The dog was beautiful—a black and white husky with ice blue eyes. He seemed a little skittish, but not unfriendly or aggressive.
"Hey there." Eric held his hand out for the dog to sniff. "No microchip, huh?"
"Nope," said the guy who'd brought the dog in. "No tags, no collar, my mom's vet says no chip. I've never seen him around the neighborhood before or anything, but I dunno, I just moved in a couple months ago. I put up flyers and stuff and kept him for the night, but if my landlord found out I had a dog in the house my ass would be grass."
Eric moved to rub the dog's chest, and he didn't seem to mind.
"He definitely looks like he has a home," Eric said. "He doesn't look malnourished, and his coat is gorgeous; someone's been brushing him and giving him regular baths. He even smells good. I'm sure his owner'll turn up."
The guy shifted uncomfortably. "So like, how long do they have? It's not like, if they don't show up in three days you'll kill him, is it?"
"Oh, no, no," Eric said, standing back up. "The Sharon Animal Rescue Center is an open admissions shelter, which means we'll take any animal brought in, and that means we do run out of room now and then. But the few dogs we do have to put down are mostly ones who have health or behavioral problems too extreme for us to deal with. So far, this boy definitely doesn't seem to fall into that category. Plus we work with breed rescues in the area, so if he's still here in a couple weeks I'll call the husky rescue and as soon as they have a foster home open they'll pull him. A lot of the purebreds who come through here wind up with rescues like that. I don't think you need to worry about us havin' to put him down, unless he's got some major health problem he's hiding from us."
"Cool," the guy said, nodding. "Okay, uh, you need anything else from me?"
"If you're done with that paperwork, that's it."
The guy scratched the dog's head one more time before heading out the door with a quick wave. Eric took the dog's leash and led him to the intake wing. The dog slunk along next to him, tail between his legs. When Eric opened the door, he shrank back at the sudden sound of five other dogs barking.
"Hey now, it'll be okay," Eric said. "I know you're scared 'cause you can't find your people, and it's a little loud and crazy here, but we'll take good care of you. I'm sure you'll be going home in no time."
The dog looked up at him doubtfully, but when Eric walked through the door, he followed. Despite his obvious wariness, the dog walked right into his pen, but immediately retreated to the far corner.
"What a good boy!" Eric praised him and held out a treat. When the dog slowly came back to investigate it, he squatted down, and the dog let him scratch his ear as he ate. "Okay, I'll be back in a little while to feed you. Our vet's coming in this afternoon, so you'll get a check-up then and some shots. I know it's kinda scary here with everyone else makin' such a fuss, and the decor does leave something to be desired. But once you've got a clean bill of health, I can at least move you into a run where you can go outside and get away from some of the noise, okay?"
The husky sighed as though he could understand what Eric had just said and was resigned to his fate.
"Oh, you are gonna be a character, I can tell," Eric said as he stood up to close the pen. "I bet you'll come outta that shell in no time."
That afternoon, after all the new intakes had gotten checkups and a full round of vaccines, Eric started moving them into the indoor/outdoor runs. When he got to the husky, he didn't take him straight to his new run yet, instead walking him outside to the training yard. Just on the walk there, Eric could tell he was well-trained, with some of the best leash manners he'd ever seen. He completely ignored the other dogs and stayed right by Eric every step of the way, even with a totally slack leash.
Once Eric closed them in the training yard and unhooked the leash, the husky ventured away from him, sniffing around the bottom of the fence. When he got to the far end, Eric called out "Here, boy!" The dog immediately turned from his sniffing and trotted over to Eric.
"Very impressive," Eric said as the husky stood in front of him.
"Hmmm, now what are we gonna call you 'til your owner gets here?" Eric said, mostly to himself. The dog tilted his head a little, as though he were listening. "I'm sure you've never pulled a sled in your life, but unfortunately for you, you're a husky and I'm into both figure skating and hockey, so you're just bound to get some kind of icy name out of that combo."
The dog took a few steps forward and sat down directly in front of him, eyes never leaving Eric's face. It was unsettling, really—he definitely didn't seem aggressive, but Eric had never had a dog focus on him quite so intently before; at least, not when he wasn't offering it food.
"Huh." Eric reached out and scratched the husky's ear. "Well, let's see, what sort of figure skating names could we give you… Axel, Salchow, Biellmann…" The husky looked away. "Toe loop?" He barely glanced at Eric, but Eric grinned as he swore he could feel the disdain in it. "All right, all right, you're picky, huh? Okay, well, maybe we should keep it simple. Puck?"
To Eric's surprise, the husky looked right at him and barked.
