JACKSON WAS not the sort of guy people called on in an emergency.
He was the sort of person who stepped back when there was an emergency and let others do their thing. Knowing when to move away and let the experts take over was an important quality.
Today was not his day.
“I need help! Help!”
All he’d wanted was to pick up some fresh vegetables at Whole Foods, but a woman in the next aisle was screaming. Actually she wasn’t the only one screaming. There were a few other people doing the same thing, including a baby.
With a sigh, Jackson stuck his head around the corner, his curiosity a stronger instinct than the one to run away.
The woman screaming for help sat on the floor with a baby in her arms. A werewolf baby, by the looks of things, since her fangs were out.
Holy shit. That was definitely not supposed to happen.
Double shit. The mother had made him, probably recognizing him as another wolf.
Jackson set down his basket and jogged over. By now, some of the store staff had gathered round and were ushering all the lookie-loos back. Apparently Jackson and the mom were the only werewolves in the store—just his damn luck.
“Is she okay?” he asked, nodding at the baby and keeping his fingers well away.
“She’s not even two yet,” the mom wailed.
Werewolves didn’t experience their first shift until puberty, most often somewhere between the ages of ten and fourteen. For an infant to have dropped her fangs already was… unusual.
“You should get her over to the Children’s Hospital,” Jackson said gently, still keeping his fingers away from the baby. He definitely didn’t want her to bite him with those fangs. She was a cute little thing, with chubby red cheeks, big brown eyes, and two delicate white canines overhanging her bottom lip that looked sharp as fuck. Thankfully the baby wasn’t screaming anymore. If anything, she looked confused by the noise her mother was making.
“I don’t drive,” the mom sobbed. “I got an Uber here.”
Jackson forced down the urge to sigh again. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll take you.”
THE MOM, Katelyn, and baby Ava were safely deposited at the Spokane Children’s Hospital emergency department. By the time they got to the hospital, Jackson felt somewhat responsible for them and walked Katelyn through the doors that led to the werewolf emergency room. It was set away from the human equivalent for a multitude of reasons, some rooted deep in old prejudice, others in practicality. Jackson tried not to think about it too hard. It was a blessing his mom worked here. Otherwise he wouldn’t have had a clue where to go.
He was curious to know what exactly had caused Ava to suddenly sprout fangs ten years earlier than she should have. He didn’t even know it was possible for baby teeth to be fangs. Jackson could sense a Wikipedia downward spiral in his near future, but despite his curiosity, he wasn’t about to stick around and wait for Katelyn and Ava to get a diagnosis.
There was a quick way to get back to his truck and a longer, more convoluted route, but the latter option meant he could avoid passing by the X-Ward. Once, when he was a kid, he’d accidentally glanced into the highly secure space where they kept people who had been bitten by wolves. The idea was to keep those humans safe while they waited to see if they were going to change, or if the antivenom would work if they’d administered it in time, but Jackson had vivid memories of a woman wailing and a teenager struggling to escape two nurses who were trying to restrain him. It looked like hell. His mom had dragged him away quickly when she’d noticed him staring, and lectured him all the way home about not sneaking off.
Though he understood logically why the ward was needed, it still sent a shiver down his spine. So he took the long route back to the parking lot and didn’t grouch about it.
The hospital was bustling with people, which just made Jackson want to retreat. He hated when people got all pushy, and he was definitely in the way, since he was neither a sick child nor someone caring for one.
He was in the process of escaping when a young man rushed down the corridor, replying to a message on his phone and definitely not looking where he was going. The guy barged right into Jackson, almost knocking him over.
“Sorry!” the guy called, already half a dozen steps away. He held up both hands and elegantly turned to stop. “Are you okay?”
Normally Jackson would have just muttered something rude under his breath and made a hasty retreat. But there was something wrong. Very, very wrong.
Maybe the guy saw the wrongness in Jackson’s expression because he hadn’t kept running to wherever was so important he didn’t have time to look where he was going. He took a careful step forward.
“You’re…,” Jackson started, but didn’t know how to finish the sentence.
“Hey, can I help?”
He was a little shorter and a lot slimmer than Jackson, with reddish brown hair and pale skin. He wore a lanyard with an ID badge, which meant he worked at the hospital. His face was twisted into gentle concern.
Jackson blinked hard.
“You’re my soul mate,” he said, the words feeling wrong in his mouth.
His heart gave an encouraging thump. Jackson felt sick, but there was no point denying it. The pull came right from his gut, making his vision sharpen and senses heighten. He blocked off everything around them instinctively, letting his world narrow to the two of them. The busy hospital all but melted away, leaving him intently focused on the young man in front of him.
Jackson was already in tune with this curious stranger, the one looking at him now like he was going mad. Maybe he was.
