I spent a few days milling about between home and the university. A few of my almost-friends mentioned a group set up for tainted and werewolf students, along with their human sympathisers. It was more of an equal rights group with a focus on our different species, but it wasn't quite right to say it was just for us.
I did consider going, but decided to focusing on my writing for class instead. There wasn't much I could do with it until I heard feedback, but I slowly picked away at it and made minor changes. There was no escaping the memories; after all, that's what it was about. What I hadn't really expected was the amount they would haunt me just by having them on paper. Wasn't writing things meant to set them free from your mind? The opposite seemed to be true. Every unfocused thought was echoing with a single word. Charlie, Charlie, Charlie.
When the weekend came I was all too happy to head out to the woods. A day of nothing but prey and running and chasing was bound to do me some good. I went deep to avoid attention, found a stream and 'shifted'. There wasn't the loud crunching of bones or the painful rearranging of muscle. It was a swift, clean change; an expansion of the body into the form it was made to be. In my case that form was a large black wolf, matching my human height of 6'6. Something humans still didn't quite understand is that we're not people that turn into wolves. We're the other way around.
Being back in my natural form was always a thrill. I always forget how cramped a human body feels until I gave it up. Lean muscles twitched with anticipation, ears cocked at the sounds of possible food, nose searched and snuffed for game. The world opened around me, invited me in, and I felt the thrill at being back in nature. Away from people.
It's hard to stalk prey when your body's so large, but that only made it more rewarding. Ambush was the better option, of course, since even a huge wolf could hunker down on its belly and wait for something to stray in its path. But following the scent, tracking the deer and winding through the trees, feeling branches brush through the fur on my flank was what I liked best. When I caught the warm, earthy smell of rabbits I followed it quietly and eagerly. Nose to the ground I worked my way through the woods, finding abandoned warrens before coming across the small field teeming with fresh ones. It struck me that I hadn't scented any nearby predators. Foxes and wolves should have been eyeing that place. Unless something bigger had more frequently made it their hunting ground.
I shook the thought aside and watched, waiting. Being big in a relatively small patch of openness meant the less moving required, the better the odds of catching a rabbit. One of them finally emerged from its warren, scenting the air and becoming wary at the surely robust smell of me. But when nothing moved it slowly regained its coincidence and came out farther to graze. I waited, partly fascinated by the tiny creature, partly waiting for it to come closer.
When I lunged, it happened almost instantly. A single mouthful of fur and hot flesh and guts, crunching and grinding wetly between my teeth and trickling down my throat. Not filling by a long shot, but satisfying beyond words. It was a primal thrill to kill and eat your own meat. Both sides of me indulged in that feeling.
The afternoon passed slowly and lazily between rabbits. The sun was warm and welcoming, thawing tension I'd been holding on to for too long. Some time was spent dozing while I waited for them to forget I was there. The evening chill was settling when I decided to head back home. I shifted back to human form, feeling the cramped space of the much smaller body and just being grateful that it remembered its clothes. I could have strolled home as a wolf, even wanted to, but the attention it would've drawn stopped me. Even at that size there were people that wouldn't hesitate to throw a rock or taunt me.
I snorted and found my way out of the trees. There were still more humans then creatures like me, and a lot of them still weren't fond of sharing their status as 'most intelligent animal'. Hence the mockery and abuse. It was hard not to growl or challenge the more imposing ones on the walk home, the ones that just walking near them you could feel their ego pulsing against you and demanding that you acknowledge them as superior. A sharp-suited man like that strode past me and smugly noted my downcast eyes. I looked up quickly, irritated and sharp eyed, and smirked at the way he flinched away from me on the pavement.
“Good day at the office?” I said, keeping the smirk but making my voice light and casual. Look arrogant. Look human, even if that meant looking like an asshole.
He gave an awkward nod and unsure smile before hurrying away. He might not have known what I was, but locking eyes even for that second would have impressed something upon him. An animal feeling. Hopefully he didn't take it as a threat. That was the last thing I needed.