He leaned forward and nosed at Eric's hand until Eric started petting him, laughing.
"Wow. I wonder if that's your real name. Okay. Puck. You are a weird dog, Puck, but I think I like you. Now, let's see…"
Eric ran through a few basic commands, and Puck handled them like a pro. He also had no problems with give or leave it when Eric tried those with some toys and treats. Then Eric tried whatever other commands he could think of—shake, speak, roll over, play dead. He couldn't find a single thing that stumped Puck.
"I have a feeling you do agility trials or something," Eric said as he pulled a tennis ball out of the yard toy box. "You might be the best-trained stray I've seen come through here. Now let's have a little fun before I put you in your new run."
As it turned out, Puck played fetch just like he did everything else—with a quiet intensity and precision that left Eric feeling a little off-balance. He wagged his tail a little, but other than that seemed to view fetching as a very serious task. After a few tosses, Eric tried to get him to show some excitement over the game, waving the ball at him and talking excitedly.
At first, Puck just kept his eyes on the ball, waiting for it to be thrown again. Then he looked at the rest of Eric—his face, the way he was bent down and wiggling—and Eric swore he could see a light bulb go off over the dog's head before he dropped into a play bow.
"There you are!" Eric said, and threw the ball again. When he brought it back, Eric told him, "Y'know, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you forgot to bow, and just now, I didn't get you excited so much as I reminded you to do it. You are an odd dog, Mr. Puck."
Puck blinked at him, then barked at the ball and dropped into another bow.
"That's the spirit!"
"That Puck sure is an odd pup." Eric shook his head as he and Ford cleaned out the runs a few days later. "He's really growin' on me, though."
"That's because you're the only person he likes," Ford teased.
"He's not aggressive or anything," Eric replied defensively. Puck was a good dog, and Eric certainly didn't want his personality quirks to cost him a home if his owner didn't show. "Just… idiosyncratic. And you know he's fine with the rest of the staff, even if he does like me best."
Puck didn't behave badly for the other staff, but he was never excited to see any of them like he was with Eric. When Eric came to his door, he always came right over, wagging his tail, tongue lolling out, begging for a scratch behind the ears. Eric wasn't sure if it was his homemade dog treats, which Puck seemed to like even more than most of the dogs, or the fact that Eric talked to him so much.
In that, Eric knew he was a bit odd himself. Most of the other staff and volunteers would say a few cheerful words to the dogs, but he was the only one to keep up the constant stream of chatter. Some dogs didn't like when he did that, while other dogs seemed to find it comforting. Puck, on the other hand, seemed to listen raptly to whatever Eric had to say, sometimes even appearing to react to things he couldn't possibly have understood. Eric figured his owner was probably talkative as well, and he missed it.
Puck seemed especially excited when Eric would prattle on about hockey. He'd recently signed up to play with a beer league in the fall, so it was on his mind and now that he'd named Puck Puck it seemed like a natural topic of conversation.
Eric was surprised when Puck's owner still hadn't appeared by the fifth day. Given how well-groomed and well-trained Puck was, he'd assumed that any owner who took that kind of care of their dog would be frantic to find him. He sure would've been if he lost a dog that great. As he changed Puck's paperwork to put him on the adoptable list, Eric felt a little guilty. While he should've been hoping Puck was adopted to a loving home as quickly as possible, deep down he had to admit that he'd rather he stuck around for a little longer.
Puck being adopted quickly, it turned out, was not something Eric had to worry about. Being the gorgeous dog that he was, he was immediately popular with potential adopters, but most didn't make it as far as taking him out of the run. With non-Eric staff and volunteers, he would be unenthusiastic but cooperative, but when visitors came by his run he would retreat to the back corner and lie or sit facing away from them. For many, that was enough to put them off. They would coo over how pretty he was, but they wanted a dog who would run up to them and greet them excitedly, and there were plenty of those to go around.
The few who did take him out fared no better. Again, he wasn't aggressive or badly behaved; he just clearly did not want to be there. When the staff or volunteer went to take him out, at first he'd balk, trying to stay put. Once they coaxed him out, he'd stick close to them while they walked him and the potential adopters to a play yard, ignoring the people who were actually there to see him.
Once he was closed in the yard with the visitors, he'd retreat to a corner to sulk. He never growled or snapped at anyone, he just completely ignored them, not even looking their way when they would pet him. The only exception was children; with children he still wouldn't be enthusiastic but he would be… polite. He'd look at them and respond to petting, though he still wouldn't fetch or run around, wouldn't even wag his tail, and if he was out with them for too long he'd eventually retreat to a corner. All of this added up to a dog that nobody wanted to take home.
