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Conn stood on the shore hills, his pack heavy against his back despite only holding one item. Or maybe that was just the weight of implications.
“Welcome yam,” he whispered.
The weather was clear enough to see the double hump of Mann, halfway to Ireland, and Scotland was spread out to the north, across the Firth. It was an amazing view considering there were days when the beach below didn’t exist let alone actual other countries but things still looked a little greyer than he would have liked–despite the sunny day. The change had done that, had taken some of his colour vision in return for improving his senses of smell and hearing.
“Yam,” he said more loudly, tasting the dialect word as if it were new to him. “It doesn’t feel like home any more.”
“Maybe it’s not.”
He yelped. How the hell had she managed to sneak up on him?
“You’ve been away a month,” she said.
He wanted to ask “Did you wait for me?” but didn’t. A “no” would have been disappointing, a “yes” just a little too creepy after only one night together. Instead, after checking no-one else had appeared out of thin air, Conn turned around to look at her. Then carried on turning until he had his back to her again.
“You’ve been with Olsen,” she prodded, as if he hadn’t gone bright red at the sight of her.
Conn cleared his throat. “Alex. Put some clothes on. Please.”
There was a pause. Then, “Why?”
In his head, he could see those deep brown eyes blinking. There was probably a cute little furrow of confusion. He didn’t dare look. He probably wouldn’t have been able to focus on it if he tried because his mind’s eye was already trying to look lower.
“What if someone sees you?” he asked.
Another pause. “There’s no-one here.”
That sent Conn’s mind off on a tangent. His heartbeat picked up. He swallowed and hoped that would hold the idea somewhere where it couldn’t become too obvious or uncomfortable.
“But someone could come along at any time,” he croaked.
It was as if his throat had closed up and wouldn’t let the idea sink down, making it hard to get words up and out.
“I haven’t got any clothes,” Alex said.
Conn hunched his shoulders.
“It’s not like I have anything to carry them in,” she added, her tone turning defensive.
Conn sighed and sat down on the ground, resting his head on his arms and his arms on his knees. The cinnamon scent of her had finally tickled his nose, having fought its way upwind to release memories he really shouldn’t think about.
“I suppose not,” he said, not entirely sure what she’d said but knowing a response was necessary. Well, a response other than the physical one.
She sat just downwind of him but leant against him, both probably to avoid the nip of the sea breeze and to share as much of his warmth as possible.
“I always forget it’s colder in human form until I get used to it,” she said.
Conn gritted his teeth and tried not to shift.
“Do you think they can see North Wales from over there?” she asked, waving with a white, goose-pimpled arm at the Isle of Man.
He sighed and took off his jacket. “Here.”
It was going to smell of her for days. He was going to be hugging it for nights.
“Thanks,” she said, unaware that her mere existence was a form of torture.
“Well?” she asked as she put the jacket on.
“Do you think they can see North Wales?”
Was that a Welsh accent, then? He wasn’t too good with anything beyond “normal local”, “educated local” and “not local”. “Thinking of home?”
Alex grinned. “I’m not a Gog, thanks.”
Another word to taste, this one totally unfamiliar and without the flavour of life before a month ago. She didn’t explain it.
“I don’t know,” he said, finally, in answer to a question he dimly remembered through her scent and her body heat.
Alex rubbed at her nose. “It would be cool to stand on the top and be able to see five countries.”
“Five?” he asked vaguely, thinking of reaching out and touching.
“Well, you’d be standing on one, right? You’d be able to see that, too.”
He nodded slowly as her words filtered through over his heartbeat and the distraction of his uncomfortably tight jeans.
“Maybe one day I’ll go over the water,” she said.
There was a pause while he took a deep breath through his nose, a sniff that he tried to disguise. He heard a small wuff, probably amusement, when she realised what he was doing.
“You’ve never been outside of the UK?”
“I’ve never been off this island,” she corrected.
Conn said nothing. Either she would explain or she wouldn’t.
“People don’t take well to stray dogs running past toll booths or getting on to ferries,” she said.
“You could go as a human,” he suggested.
She wuffed again, this time dry and unamused. “Human movements are more easily tracked. Forms of identification, credit cards, phone usage.”
“That sounds paranoid,” he said – before his brain engaged enough to suggest the words might upset her.
There was silence and she pulled away, just far enough for him to take a breath without feeling like he was drowning in cinnamon-coated pornographic memories.
“Well, it’s possible to track someone but I don’t see why they would,” he said. “The Government or the police, I mean.”
Most people weren’t that important.
“Olsen would find me,” she said. “Olsen would like to find out why I am what I am. How I work.”
“And what are you?” Conn asked, thinking of pale, long limbs and soft kisses.