As the man faded from my mind and the world returned to its smells of heated concrete and roads and air laced with the rich aromas of human life, I felt something press against my being. It felt like someone putting the faintest pressure on my shoulders in simple awareness of my existence. It itched in the back of my mind when I turned my attention to it, unable to determine its source. I'd never known such a light touch; I hadn't been with a pack before to experience the pack-mind with them, and when I first opened myself to Charlie it had been fully to the point of losing ourselves in each other. It was so faint. So curious. Then just as quickly it departed, but not without leaving a clear trace of puzzlement.
I rumbled to myself at that. “Not a wolf, then.” Unless it was another loner testing limits and being surprised when there was no violent mental resistance. I prayed it was that. I prayed it wasn't a human who had stumbled into the most intimate link with me. Once was enough with mortality, and there was no eagerness to go back to it. Just another lone wolf, that's all it could be.
The next morning felt dreary. My stomach was pleasantly full of rabbit from the night before, but it was putting me in a happy stupor that was horrid to get out of. There was the story to read to the class, and all I wanted to do was sleep on the couch and seep in the sun from the open window. Instead I gathered my books and left, the warmth outside only making the decision to go to class harder. There were a few good open lawns on campus to curl up and sleep on, and I wasn't the only wolf with the idea. It wasn't that uncommon to see a few dozing on warm days, nor was it uncommon to see other species avoid some of those areas.
“Ready to read this time?” Glenn, one of my actual friends, greeted me outside the theatre.
I scoffed. “You weren't even here last week, who do you know I didn't read it?”
“Clive posted the list on the website again. Noticed you were on last week and this week so I figured you chickened out.”
“I didn't chicken out,” I grunted, shoving past him into the theatre. A few other students were scattered around the seats, not many really sitting together. “It's just hard to read something out when everyone think it's gonna be some stupid werewolf-lovestory drivel they've read before. I'm a walking cliché to these people.”
Glen ignored my annoyance at him and sat with me. He could always pick my sour spots and tried to turn them sweet. “Then prove them wrong. Is that so hard? You're hardly a cliché. I mean you don't even try to use your animal magnetism on the ladies.”
A snort of laughter left me before I could help it. “Ladies aren't my thing.”
“See? Not a cliché!”
“They'll find a way to make me one. Active, fit and toned male with no interest in women? Hardly a major in originality.”
Glen rolled his eyes and looked through his bag. “You're too sensitive about it. So what if they think that about you? I mean really, so what?” He found what he was looking for and pulled out a copy of 'Tainted Souls', an apparently serious look at the tainted and what made them how they are. “At least no one really thinks you're a monster.”
It was hard to argue with that when he held anything to do with the tainted. Werewolves were hardly a threat to humanity when the two were compared. “I know that. I just wish they didn't think we were so, I don't know, flowery-romantic just because of all the damn books that are like that.”
He was nodding but I could feel his attention slipping as he leafed through his book to find his page. I couldn't blame him. We'd had this talk before and it always ended much the same.
I pulled out the story I had to read. Looked over it again and felt my gut wrench as the memory tried to flood me and carry me off. There wasn't a lot that could be done about that. Grief takes its own damn time, even when we just want to move on and get over it. The rest of the class was slowly filing in around us and I took the time to make what peace I could with the story. I would read it, get their feedback, and go back to fix it. That was all.
Clive came in and took up his spot at the front of the room, sipping his coffee while he waited for the last of the stragglers. Those that came in after the official starting time were given a hard glare and silent greeting. Those that met that stare, usually a couple of guys that stayed out too long drinking their coffee, ducked their heads and slunk to their seats.
We went through the roll-call and Clive took some time to remind everyone who had to read that lesson. I didn't want to, but it was part of my mark. There was no way that I was going to back out of it just because it was uncomfortable. I had a point to prove after all, mostly to myself.
“Alright, Desmond, Joan, and Nathan are reading today. Did you all bring your work?”
Each of us nodded.
“Good. Who wants to go first?”
Hesitation. The nervousness was palpable and thick. Even when we'd all seen it before and even done it before, it was threatening. I raised my hand. If I thought about it any more then absolutely necessary it'd only be harder.