“I’m human.” The guy shook his head, like Jackson was wrong.
That wasn’t important. Jackson didn’t know how to explain it to himself, let alone to the poor guy standing in front of him now looking both shocked and terrified.
“I’m so sorry. I have to go,” the guy said, digging into his back pocket. He pulled out a dog-eared business card that he shoved at Jackson. “I have a meeting, but… you should call me.”
He was gone before Jackson could say anything else, disappearing around the corner. People kept rushing past Jackson, but he couldn’t make himself move. Eventually he looked down at the card.
WITH NIGHT falling, Leo stumbled home, still feeling slightly dazed. It had been a really weird day.
He shared a two-bedroom apartment with Mitch, a guy he’d found on Craigslist when Mitch had advertised for a “gay housemate but not like that.” Leo had been due to start his training at the hospital and still didn’t have a place to live, so he’d made the call and prayed he wouldn’t end up living with a psychopath.
He’d ended up with a werewolf instead.
Leo had been incredibly surprised when, at their first meeting, Mitch showed him around the apartment, then casually dropped into the conversation that he was a wolf. Leo had thought it would be a far bigger deal; everything he knew about wolves—which, admittedly, wasn’t a lot—suggested they were reluctant to let outsiders into their personal space.
He still wasn’t sure if that was true for some werewolves. They mostly lived in small communities around the world, sticking together for protection. They often homeschooled their kids or created werewolf-only schools, so even though Spokane had a fairly large werewolf community, Leo didn’t come into contact with them all that often.
Except Mitch, and he didn’t exactly behave as Leo had expected. Mitch was the least jealous, least possessive, least aggressive wolf Leo had ever met. And he was absolutely fine with sharing a living space with a human.
“Hey,” Leo called, dumping his bag by the front door and toeing off his shoes. He shed outer layers as he made his way through the apartment to where Mitch was mixing cocktails in the kitchen, dancing to some disco/techno music.
“You’re such a cliché,” Leo said. He leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms over his chest, biting back a smile.
“It’s Friday,” Mitch sang.
“Bitch, it’s Wednesday.”
“Not for me. I’m not working the rest of the week, so I’m making margaritas.”
Mitch was not a psychopath. At least, Leo didn’t think so. When they’d first met, Leo had been intimidated by the amount of personality Mitch packed into such a small frame; Mitch was barely five foot five, which was unusual for a werewolf. They were typically bigger. There was nothing typical about Mitch, though.
For Wednesday night margaritas, Mitch was wearing Daisy Duke shorts and a sweater that had been cut in half, leaving his midriff bare. His pink baseball socks stretched up to his knees, hiding his skinny calves.
“I was thinking of ordering dinner in. I don’t think I have the energy to cook something,” Leo said.
“Not when I have work at eight tomorrow morning.”
“Boo. You whore.”
“Thai or sushi?”
Leo tipped his head back so Mitch couldn’t see his grin. “Okay. I’ll call for delivery in thirty minutes? I want a shower.”
“Okay. I’ll get your margarita ready for when you’re done.”
When Leo turned away to head to the bathroom, he finally let the chuckle out. As a roommate, Mitch was a handful. As a friend, he was a godsend.
For just a little while, Leo wanted to push down the stress burning his lungs and the terror clenching his gut and do something achingly normal. He’d spent the afternoon forgetting about the werewolf by composing songs with kids on the cancer ward, making them roll around with laughter. Beautiful, androgynous children with their shiny smooth skin and ugly hospital gowns, distracted for a moment by a song about boogers.
Leo was clinging to that distraction even as it rolled in his grasp like glass covered in oil.
He quickly made the call for dinner, then showered and changed into comfy clothes. He half stumbled into the living room, his body aching from all that time sitting on the floor, and fell into his preferred spot on the sofa. It looked like the food had arrived when he was getting changed; Mitch had already divided it onto two plates.
“What’s up with you tonight?” Mitch asked. He folded himself into an intricate pretzel in his armchair, balancing his cocktail in one hand and his plate on his knees. “You’re all….” He waved his free hand around demonstratively.
“I met….” Leo took a deep breath and shook his head. He hadn’t yet said it aloud. “I met a guy today. He’s a werewolf. And he thinks I’m his soul mate.”
Mitch made a noise that was very loud and very high-pitched.
“But you’re human! That’s so rare,” he said reverently.
“I knew it was a thing, but only abstractly, you know? It doesn’t happen often, right?”
“No, hardly ever. You lucky bitch. Girl, what’s he like?”
“Straight. So I’m not feeling particularly lucky right now.”
Mitch gasped dramatically. “Are you sure?”