"You know, I think he's still just a mite depressed," Eric told more than one visitor. "Someone brought him in a week ago as a stray, and I think he had a good home before that he's still pining for. He'll warm up."
To Ford he said, "He's one smart cookie; I think he can tell these people are thinkin' about takin' him home and he just doesn't want them. He wants his people to come get him."
By day nine of Puck's stay, Eric was seriously weighing the idea of adopting him himself instead of calling the husky rescue at the end of the week. He wasn't a hundred percent sure he could afford the vet bills, and he probably didn't really have time for a dog on top of his skating and baking and the job and now hockey… and, of course, school work… so probably not. He reminded himself that if shelter workers took home every dog they bonded with, they'd all wind up hoarders. But he couldn't get over how intense and intelligent Puck was, and how attached he seemed to be to Eric himself over anyone else. Eric had to admit he was pretty attached to Puck, too.
On day ten, though, he answered the phone to a slightly harried-sounding man.
"Hey, have you guys gotten in a stray husky lately? Black and white? Blue eyes?"
"Why, yes, in fact, we have!" Eric exclaimed, hoping this really was Puck's owner. "He's been here a while actually, a week and a half. We put him up for adoption five days ago—"
"What? Fuck me sideways, really? He got adopted five days ago?"
"We put him up for adoption five days ago, sir, but lucky for you nobody's adopted him yet."
"Thank fuck. I'll be down ASAP." The guy hung up before Eric could say another word.
Eric had just started feeding the cats barely twenty minutes later when the bell over the front office door jangled wildly. Before he could even close the cage someone was frantically calling out, "Hello? Anyone around? Hello?"
He rushed out to find a man around his own age with long hair and a mustache, wearing cutoff jeans, a denim American flag vest, and sunglasses, which he pushed up on top of his head when he saw Eric.
"Hi, how can—"
"I called a little while ago, about a husky? Please tell me he's still here, man."
"Oh, yeah! Come on back with me, we'll see if he's the one you're lookin' for. I hope so, honestly, I think Puck misses home something fierce—"
"Puck?" The man squinted at Eric.
"Oh, sorry! That's what we've been calling him, I'm sure it's not his real name. He seems to like it real well, though, so I thought maybe—" He was cut off by the man laughing so hard he doubled over.
"Oh my—that is—holy shit, bro." He straightened up, wiping at his eyes and still chuckling a little. "He likes the name Puck, huh? Yeah, that's Jack, all right."
"Jack? Is that his name?"
"That it is. Where is he?"
"Oh, right. This way!" Eric started to lead the man back toward the indoor runs. "Well that makes sense, then, Puck does sound an awful lot like Jack."
For some reason, the man laughed again. "Puck sounds an awful lot like Jack," he said to himself, shaking his head. "Oh, that's classic." He noticed Eric looking at him funny. "Sorry, bro, it's not you. It's just, we—uh, I play hockey, so like. Appropriate, right?"
"Oh, you do?" Eric said as he opened the door to the runs. The guy flinched at the sudden increase in noise. "I just signed up for a hockey team myself." Eric raised his voice a little to be heard over the dogs.
"Sweet, man, where at?"
"Oh, just a beer league at the local rink. Not here, over in—oh, here we are!" He stopped in front of Puck's—Jack's—door, though Jack was in the outdoor part of the run. "Hang on just one sec." Eric slipped into the run and squatted down to peer through the little dog-sized door to the outside. "Puck! Er, Jack! Here, boy!"
As usual, at the sound of Eric's voice Jack scampered back inside to see him. But as soon as he saw the man with the mustache, all thoughts of Eric were forgotten. He ran right up to the door of the pen and jumped up, barking and wiggling—this guy was clearly the person he'd been waiting for.
Eric laughed. "Wow, he sure missed you! Okay, let me get a leash on him before I open the door so we don't lose him all over again."
As if he understood, Jack dropped back down so his front paws were on the floor again and stood still while Eric hooked up the leash, though his eyes never left his owner.
When Eric opened the door to the pen, Jack just about bowled the man over. The feeling was apparently mutual, given the way the man hugged him and ruffled his fur.
"Jesus, Jack! I've been looking all over for you, brah! How the fuck did you get all the way to Sharon, anyhow?" Jack barked. "Never mind, we'll talk later."
Eric raised an eyebrow as he closed the door to the pen, but didn't say anything. He was used to people being weird when it came to their pets. "Well, let's get you checked out, then!"
He led them back to the front office and pulled out the appropriate paperwork.
