onto me for balance as we made our way to the front door. “But that music suuuucked.”
My phone vibrated in my pocket, and I took it out to examine the caller ID. It was unknown, so I rejected the call and dropped the phone back into my pocket.
“At least the booze was cheap.” I couldn’t help but grumble at how little Adam was able to pace himself. It was all or nothing with that half-turn, and since I was buying, he didn’t mind running up the tab.
“Did you even drink?”
“Of course, I just don’t get piss drunk when I do,” I said, trying to turn the knob, which was locked. “Huh. I guess they went out somewhere.”
“Doubt it.” Adam hiccupped before letting out a squeaky belch. “Austin’s probably in the garage.”
“You need to go to bed.” I fumbled with my keys before unlocking the door.
“I’ll go to bed when I’m damn ready,” he said, stumbling forward. I caught him just in time. “I—I think I’m ready.”
I led the unstable half-turn to his room, set him on the bed, then removed his sandals.
“Goodnight,” I said, turning to leave, but not before he caught my arm. “What?”
“Thanks for the drinks.” He let go before collapsing onto his pillows.
“Yeah,” I muttered as I left the bedroom. Disappointment was an understatement. Every time I tried to carry on a conversation with him, he’d get another drink and disappear. Adam had no issues working the room, dancing and flirting with at least half the guys there, all the while leaving me to fend off every person with a thing for half-turns—which was just about everyone. Oddly enough, I was more popular with the women, and one of them in particular creeped me out.
I checked each room of the house, but it seemed empty.
“Austin?” I called out. “Simon?”
After flipping on the light switch to the dining room, I eyed the door leading into the garage. Since Austin took over that space and made it clear he didn’t want anyone in there, we all obliged him. Tonight, though, I was feeling curious.
Upon opening the door, a large, conical tarp-covered device in the middle of the room was the first thing that caught my eye. Austin’s tools and raw materials were placed neatly on hooks and shelves, and there were several work benches lining the walls. He really took pride in this area, and I smiled at the thought of him sitting on one of his benches tinkering with something.
Tight straps secured the tarp to whatever was under it, so I carefully undid them and let the cover fall. The smile on my face shifted the opposite direction before finally settling on jaw-clenching rage.
“What the fuck?” The hair on the back of my neck tingled as I studied a copper still surrounded by jars of what looked like moonshine. So this was what he was doing this whole time?
The cell phone in my pocket vibrated again, and I took it out to see the same unknown number. Shortly after rejecting it, the phone rang again, and now I was growing concerned. I accepted the call and held the phone up to my ear.
“Who the hell is this?”
There was a moment of silence on the line before a very familiar and angry voice lashed my ears through the speaker.
“Good evening, Mr. Black,” the mayor said with cheerful howling in the background. Was that Simon?
“Oh! I—I’m sorry. I didn’t know who it was.”
“I’ve got a question for you.”
“Where are your werewolves right now?”
“They’re not my—”
“Answer the question,” he interrupted.
“I don’t know. I came home, and they were gone.”
“Come to the police station. We have a lot to discuss.”
I let out an exhausted sigh. After walking all the way back home from the bar, I dreaded another trip to town.
“I’m on my way. What did they do?”
The line went dead.
The police in this town were almost all werewolves, and they all wore full uniforms. I supposed it wasn’t that odd for Norwich, considering its mayor. As I approached the front desk, the officer on the other side gave me a hungry look.
“I’m here to get my werewolves,” I said quietly as everyone stared at me. “How much is bail?”
“Bail?” He laughed and tapped a stack of papers against the desk before pointing at a door to the right. “In there.”
I nodded and made my way to the door, but stopped when the werewolf officer cleared his throat.
“Watch what you say. Mr. Mosavi’s not in the best mood right now.”
My meeting with him last time was so brief and unnerving that it hadn’t occurred to me to ask him what his name was. At least I knew how to address him properly to maybe soften him up a bit.
I slowly made my way down a white-tiled corridor lit with cold fluorescent lighting, but familiar snoring ahead immediately grabbed my attention. There was an open door at the end of the hall, and the air was thick with sweet-smelling smoke.
A deep voice echoed along the bare block walls. “Arthur.”