SHE SMELLED funny. Or rather, she didn’t smell like anything he recognized. She looked human, but she didn’t smell human, which confused him. And she walked across the forest floor in her bare feet.
He tilted his head as she approached, trying to figure out the puzzle. She wore simple dark pants, a plain tunic-like top, and had a bow slung over her shoulder with a quiver of arrows on her back. Instinct told him, however, he had nothing to fear from her.
She knelt in front of him, her long dark hair spilling over one shoulder, and reached out to brush her fingers over his head. “My poor lost wolf,” she murmured, tilting her head in a mimic of him, considering him. “I understand your pain, but you are not ready to be wolf all the time. You have more to do in your human form, and you need your pack. My wolves aren’t meant to be alone, not like this. It is time—past time—for you to return to your pack and those who love you.”
Even though the soft touch soothed him, he whined quietly, not liking the words. He’d left for a reason. There was nothing for him back there. He’d turned his back on them. They wouldn’t want him now.
“Oh, Eric, that’s not true,” she said, shaking her head.
Eric. He’d forgotten that name, perhaps deliberately, years ago. He shied away from the reminder of the human side of him, away from the echo of old pain.
“They miss you, more than you know. And there are others now. Others who will understand you in a way you weren’t understood back then.” She laid a hand on his head, and his eyes slid closed.
An image floated into his mind of a house at the edge of a stream, near a waterfall. The scent of someone very familiar joined the image, and Eric whined again. He didn’t want it, that scent, didn’t want to acknowledge he missed it. Didn’t want to think about what he’d been missing.
The image changed to an open field, a red pup leaping at him. It nipped at his ear, knocking him over. He nipped back, growling softly, as he got to his feet to retaliate.
He pushed the image away. That time was gone. He’d forgotten the path back to them, didn’t want to remember how to get there.
She spoke again, more in his head than out loud. “You remember. You’ll find it. You know where that is. Now go, my lost one. And be lost no more.”
Eric opened his eyes. She was gone. He looked around and sniffed the air, but there was no trace of her. He lay down and put his head on his paws, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
But he knew, even if he didn’t want to accept it. He knew what he needed to do. He just didn’t know if he could make himself do it.
“Go,” she whispered in his mind, and with a sigh, Eric stood and made his way hesitantly down the mountain.
HE LAY on the hill, overlooking the waterfall and stream, trying not to think about what he should do. A strange-smelling shifter sat on the deck attached to the back of the house, doing something on a laptop. What he could see of the man wasn’t familiar to Eric visually either.
While he debated, a big blue SUV pulled up in front of the house and parked. Eric lost sight of the person when they got out of the car, but the scent, carried on the breeze up to him, was one he’d never forget. He sat up a little, his heart pounding at the thought of crossing the ridiculously small distance.
He wondered briefly if Tanner could smell him too. Does he even miss me? Does he wonder about me? The questions came unbidden, some of his deeper fears surfacing, but before he could try to answer them for himself, he got an answer from somewhere—someone?—else.
Yes, very much so.
Eric’s heart went into triple time. He stood but couldn’t seem to force himself to move. Then a feeling, almost like a poke, came to the back of his mind, and without realizing what he was doing, he was following the narrow trail down the side of the hill and into the valley.
As he emerged from the trees and stopped at the edge of the stream, the shifter on the balcony sat up and peered at him. Eric squirmed, not sure, now that he was there, what to do. Should he just shift? Should he approach the house?
Yet again, before he could answer the question for himself, a door off to the left opened.
And there, standing with a look of pure shock on his face, was Eric’s best friend in the world.
“Eric?” It came out on a whisper, as if Tanner was afraid to believe his eyes.
Eric whined softly, dropping his head.
“Holy shit, it is you!”
The words had barely registered when Eric had a pair of human arms around his neck.
“I thought you were…. I was sure you’d been…. Shit.” Tanner’s words sounded a little shaky, but he cleared his throat and let go. “Can you… will you shift? Talk to me?”
Eric took a breath that wasn’t nearly deep enough, then stepped back. Tanner’s face fell, but when Eric didn’t move farther away, a hopeful smile spread. With one more breath, heart still thumping, Eric nudged his wolf back.