Clive nodded and gestured for me to come forward. There were less murmurs that time as I made my way down. The novelty had worn off already; the werewolf had stood in front of the crowd and he lost his nerve. End of story. But when I reached the stage all eyes were on me, all intent. Glenn looked almost as nervous as I felt. Second hand embarrassment was a horrible thing.
I cleared my throat, looked at the pages in my hand, and began. “So. Like I said last time. Not a typical love story.” Again the snickering, but at least hushed the second time around. I took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. Did it again for good measure.
It was over quicker then I thought. The story of how I came to know I wanted Charlie, and how in the end he died. All in the space of a few months when I was seventeen. Five years ago. I thought reading it wasn't so bad until I came back from the story, back from the space where all I was doing was saying the words. My hands were shaking so badly I wondered how I read off the pages at all. Heavy, laboured breathing filled my ears along with the harsh thrumming of a pained, nervous heart. Tears slicked my cheeks. It was still too close. Vile distaste filled me; I should have been seeing a counsellor instead of taking a writing class to deal with it.
“Jesus Christ,” Glenn muttered lowly, getting up from his desk and hastily coming to me. I wanted to tell him I was fine, that it was nothing, that I was just emotional. But all that came from me was an unsure, uneven whine as he cupped my cheeks, stroked my ears and let me rest my head on his chest. “It's okay Des, you did good. You did great.” His hands were warm and slightly rough, and his soft strokes slowly eased my quivering. At other times it would have been demeaning to be treated so much like a dog, petted and stroked and told you did good like that. But the urge to sink into his quiet, repeated praise and calming touch was too much.
There were vague voices as we stood there, Glenn talking to Clive and explaining what was happening. Glenn had seen these 'attacks' before. After a while, but still not long enough for my nerves to be calmed completely, he let me go and looked at me.
Against better judgement I glanced up at the rest of the class; all staring, all murmuring. I shook my head once and found my voice. “No.”
“Okay. We're gonna go outside and breathe, alright? Gonna calm down good.” He smiled, trying to encourage me. I looked at Clive for permission, feeling no will to make the choice on my own, and when he nodded I started for the door.
“Can you just summarise their critique for him? We'll drop by your office later and talk to you about it.”
Clive was hesitant but made his best effort to be understand. “Sure. I'll see you both later.”
Glenn caught up with me as I hovered by the door and lead me outside, taking the crumpled pages out of my hands. “That's enough of that for today. Can you talk about what happened?”
All I really wanted to do was get coffee and pretend it hadn't happened, at least for a few hours. “Soon. Coffee?”
He scowled. “I thought that was bad for you?”
“Sometimes bad is worth it. But it won't kill me.” For a moment I wished I was human. No one questions when they want caffeine or chocolate or fruit. Not that most of it was deadly for me, but it did a lot less for my dietary needs. “Come on.” I started walking, knowing he'd follow, and headed towards one of the quieter cafes. My hands still shook but I did my best to still them. With the rush of emotions gone, all that was left behind were the small tremors and an insist, pounding headache. “I wanna be wolf.”
A nod and sympathetic look was all he could really give. He never bothered to say he understood, never bothered to pretend he knew what it felt like. Never tried to deny that it was how I felt. It made him wonderful. “I know you do, Des.”
We walked slowly, my dragging feet setting the pace, people streaming around us and going on with their lives. We were just faces to be glimpsed at then forgotten. “Do you wish you knew what it was like? Like others say they do?”
He snorted at that, nudging me lightly. “Hell no. Like it's cool that you feel it and you are what you are, like it's cool to say 'Yeah my best buddy is a were and it's rad' but I don't wanna feel what you feel. Why would anyone?”
“Grass is greener on the other side, I guess. They think of the good sense of smell and hearing, and forget that even that can get you into trouble. They forget that you can't eat everything, bet most of them would hate having to eat how I do. Most of the time.”
“Probably do humanity some good, really.”
It was my turn to snort, smiling at him as I held the cafe door open for him. “If nothing else, it makes feeling bad for eating meat a lot harder.”