"Let's see. Our usual reclamation fee is based on how long the dog's been here, but since he's been here for ten days I could probably let you get away with just paying the adoption fee of $200."
"Damn," the guy said, shaking his head. He pointed at Jack. "You better pay me back, buddy." Jack just wagged his tail.
Eric snorted and took the guy's debit card.
While he was running it, Ford happened to come through the office. She took one look at Jack and his owner and stopped short.
"Holy crap! A person Puck likes as much as Bitty?"
"Bitty?" The mustached guy raised an eyebrow.
"That'll be me," Eric said, handing him the PIN pad with a shrug. "I was the one who processed Jack for intake, and I guess he imprinted on me or something. He hasn't been aggressive with anyone, just… not terribly friendly."
"Jack?" Now Ford looked confused.
"Puck's real name is Jack," Eric explained, "and this is his owner."
"Ohhhh." To Eric's surprise, Jack went over to Ford and nosed at her hand until she scratched him behind the ear. "Wow. I guess now that he's got you back, he's not worried about being adopted out."
Jack's owner narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean by, he's not worried—"
"Oh, that's what we've been saying," Ford explained. "We think he's been so unfriendly to everyone—especially the people coming to look at dogs to adopt—because he's noticed that other dogs go home with people and he's not interested in going home with anyone but you."
"Not interested in going home with anyone but me," Jack's owner said, looking amused. "Or… Bitty, apparently?"
Something about the way the guy looked at him made Eric blush. "Lucky for you, I'm not sure I have time for a dog right now, or I would have been tempted to adopt him, let me tell you. Smartest dog I've seen come through here, and you've got him trained so well. I'm assuming he does agility trials or something."
"Something like that," the guy said with a grin Eric couldn't interpret, then he focused back on the paperwork he was filling out.
Ford headed down the hall with a wave. Eric came around the counter to pet Jack one last time. Jack immediately came over and leaned against his legs while he ran his hands through all that thick, glossy fur.
He was going to miss Jack in a way he didn't usually miss dogs once they were adopted out. He'd been working there for nearly a year, and sure, there'd been dogs he'd gotten to know, dogs he'd been sad to see leave. This felt different. He'd almost say it felt like Jack was supposed to be his dog, not this guy's, but that was ridiculous.
"There you go," Jack's owner said, pushing the completed paperwork down the counter toward Eric. "Anything else?"
Eric grabbed the papers and glanced through them, making sure everything was in order.
"I think that's it, Mr. Knight," he said. The guy had only filled in the initial B. as his first name.
"Call me Shitty," Mr. Knight said, holding a hand out for Eric to shake. Eric took it, slightly bemused.
"Um, okay?" he said, pretty sure he would not be calling a customer Shitty. "At any rate, looks like it's all in order. It's been a pleasure having Jack here, but I'm glad he's going home. Can I say one thing, though?"
"What's that?" Mr. Knight asked as he clipped his own leash to Jack's collar.
"We do discounted microchipping here on the weekends, and I hope you'll consider it so a shelter can call you immediately if he gets lost again. And I would really recommend having him neutered. It would reduce the odds of him running off like this again, plus there are health benefits, and of course, it would help cut down on the number of homeless puppies shelters have to deal with."
Mr. Knight's face contorted like he was trying not to laugh, while Jack suddenly walked away and hid near the door, behind the bend in the counter.
"I wouldn't worry about that," Mr. Knight said, letting a small chuckle escape. "He's, uh, got a medical condition. Trust me, he won't be making any puppies."
"Oh…kay," Eric said slowly. Their vet had deemed Jack completely healthy, but Eric supposed she hadn't checked for infertility. "Well, anyhow, as much as I like him, I hope he doesn't wind up back here."
"I'm sure he won't," Mr. Knight said, and threw Eric a wink as he walked Jack out the door.
I made up a word. It will be explained later. Bonus points if you can figure out the etymology before then.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"What the fuck took you so long?" Jack was ducked down in the back of Shitty's beat-up car, pulling on the clothes Shitty had brought for him. They were parked behind a strip mall down the road from the shelter. "You realize that if somebody had wanted to adopt me, they seriously would have tried to neuter me."
"Okay, one, you're the one who got to school a week before anyone else. I didn't even know to start looking! And two, how the fuck did you wind up in fucking Sharon, of all places? You never go that far when you're shifted. You're lucky I even found this place; I'd already called like fifteen shelters and went to check out a definitely not you husky at one of them yesterday."