She shrugged, the movement somehow ending with her head on his shoulder, against the strap of his backpack. “A mongrel. A half-breed.”
He swallowed. He’d met her father in the Institute, a man barely ten years older than he was. The idea was wrong but the individual was so…
“A half-breed with what?”
He didn’t really need to be told, though. Werewolves needed skins to change shapes and didn’t look so much like dogs.
“Olsen would keep me with those cripples,” she said, skipping back through the conversation in a way that left his brain dangling yet again.
Conn’s protest was automatic. “They’re not cripples.”
She turned her head to look at him. He refused to turn his head to her, to see the eyebrows raised in disbelief. “They’re not right.”
She was being generous. There was something wrong with every werewolf he’d met – her father, the quest-driven Olsen, maybe Conn himself. He tried to defend them anyway. “With help -”
“They’ll maybe relearn how to function in human society but I doubt it.”
Conn ducked his head. The way her words cut, she could have been talking about him. Perhaps she was.
“Aside from those who get bitten by accident -”
“Like me,” he said.
“Like you. Aside from you, none of them want to be humans, anyway,” she said. “And they think all it takes to be a wolf is to throw your weight around and prove yourself the strongest male.”
Conn lashed out. “And you would know? You’ve never been out of Britain! So tell me, where did you find a wolf pack to learn all this from?”
He knew she was right. He’d read enough to know she was right. He felt his fur-skin as if it were burning through his pack, an accusation of his own failings. He should have kept his mouth shut, he should have never dreamed of being canine, he should never have wished not to be human. He should most definitely stop thinking about the creature sitting next to him.
“I don’t need to know any wolves,” she said, “To know that feral behaviour is wrong.”
She looked at him with expressionless brown eyes and he made himself look back.
“And that they need to be stopped,” she added.
“Not all werewolves are feral,” he whispered.
She nodded. Slow, considered. “You’re not. But Olsen kept you secure when you were most likely to go out of control, didn’t he?”
“We can learn not to be,” he said, trying not to think of who Olsen might have killed before he apparently got a handle on himself.
“There’s always obsessions,” she said.
Somehow, Conn found himself leaning into her, his head resting on hers. He made a non-committal noise, not entirely sure what she’d said as he took another deep breath of her scent. He closed his eyes and hoped she didn’t notice.
“I’ve seen too many obsessed with proving themselves the alpha male,” she said. “Or killing.”
“Too many? There can’t be that many werewolves,” he muttered against her hair.
“There’s enough. You just have to know where to look.”
Oddly enough, Olsen had said pretty much the same thing when Conn had come home.
“Olsen just wants to give them a second chance,” he said.
“No,” Alex said, “He just wants to prove they, and he, are better than normal humans.”
Conn said nothing. It was what he’d thought of the other man. And he’d still rather be thinking of something else, like the way the wind from the Irish Sea made her scent curl in small eddies around his shoulder. Something he would never have recognised for the wonder it was as just a normal human. He’d also have preferred to stop talking altogether.
“It’s his obsession,” she said. “And I don’t fit in it. Unless he finds away to make use of me.”
“He wants to meet you, not kill you,” Conn said. But he knew how little time Olsen had for things that didn’t further his interests. There was only imprisonment, or possibly death, if Alex allowed Olsen to catch up with her.
“You could stay here for a while,” Conn said, “I’ll not tell him you’re here.”
He built a quick fantasy of the two of them in the small, backward cottage he rented along with the pack of dogs he had yet to liberate from kennels. It was a shame he’d actually have to go out and work for a living because he could think of better things to do. Maybe they could do them now.
Alex spoke again. “He’d find me. He’ll come looking for you and find me. And there are still feral werewolves out there.”
The dream cracked and broke into a million little pieces. Conn held on to the shards. The pieces he held were sharp, the ideas that remained part of long-term survival strategies, not short-term happiness.
“You don’t have to stop them.”
She shouldn’t be out there chasing dangerous men. She shouldn’t be taking on the sin, she shouldn’t be putting herself in the position where she might have to kill men who were actually innocent. Someone had to protect her from herself.
Alex stood and stretched, her form wavering as she did so. Her change made his stomach drop as if he’d just run off the cliff to the beach below.
“Please don’t go. Not yet,” he said. Begged, even.
She turned to look at him but the shape was already that of a Japanese Akita, red-furred and fox-faced. All he could see was the human, all he could think of was how perfect she was. His obsession.
She yipped and ran off.
“Damn it,” Conn said and hid his head in his hands.
He would replay this meeting in his head for weeks, for months. Each time would have a different ending but they’d all be simple, basic, physical. She was more than that, he should be able to think of more than that, but he wouldn’t stop himself. He couldn’t.