It took longer than he remembered it taking, but perhaps that was just because it’d been so long since he’d shifted. Even though it took longer, it felt as natural as ever. His bones moved, muscles reformed; then his fur and claws receded. His paws turned into hands and feet, and finally his teeth retracted and his vision turned from gray to color.
He couldn’t seem to bring himself to look up, though. He panted hard, swallowing around a very dry throat, heart trying to burst out of his chest. He stared at the grass under him, working to make himself move, but nothing seemed to be obeying his commands. He wasn’t sure he could stand just yet either, even though his now human-shaped legs did not like the position he was in.
Apparently the actual act of standing wasn’t required of him. Because a moment later, Tanner yanked him up and hugged him harder than he’d ever been hugged before.
“Oh my gods, you’re back. Please tell me you’re back. I’ve missed you so fucking much.” Tanner nearly mumbled this last part, but of course Eric heard it.
He managed to get his arms around Tanner and return the hug for a moment. Then he pulled back—though kept his hands on Tanner’s arms to steady himself—and looked his best friend in the eyes.
He had to clear his throat twice before he could speak, because his human vocal cords didn’t want to work. “Uh, well, yes. If… if you want me to be.”
Tanner blinked at him several times, then, with a crooked smile, said, “Duh?”
Relief flooded Eric. “Then, yeah, I guess I am.”
At that moment the strange shifter from the deck stepped through the door, grinning from ear to ear. Eric’s nose twitched as he sniffed the man, then Tanner, then the man again. He blinked and turned a confused look at Tanner. “He’s your… mate?”
Tanner let go of Eric, though he kept a hand on Eric’s elbow when he swayed. Once he was steady, Tanner released Eric’s elbow and held out a hand to the other man. “Yes. This is Finley. My destined mate.”
Eric’s eyes widened, and he stared at Finley. “Destined? There are same-sex destined mates?”
Tanner and Finley both nodded, and Finley smiled. “Yes, there are. It’s great to finally get to meet you, Eric.” He stepped forward, holding his arms as if he wanted to hug Eric, but hesitated, obviously letting Eric decide.
Though slightly bemused to be hugging someone’s mate, Eric nonetheless accepted and couldn’t resist savoring the warm, welcoming feeling he got from it.
Finley pulled back. “Would you like to come in? Maybe put some pants on? Perhaps have some coffee?”
Eric blinked. “How long have I been gone?” he asked in lieu of an answer. He couldn’t quite assimilate the idea that Tanner was not only mated but to his destined male mate, and he even had a house! He shoved aside the pang that Tanner was mated, said goodbye to his ancient crush, and focused on being happy for his best friend.
Tanner and Finley exchanged looks. Tanner cleared his throat. “Just over nine years.”
Eric’s mouth fell open, and his eyes nearly bugged out of his head. “Nine years? I’ve been wolf for nine years?” He was aware time didn’t pass the same for him in wolf form as in human, but he hadn’t realized just how different it was.
Eric shook his head hard, trying to make his brain work. It seemed to have disappeared somewhere. “Yeah, uh, perhaps this would be better inside.”
Finley turned and stepped back into the house. Tanner held his hand toward the door, and Eric followed Finley, his mind in a whirlwind. As he stepped into what was obviously a mudroom, Finley held out a pair of gray sweatpants.
Eric took them but fumbled with the waistband for a moment. He couldn’t seem to get his hands to work right. “Nine years,” he muttered, opening and closing one fist. “No wonder I can’t even pull on a pair of pants.”
Tanner chuckled. “Dude, I’d be surprised if you could do much of anything right away. That’s a long time to stay in wolf form. I was a little worried there for a minute that you couldn’t shift back.”
Eric turned to Tanner. “I was worried for a moment that I couldn’t. But… I knew, deep down, I could. I…. Um…. Hey, why do you smell different? I mean, besides smelling like him.” Eric tilted his head toward Finley. He finally managed to get his hands to work well enough to open the sweatpants. But when he tried to step into them, he nearly lost his balance. If Finley hadn’t caught him, he’d have toppled over like a pile of children’s blocks. When the pants were in place, Eric suppressed the urge to make a face at the scratchy fabric against his apparently oversensitive skin.
Tanner blinked. “Ah, yeah. A lot has changed since you’ve been gone. I’m the alpha now.”
Eric was sure his eyes were going to pop out of his skull at the rate things were going. He dropped his head to the side, showing his neck in respect. “The alpha? Holy… uh….”