Jack sighed and sat up to pull a t-shirt over his head. "The guy who caught me apparently didn't think to take the dog he found to a shelter in the town where he found it. His mom lives in Sharon, he took me to her vet to check for a microchip and then to the shelter he was closest to at that moment."
"I can't believe you let some dude catch you." Shitty said, shaking his head as he started the car.
"I was asleep when he snuck up on me," Jack explained as he climbed over the back of the passenger seat. "Just in the fucking woods out back, definitely on our property. We need to put up more No Trespassing signs. Anyhow, I ran, but his buddy was hiding in the opposite direction from him and tossed a blanket over me when I got near him. Then once I tripped and got tangled in it they tackled me."
Shitty let out a low whistle. "They're lucky you're a fucking Were and not a normal dog, that sounds like an excellent way to get mauled half to death."
"No shit." Jack shook his head. "I nearly bit them anyhow, I was so shocked. If I could've shifted that night I could have snuck out of his apartment, but you know how I get when my anxiety acts up, and I was definitely panicking. Then the shelter padlocks all the pens as soon as the staff go home at night, so unless I wanted to shift into a naked guy in the middle of the day in a busy animal shelter…"
"Well hey," Shitty said with a knowing grin, "look on the bright side. At least that dude took you to the shelter with Bitty. What the hell's going on there, man? He's definitely your type."
"I regret ever coming out to you," Jack said with a sigh.
They'd only had that conversation a few weeks ago—Jack had gone to a couple of prospect camps over the summer, and realized with some finality that he didn't want to go to the NHL. It would suck to be a public figure while hiding that he was a Were, but there were actually a lot in hockey, mostly due to the fact that there were more Weres in northern climates, so that wasn't a dealbreaker. But that plus hiding his sexuality, especially when he was pretty sure that his interest in women was entirely sexual and he was going to want to settle down with a guy long-term… that was a lot. Too much. Spending even just a couple of weeks in that kind of environment had been unhealthy and, what's more, unpleasant. He'd barely enjoyed the hockey he was playing because he was so miserable off the ice, and he'd realized that while he wanted to play hockey, he didn't want to do it under those conditions.
His father was surprisingly supportive. He'd encouraged Jack to think about putting up with it for a couple of years, just until his first contract was up so he could take the money and run. Jack had said he'd think about it, and he supposed it was still an option. But he was sure enough of his decision that he'd talked it over with Shitty, and that meant coming out to him.
Ever since, he'd felt a strange lightness every time he thought about it—he was free. Not free of hockey, he'd never want that. But free of all the shackles playing in the NHL would keep him in, ones that he'd already felt tightening.
He could date a guy if he wanted.
He could date Bitty if he wanted.
If Bitty wanted.
"He goes to Samwell," Jack muttered, looking firmly out the window.
"Fucking what?" Shitty hit the brakes a little too hard as they approached a red light, and Jack remembered why he didn't usually let the Masshole drive them anywhere. "Are you serious, brah? Dude, we gotta get Ransom on some serious Facebook stalking here. Jack-o, this was clearly meant to be. You get kidnapped and taken to some random-ass shelter a half hour away, where there just happens to be this adorable shelter worker who's exactly your type and who just happens to go to Samwell? Right after you've decided to change your life around just so you can date dudes? C'mon."
Jack could feel his cheeks burning.
"I like him," he admitted, still looking out the window. "He talked to me a lot. He's really interesting. Plus, he, uh… he wears these really short shorts sometimes. He's… got a nice ass."
It felt like he had to tear every word from his throat. He reminded himself that if he were into a girl, they'd talk about her just like this. This was exactly how he should talk to Shitty about someone he liked. It was fine.
"…And how did he smell?" Shitty asked, far too knowingly. The grin he gave Jack made Jack hide his face further.
He was not ready to admit to Shitty how good Bitty had actually smelled. That he'd smelled like mate. That Jack had wanted to curl up in it and never leave. That he missed the smell already.
"Really good," Shitty repeated, still grinning. "Really good, huh?"
"He's a Nawolf," Jack said, sharper than he meant to. "And trust me, he has no idea Weres exist. If I ever ran into him on campus and if I managed to get a date with him, he'd probably bolt when he found out what I really am. He's cute, I like him, I'm interested, but let's keep expectations low here."
"Fine, fine," Shitty said and mercifully changed the subject. "Y'know, maybe we should all get microchipped…"
"…it's made with honey instead of table sugar, actually. I was reading how they used to make 'em like that during World War II, what with the sugar rationing and all."
"Were you, now?"
"Yes, ma'am. I've got the textbook, and it just looks amazing. I know this class isn't offered every year so I just want to be absolutely sure I can fit it in, just in case it's not offered again before I graduate. I'll admit, I'm not always the best student, but Lord, I've already read five chapters of that book, and some classes I barely manage that much all semester!"