“Has anyone try to tell you wolves can be vegan lately?”
“Not for a few months now, no.” Ah, and the amusement that thought gave me. I didn't mind, really, it's not like werewolves can be forced to eat a particular way when we can get other food. But it did raise a few bodily differences between us and them; they could choose that path, we couldn't.
Glenn strolled ahead of me and went to order coffee, chatting with the girl behind the counter. It was charming, watching him talk. His lack of interest in sex put women at ease and seemed to convince men he didn't eye them but he could admire a nice body as easily as anyone else.
I stood beside him and listened to him chatter, telling the girl about his walk to uni and asking her how her day was, was it busy, how was she? What was her favourite coffee, her favourite scent, what was her name? And all of it he devoured intently, memorising details and smiling and laughing.
When our coffee was handed over, he tipped her a wink and we went to find a seat. A cosy little nook up the back, surrounded by windows overlooking the lower level of the university was empty so we claimed it. Stretched out on the couches tucked together in an 'L' shape and got comfy. Odds are we wouldn't move for a while.
For a while he let me sip silently, knowing his questions would come and trying to prepare myself for them. Honestly I didn't really know what had come over me in class. Everything seemed fine until I stopped.
“So. Can you talk now?”
“What was her name?” I asked, gaze fixated out the window, idly watching the throngs of people move about.
“Claire. Des, don't avoid me. Please. It's better to talk about him.”
I heaved a sigh, felt the pain catch in my chest. “Charlie.”
There was silence between us, filled by the rattle of cups and mugs and spoons clinking around inside them. The talk of people.
“I already know what happened to him. I just want to know why it was so bad for you today.”
To avoid meeting his eyes, I stared down at the coffee in my hands. In all honesty there seemed to be no reason it should have been worse. I'd long ago accepted that I would always feel guilty, that much was only natural, but that it also wasn't my fault. “I don't know. Maybe saying it all out-loud like that just rattled me. Brought it back too clearly.”
“You barely said anything. Your mouth kept moving but you trailed off at the part about meeting him in the woods.”
I sipped my coffee, ignoring the unpleasant grumble it gave my stomach. “That's kinda embarrassing.”
He reached out and touched my cheek, and I unthinkingly looked up and had no choice but to meet with the concern on face. Etched into the worried lines between his eyebrows. “I've seen you cry before, Des. Seen you bawl over him, but never lose your voice and tremble and look like you're having a complete panic attack.”
“I thought I smelt him.” I said suddenly. “Last week after class. Maybe it just set me off a bit. Had a few bad dreams about it, too.”
“Why didn't you go after it? I mean maybe you didn't think you smelt it, maybe you actually did. Not that it would be Charlie, but-”
“-I didn't because it was probably just my imagination. Getting all worked up from writing things out in the first place.” But there was that brush against my mind. It could have been a curious wolf, quite easily could have been, but it could have been someone else. Not Charlie, no, but someone else.
Glenn didn't believe me. He minutely scrunched his face when he was sure he's hearing a lie, and the slight creases around his nose gave that look away. He went to say something, sighed, then seemed to change his words. “Well. Just don't be scared of it, alright? Take your time, but don't hide from it forever. It might be better this time.”
How it could be better then being with my best friend, better then finally admitting it all to each other? It was probably some stranger with their own damn problems hanging over them, and I couldn't be bothered to deal with that from someone besides myself. Selfish but true. And they might feel the same about me, not wanting to deal with my grief over Charlie when they're meant to be my new mate so why should my old one matter so much? I didn't want him to be a wedge between me and the next one. I wanted to be over him by then.
“Stop scowling at me. You're not as scary as you think you are when you make that face.”
I blinked, pulled back from the thoughts. “Oh. Sorry. Didn't mean it.” Another thing I could work on. The face I make when I concentrate. “I don't think I'm trying to be scary, though.”
“Maybe not, but you have the same kinda face when you're angry.”