Tanner grinned as he put a hand on Eric’s shoulder in recognition. “Nah, not holy. Just alpha.”
Eric found himself laughing. “That’s good. I’d hate to have to call you a god….”
This laugh came from Tanner. “Damn, I’ve missed you. Let’s head upstairs. I think I need that coffee.”
WHEN FINLEY spoke, Eric turned back to him. “Would you like a T-shirt too? Maybe some socks? I don’t think underwear from either of us would fit you.” Finley frowned, looking Eric up and down. Both Finley and Tanner were bigger than he was, probably by a good fifty pounds of pure muscle, so he didn’t think too many of their clothes would fit, but he didn’t have much choice.
“Uh, T-shirt and socks would be great.” Eric wrinkled his nose. “I guess I don’t have much of anything anymore.”
“Doubt you’d fit your old clothes, anyway,” Tanner said, chuckling. “You’ve put on muscle. You’re not that skinny brat anymore.”
Eric scowled without heat. “I was never a skinny brat.”
Tanner smirked, and Eric rolled his eyes as he followed Tanner into the dining area of the house.
Windows filled two walls, showing the surrounding forest and waterfall valley behind the house. A long table that could probably seat nearly twelve people took up most of the space. The rest of the house invited him to feel at home as well. Rustic and comfortable with overstuffed furniture, it was offset by plenty of technology—some of which Eric wasn’t even sure he could identify. The enormity of all he’d missed was starting to make itself known, and Eric pushed the thought away, not ready to face it.
The dining room opened into a kitchen full of brickwork and wood, complemented by copper pans and stainless-steel appliances. Tanner busied himself with coffee as Finley disappeared up another set of stairs.
Eric had trouble taking his eyes off Tanner. He had missed his best friend. They’d run and played often as wolves before he’d gotten involved with Kim. He pushed thoughts of her far away and instead tried to focus on the now.
“So, uh, why are you the alpha? Did something happen to your dad?”
Tanner came back, holding two coffee cups. He set one in front of Eric and the other at the chair opposite. “Well,” Tanner said, going back to the kitchen. “My dad kind of had to step down because….” He picked up another mug of coffee and turned around, pausing when Eric fumbled to pick up the mug.
He scowled down at the cup. Something as simple as holding a damned coffee mug shouldn’t be this hard. He flexed his hand again, then forced himself to go slow, wrapping one hand around the main part and deliberately working two fingers around the handle. “You’d think I was a newborn pup, for fuck’s sake,” he grumbled.
“In a lot of ways, you are. You haven’t had opposable thumbs in too long. It’s going to take time to get used to it again. I’d bet a lot of your senses are amplified right now as well. You may even have to relearn how to filter things.”
Eric frowned as he took a sip of the coffee. The bitter brew hit him hard. “Whoa.” He looked down into the cup, then up at Tanner. “Is this brewed strong, or is that my messed-up taste buds?”
Tanner laughed. “Finley does tend to brew it a bit strong, but I suspect it’s more your taste buds right now. You haven’t had coffee in nine years, man.”
“True.” Eric shook his head. He set the cup down and rubbed his face, then looked up at Tanner. “So, uh, your dad?”
“Oh, yeah.” Tanner chuckled. “He’s the alpha prime now.”
Eric blinked at him several times, mouth falling open in shock. “Your dad is the alpha prime? But… what happened to the old one? And how did your dad end up prime? What… oh my fucking gods, I’ve been gone way too long.” He dropped his face into his hands again.
“Okay, one question at a time—”
“Here you go,” Finley said, and Eric looked up. Finley held out a plain blue T-shirt and basic white sport socks.
Eric took them and tugged the shirt on gratefully. Despite his naturally higher body temperature, he was cold. He suspected not being covered in fur had something to do with that.
Once he’d put the socks on, Tanner took the seat next to Finley and spoke again. “It’s a long story and should involve you meeting a couple of people before we tell it, because I’m not sure you’ll believe me without seeing or smelling them first.”
Eric raised an eyebrow. “Okay….”
“Really,” Finley said, nodding.
“Suffice it to say, yes, my dad is the alpha prime now, which means I had to take over.” Tanner shrugged. “Earlier than I would have liked, but….”
Eric nodded. “Right. You wouldn’t walk away from it.” He sipped his coffee in silence for a moment, not sure what to say. He couldn’t seem to wrestle his scattered thoughts into place. “Um….”