Professor Atley smiled. "Well, I do like to reward enthusiasm. But you need to understand that as a senior-level seminar, this class will have higher expectations than a lot of the other classes in the department, so I hope that enthusiasm will continue."
"Oh, absolutely, Professor Atley! If there were ever a class I was ready to give a hundred and ten percent to, it's this one!" Eric sure hoped she could see how sincere he was and didn't think he was just laying it on thick. The truth was, if he could build a major out of classes exactly like this he'd be set. Well, if he could do that and also replace all the gen ed requirements with more classes exactly like this. Then he'd be set.
"All right, let's see how you do."
After thanking her profusely, he turned around to find a seat. As it was a small senior seminar, the students were seated around a large table instead of in rows of seats, and most of the chairs were full. He headed for the first empty seat he laid eyes on.
He was halfway there before he realized that it was right beside the the captain of Samwell's men's hockey team. The extremely handsome captain of the hockey team. Jack Zimmermann, who was about 1/3 of the reason Eric had kept going to hockey games last year.
Jack Zimmermann, who was looking right at Eric as he approached. And smiling like he was happy to see him. Which was ridiculous, since Eric had never talked to the guy in his life. He'd been to one party at the hockey Haus, and Jack hadn't even made an appearance. One of Jack's teammates had said something about him being upstairs "getting sucked off by a Zimmermann puck bunny"—and boy, Eric did not need to think about that in the middle of class. But he'd also overheard another hockey bro, one who sounded less bitter and sarcastic, say that Jack didn't like parties and had gone upstairs to read.
At any rate, he was probably looking at someone behind Eric. Or something.
By the time Eric got to the seat, it was undeniable—Jack was looking directly at him and grinning, like seeing Eric had made his day.
"This seat open?" Eric asked, nodding at the empty chair.
Jack blinked, then looked down at the chair like it had just appeared. "Oh! Yeah, yeah." He pushed it out, inviting Eric to sit, so he did. "Hi," Jack said once he was seated. He was still looking at Eric with a slightly dopey grin; between that and the intensity of those eyes, Eric willed himself not to blush.
"Um, hi," Eric said. He held out his hand. "I'm Eric."
"Eric," Jack repeated, leaning in to shake his hand. Whatever soap or shampoo or aftershave or something he was wearing hit Eric, and he suddenly wanted to bury his nose in Jack's neck. How dare an athlete smell that good? "Right. I'm Jack."
"I know," Eric blurted out, then he really did blush. "I mean, I've been to a few of your hockey games. You're the captain, right?"
"Yeah—" Before Jack could elaborate, Professor Atley cleared her throat and class started. Eric turned away from Jack reluctantly, but that scent—vaguely familiar, though he couldn't quite place it—lingered in his nostrils.
"He bribed his way into the class with a pie. I mean, he talked about baking a lot at the shelter, but he brought an actual pie, that he baked from scratch, to class and gave it to the professor."
"Takes some chutzpah," Shitty commented as they crossed the quad. "I like this kid. You should marry him."
Jack sighed. "Shut up, Shits. Look, maybe I'll ask him out eventually. But for right now, I need to figure out how to have a conversation with him without letting on that I know all this shit about him I shouldn't know. Or, like, accidentally calling him Bitty."
"Or you could take the direct approach. Hey, you remember that amazing dog you met a few weeks ago? The one you maybe felt like you had some freaky connection with, even though you're clearly a perfectly normal person who is not in any way into bestiality?"
Jack grabbed Shitty's sunglasses right off his face and tossed them across the grass. "Fetch, Shits."
He made it almost all the way back to the Haus before Shitty caught up to him.
"Not even remotely bordering on cool, brah," Shitty said, ramming his shoulder into Jack's as they started up the porch steps. "Especially considering how I was about to help you out with your boy trouble."
"Oh, really?" Jack asked. "What sort of help were you about to offer?"
"Uh, duh." Shitty slipped into the Haus ahead of Jack. "He doesn't know he met you this summer, but guess who he does know he met."
Jack paused. "Ohhh." Maybe Shitty actually could be useful.
"Yeah, ohhh. I'll swing by when your class gets out sometime next week."
Jack frowned as they ascended the stairs. "But you shouldn't know much more about him than I do. What, like… his nickname, and that he works at an animal shelter?"
Shitty reached the top first, and turned around to fix Jack with a look. "Jackabelle, my love. Light of my life. If someone were to ask me who, between the two of us, had a better slapshot, the answer would clearly be you. Which of us is more likely to win a faceoff—you again. Who has the better ass—definitely you."