Leo had long since learned that Mitch didn’t overreact to anything. That was just his way of responding to life. In a way, Leo was jealous. Everything Mitch felt, he experienced with his whole body, not repressing or holding back. Leo imagined it must be so liberating.
“What happened? Tell me everything. Don’t leave out a single detail.”
Mitch shoved his taco into his mouth to show he was done talking. For now.
“I ran into him. Literally. I was rushing to an appointment at work and checking my phone, and he just, I don’t know, bumped right into me. It wasn’t exactly romantic.”
“You expected romance from a straight guy? A straight guy werewolf?”
“No, I expected the overture from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet,” Leo said drily. “Rose petals falling from the sky. A single beam of golden light.”
“Ugh, you know I love it when you talk dirty classical music to me.” Mitch made a “carry on” gesture as he took another bite.
“He—I don’t know his name, by the way—he stopped and looked at me like I was something totally horrifying. So I gave him my card and ran off to my appointment.”
“What does he look like?” Mitch asked through a mouthful of food.
“Tall,” Leo said, picking at the edge of his taco bowl. “Taller than me. He has really chiseled features. His face is… dramatic. In a good way. He looks like he could be a movie star. A bit like Ryan Reynolds with a beard.”
Mitch stared. It made Leo uncomfortable enough to keep talking.
“Like… now I know he’s a werewolf, I can see it, you know?”
“Big ears? Fangs? Claws and a snarl?”
Leo resisted the urge to throw something at him. “No,” he said emphatically. “You’re the one with pointy ears.”
Mitch hated it when Leo mentioned his ears. They weren’t ridiculously pointy—they were actually rather cute—but Mitch was sensitive about it, and Leo wasn’t above using Mitch’s weaknesses against him.
Sometimes it was easy to tell if someone was a werewolf. There were the usual stereotypes of course: strength, dominance, the shape of their pupils—if you could get close enough to study them. Most of it was bullshit, though. Wolves had lived among the general population for hundreds of years now. Some people held prejudices… but Leo thought that would probably always be the case for anyone who coded as “different.”
There were all sorts of theories as to why wolves occasionally found their soul mate in humans, from widening the gene pool to the idea that the human had wolf ancestry way back somewhere. But it wasn’t an exact science, and Leo had never known a mated werewolf, so he hadn’t been able to ask.
He took a bite of his taco, not really wanting it but not sure how to keep talking. Mitch picked up the hint.
“He’s straight and a werewolf, and you’re his human mate. It’s like Jessica and William on Days of Our Lives!”
Leo tipped his head back and laughed, thankful in that moment for a friend who could take a serious situation and make it okay.
“That storyline ran, what, fifteen years ago?”
“Oh my God. I had the biggest crush on William.”
Leo grinned. “Of course you did.”
“It was so romantic, Leo. She was all swooning and delicate and pretty, and he was this big hulking werewolf. And she decided to say a big fuck you to society and run away with him because she loved him no matter what her parents said.”
“It was an incredibly problematic storyline, is what it was. And Jessica and William weren’t soul mates. She was using him to rebel against her parents. Which is gross.”
“You know what I’m getting at.”
“I don’t know that I want to be the Jessica in this situation. Though I’m pretty sure my parents will take it about as well as hers did.”
Mitch looked lost in thought for a second. Then he shook his head. “Girl,” he said, and paused to slurp his margarita. “Girl, I don’t know what to tell you. You didn’t even get his number?”
“I barely heard him speak,” Leo said. “He was too busy gaping at me like a goldfish. I really didn’t have time to stick around and wait for him to freak out on me some more.”
“What was it like?” Mitch’s voice had dropped to a breathless whisper. Like all of this was the biggest secret in the world. “Did you just know?”
“I guess so. I looked at him, and it was like… the world shifted on its axis. Like putting glasses on when you didn’t even know you needed them to read, and suddenly everything comes into focus.” Leo shook his head. “I’m human; I wasn’t prepared for this. I don’t even know his name.”
His name was important. Such a big deal, Leo was actively trying not to think about it. The implications of the whole situation were huge; it would affect his parents, his friends, his job. He’d seen enough of the world to know there was still prejudice against werewolves, even though it wasn’t considered polite to air those opinions in public anymore. Living with a werewolf as his roommate would have been extremely taboo even thirty years ago; now Leo had to deal with the implications of being one’s soul mate.
Leo knew werewolves considered their soul mates almost sacred; it was one of the most pure and intimate connections they could form. But what that actually entailed? What would be expected of him? Leo didn’t have a clue.
He was pretty sure he was going to fuck it up.
Mitch looked over and studied Leo hard. “Do you think he’ll call?”
Leo shrugged. Because wasn’t that just the crux of it? What happened if he didn’t call?