There wasn't much I could say to that, so I nodded and looked back out the window. He sighed and started drinking his coffee. The trembling in my hands had stopped, but the headache still pounded and throbbed. I wished that I'd never thought writing things out would help. Or that I'd at least tried it in small scale first.
Glenn started in his seat. I looked to see him glaring at a group sitting nearby, pointing at us and whispering. It wasn't that unusual and I wasn't the only wolf that got attention by a long shot, but Glenn wasn't the kind of guy to let it go unnoticed once he spotted it. So I immediately whined, about to tell him to leave it alone but I could see in his face that he took my noise for distress at their actions, not his.
“Hey, you guys mind? We're trying to have a nice coffee, not be pointed at like some cheap entertainment.” He was the type of person that could be intimidating if you got on his bad side. Tall and obviously some kind of sportsman, he could tower over most and watch them cower beneath him. At least he didn't stand to confront that group, he got my credit for that.
A rather burly member of their group met his gaze readily. “Nothing wrong with pointing at dogs.”
Glenn set his jaw but thankfully stayed seated. “He's not a dog. Looks damn human to me.”
Most of them started to look away, embarrassed at being caught and embarrassed by their friend. But the burly guy held firm. “Everyone knows they're not really human. They start as dogs and die as dogs.”
'Dogs'. Not even wolves, just dogs. Like pathetic strays you could just take off the street and put down. At least he understood how we worked, I guess, a lot of humans couldn't wrap their mind around it. I touched Glenn's hand, which of course brought out a smirk on the burly one. “Not worth the trouble.”
He calmed enough to give up the challenge and look at me. “If you're sure, then fine.”
“Sure he's sure, just look at how the little bitch idolises you.”
My head throbbed and my muscles tightened but I made a point of shrugging it off and going back to my drink. Not allowed to get too angry; that's just a werewolf thing to do. “Now he's just insulting women, comparing them to a guy. That's just rude.” I said to Glenn, who smiled despite himself and nodded his agreement.
A few more calls and taunts were flung our way. Calling us fags, saying Glenn must be into bestiality, asking if when we fucked I took him as a wolf. Eventually we got tired of being smart-asses about it and just ignored him as best we could. And eventually his friends starting awkwardly trying to leave, and after a bit of nagging he went with them to play pool.
Again I realised I was still better off being a male of my species. And still better off being a werewolf then a tainted.
“Des, I'm thinking of going to the social rights group tomorrow. Why don't you come with? You can use that ass as an example.”
I'd rather have avoided that group like a plague. Worried that if I said anything, it would turn into talk about how awful humans were and that wasn't what I wanted. But it was Glenn asking, not a few people I'd talked to on occasion in other classes to pass time, and I owed a lot to him. Definitely enough to sit through an afternoon of political chatter. “Sure, I guess. Can't hurt to go at least once, can it?”
We didn't do much after that. Went back and talked to Clive about my work, and basically got the same feedback as everyone; tighten it up, watch your syntax, consider how you're using italics to denote changes in time or perspective. We thanked him, walked off campus, and went our separate ways. Glenn had footy training and I had assignments to work on.
The unit was cold enough when I got back to encourage me to close the windows and turn on the heater. I settled in for a lazy night, dragging my laptop out of my room for a change and sitting on the couch with the TV on, watching between thoughts about literature we were analysing.
After a while I got up and made dinner. Beef and rice stir-fry with a few vegetables. Not as good as eating freshly killed meat, but the human habit of cooking food and making it taste good with extra spices was too hard to kick. And at least some rice and greens weren't dangerous to my health, and the meat was only seared to keep in some of the raw goodness. Sad thing is that I can pretty much only drink water if I want to be good to my body; there are a few 'werewolf safe' sodas and energy drinks but they all tasted awful to me. Same with any alcohol that claims to be non-damaging, which is just funny when it damages humans in the first place.
The comfy heat of the living room eventually started to have an effect and I put away the laptop and dozed for a bit before opting for a bath. No shower after that hell of a class. When I was done I was buzzing with warmth and my muscles tingled pleasantly as I crawled into bed. Sleep took me quickly, but so did the dreams.
And dreams so easily warped to nightmares.