"While I'm flattered," Jack said as they reached Shitty's bedroom door, "do you have a point?"
"I'm getting there. The point is, out of the two of us, who is more likely to deftly guide a conversation with your cute shelter worker-slash-baker to ensure that he tells you-you all the things he told dog-you this summer?"
Jack considered this. "Point taken."
After promising to make a list of everything he shouldn't know about Bitty but did, Jack retreated to his bedroom.
He was safe shifting to his dog form in the comfort of his own home. Everyone on the team knew Weres existed, and most were Weres themselves, including everyone living in the Haus. Samwell was the only hockey team in the NCAA with policies in place to protect them.
Jack knew it was why he'd felt so stifled at the prospect camps that summer. In the Q, it had never seemed like a huge deal to hide it, to never shift unless he was back at his parents' house. But now that he'd had a taste of real freedom—never having to live with only half of himself, never having to hide from his teammates and closest friends, never going a week without shifting—it felt unnatural to hide. Going to the NHL would mean giving up half of himself for long periods of time.
He was lying on his bed chewing on a deer antler when the dog door to the bathroom nudged open and Shitty came scooting through in his dog form—a long-haired miniature dachshund. He was dragging his favorite rope toy, which he deposited at the bottom of Jack's bed before looking up hopefully.
Jack glared at him. He thought he'd convinced Shitty that this was a bad idea—that he should play tug with anyone in the Haus other than its largest dog resident.
Jack barked at Shitty, but Shitty just shook the rope and growled. With a sigh, Jack bent down over the side of his bed, grabbed the other end of the rope in his teeth, and slowly stood up on the bed. Shitty whimpered, eyes wide, as Jack pulled him up onto his back legs and finally right up off the floor. Jack had half a mind to just drop him, but placed him carefully back on the ground to protect that long back. He dropped the rope and shifted back to human form.
"Shitty, seriously. Playing tug with you isn't even fun. Call Lardo."
"Lard's in studio all night," Shitty pouted, sulking on Jack's floor.
"Already? The term just started!"
"Hey," Shitty said, shaking the rope at Jack as he stood up, "the muse does not obey an academic timeline. C'mon, man, just one round?"
"I have to be too careful! Go play tug with a kitten and tell me how much fun you have."
Shitty stalked back off to his room, grumbling. Jack shifted again and curled up on his bed, thinking about anything but Eric Bittle.
Shitty's penchant for nudity isn't quite so notable when everyone in the Haus is naked when they shift...
I wanted to get this update out quickly before the holiday madness starts. The next one will probably be a few days.
The next two times Eric got to class, Jack Zimmermann was already sitting there with an empty chair next to him and a hopeful look on his face.
"What alternate universe have I fallen into?" he asked Ford as they tied on their skates. It was the first meeting of the year for the figure skating club, where they'd first bonded as freshmen the year before. "Because I sure as hell know that the one I came from did not involve hockey team captains noticing me out of nowhere and—and flirting with me? Dear Lord, sometimes it's like he might actually be flirting with me. What do I do with that?"
"Uh, you hit that," she replied, giving him a funny look. "Duh. Jack Zimmermann is a living legend at Samwell for three reasons: those eyes, those cheekbones, and dat ass."
"But he's a hockey bro!" Eric insisted as they started skating in a big loop to warm up. "Look, I know from hockey bros. I mean, okay, it's Samwell, so maybe he's really for real not straight and not, like… trying to bait me or something."
He shuddered at the memory of Corey Marx, the asshole on his high school team who had asked him out on a date just to try and embarrass him—or worse. He'd almost fallen for it, too, because Corey had spent two weeks being extra-friendly toward him beforehand. Luckily, Corey's friends had been dumb enough to watch from about ten feet away, snickering, and Eric had realized what was happening just in time. He was still a little wary of any guy who expressed interest. "Even if he's queer, a guy like that wouldn't go for a guy like me."
Ford got in front of him, skating backwards as she took him by the shoulders. "Okay, a) you are one hot piece of ass and don't you forget it. Jack Zimmermann would be damn lucky to get his hands on you. b) You are a freaking hockey bro, so don't give me that 'hockey bros wouldn't go for me' bullshit."
"I am not—"
"Are you going to a hockey rehearsal tomorrow night or not, Bits?"
"Practice. For a rec league." Which barely counted, not compared to NCAA Division I. Eric hadn't been enough of a hockey bro to make it onto Samwell's team, after all.