“Do you want to go see your parents?” Tanner asked.
Eric didn’t look up right away, instead staring into the coffee cup like it’d give him the answer he needed. Finally he shook his head. “I’m not ready to see them yet. I saw them a couple of times, while I was in wolf form. My mom… I know she recognized me.” He swallowed and looked up at Tanner. “She turned around and walked away. Didn’t even try to approach me.”
Finley scowled. “That’s no way to treat your kid.”
Eric gave a half smile. “My mother was never the most… maternal of women.”
“Doesn’t matter. Not cool.” Finley shook his head, still scowling, and Eric decided then and there that he liked Tanner’s mate.
“He’s a good match for you,” Eric said, grinning at Tanner.
“I’d like to think Diana knows what she’s doing,” Tanner said, chuckling. “But yeah, he is.” He leaned over and kissed Finley’s temple.
A spike of jealousy he didn’t like went through Eric, and he dropped his gaze to his cup again. It was true he’d harbored a crush on his best friend years ago. It was the main reason he’d never told Tanner he was bisexual. He didn’t want things to get awkward, and he’d known back then Tanner was hoping to meet his destined mate—if same-sex destined mates even existed. So when they both matured and nothing happened between them, Eric had put the crush away, as much as he could.
As he dug through the feeling, though, part of him was more jealous about the fact that they had each other and that it did seem so good between them. Were all destined mates like that? Not that Eric expected to ever meet his, and even if he did, he wasn’t sure he could take the chance on him or her walking away like Kim had. He pushed the thought away.
“What made you come back?” Tanner asked.
Eric frowned, not sure if he could really explain it. He was certain neither would believe him if he told them he thought he’d met their goddess. “I… something just pushed me—instinct, I guess—that it was time to come back. Not that I really know what I’m going to do or where to go. I’m sure my apartment’s long gone, as is my stuff.”
“I think your parents collected some of it. Pictures, personal things, that stuff.” Tanner frowned. “The rest, though, I’m pretty sure they donated. They were convinced you’d never come back.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Eric said, swallowing around the lump that thought caused. “I’m pretty sure everyone was.”
“I kept hoping,” Tanner said, pulling Eric’s gaze to him. Tanner nodded. “Yeah. I saw you a few times, up in the mountains. I kept wanting to go up there, but I really didn’t think you wanted me to get too close.”
“Early on… I didn’t. When was the last time you saw me?” Eric tried not to let it hurt that Tanner hadn’t approached him either.
“God… five years? Six? Something like that. I kept looking for you after, of course, but I couldn’t find you. Maybe sheer dumb luck that you were somewhere else.”
Eric let out a breath. “Back then I wouldn’t have wanted to see you, no. I… well, anyway. Here I am. But… now what?”
“You’ll stay here, of course, learn how to be human again, and decide when you’re ready, that’s what,” Finley said, reaching out and taking his hand.
Eric blinked at him, then looked at Tanner and back to Finley. “Stay here?”
Finley wrinkled his forehead in consternation. “Well, I’m not about to let you try to relearn how to be human on your own. What kind of alpha mate would I be if I did that?”
“I… didn’t think about it like that.”
Finley beamed at him. “Then it’s settled. You can pick whichever bedroom you’d like, except ours, of course. You might be most comfortable in the one down here.”
Eric most definitely did not want to hear them having sex. “That’s… probably true.”
Tanner got up and disappeared. When he came back a few minutes later, he held something out.
Eric stared at it for a long moment before reaching out to take it. “You still have this?”
Tanner nodded. “Yeah. I held on to it, just in case.”
Eric lifted the cover on his old sketchbook, then flipped slowly through the pages. One design after another that he’d worked into leather over the years filled the book. He’d loved his job, once upon a time, loved drawing those images, then hand-tooling them into the leather to make the bags and purses and other items they’d sold in the shop.
“And when you’re feeling better, more able to handle things, your job will be waiting for you, if you want it.”
Shaking his head, Eric looked up. “I don’t know if I can even do that anymore.”
Tanner just smiled. “We’ll see. Don’t make any decisions yet, okay?”
Eric nodded. “Okay, uh, yeah.”
“Cool. I think it’s about time we think about dinner. How about some burgers?” Finley asked, standing up.