"Whatever. Point being, from everything I've heard about Zimmermann, he probably wouldn't date a guy who doesn't play hockey, but you've got that covered. And c) everything else I've heard about Zimmermann is that he's a huge nerd, so whatever hockey bro stereotypes you've got floating around up there probably don't apply. I mean, he's in this class with you, right? Does he seem interested in it?"
"Yeah," Eric admitted. "I mean, he spends half the class doodling hockey plays on his notes, but I spend half the class planning out my next vlog in my head so I can't exactly throw stones. But he participates in the discussions and sounds like he read the book and all."
"So you've already got two things in common," she said with a shrug, letting him go. "Maybe you should ask him out!" She zipped off across the rink before Eric could protest.
Him? Ask Jack Zimmermann out? Now that was crazy talk, right there.
But when he got to class to find Jack giving him yet another puppy-dog smile and asking how his first practice with his new team went, Eric couldn't help wondering if maybe eventually he could get up the nerve after all. Or maybe if he didn't manage to ask Jack out on a date, they could at least study together? Or maybe get coffee, just two classmates who wanted to talk about an upcoming paper. Surely he could find some excuse to spend time with Jack and his damn distracting shampoo outside of class.
As it turned out, an excuse was standing in the hall outside the classroom as they left that day—an excuse with long hair and a mustache.
Eric stopped short, blinking, as Jack went right up to the man and bumped their shoulders together. "Hey, Shits."
Knight's eyes lit up when he saw Eric. "Bro!" He threw an arm around Eric's shoulders like they were old pals. "Man, you really gotta call me Shitty, this Mr. Knight stuff is for the birds. The stuffy, conservative, upper-middle-class WASP birds my dad hangs out with. What the fuck are you doin' here, bro? You go to fuckin' Samwell?"
"Um." Eric looked between Shitty and Jack, who was fidgeting uncomfortably. "Yes? I take it you do, too? Wait, are you on the hockey team with Jack?" He squinted at Shitty, suddenly realizing that he may have seen that flow at a game or two.
"Am I on the hockey team with Jack, he asks!" Shitty threw his other arm around Jack and started walking them all down the hall. Eric wondered if this was some kind of hidden-camera prank for YouTube. "As it happens, you are taking a class with not only the illustrious captain of our fair hockey team, but my very best bro on earth."
"So you two know each other," Jack said dubiously. It wasn't exactly a question, but he definitely sounded confused, and Eric couldn't blame him.
"Jackabelle, Bitty here was the shelter worker who reunited me with the husky of my dreams!"
"Bitty?" Jack asked, just as Eric said, "Wait, did you name your dog after your best friend?"
"Euh, the dog was named Jack before Shitty and I met," Jack rushed to explain.
"Bitty's what my figure skating friends call me," Eric told him. "Ford—my friend who works there—she called me that when he was there to pick up his dog."
"Wait, should I not call you Bitty?" Shitty asked as they exited the building into the September sunlight. "What do you call him, Jack?"
"Bitty's fine. Or Eric. Or whatever." Eric was more than a little flustered, not even sure where they were walking by this point.
"Bitty, my man, let me buy you a little something at Annie's to thank you for taking such good care of Furry Jack."
"Um, well, oka—"
"'Swawesome. Non-furry Jack, you in?"
Before he knew it, Eric was seated by the window at Annie's, sipping a free PSL courtesy of the guy who owned his favorite dog and was best friends with his new crush.
Eric had assumed that if he ever hung out with Jack outside of class, it would be a chance to get to know him better. Instead, it seemed like Shitty was intent on getting to know Eric better, asking about all sorts of random details of his life. And it wasn't like Eric had ever been good at not talking, especially when a very handsome man was listening as intently as Jack was. He tried to turn the conversation toward Jack a couple of times, but it never lasted long. Jack seemed happier to listen than to talk.
"Okay, so," Eric said as they got up to leave a half hour later. "We never got to the most important question: When can I see your dog again? I gotta be honest, I miss that gorgeous pup somethin' fierce, I think he's my favorite dog to come through the shelter."
"Actually…" Shitty threw Jack a look Eric couldn't interpret, then turned to Eric with a grin that made him a little nervous. "Do you ever dogsit?"
"Wait, what?" Jack muttered, but Eric barely heard him, too busy gasping in delight.
"I do now!"
"We're out of town so often on the weekends for away games, y'know—"
"Shitty," Jack broke in, glaring at his friend. "You don't need a dogsitter when we are out of town, remember?"
"Oh, right," Shitty said, eyes wide. "Right, I already found someone for that. But, ah—you know, she was telling me she can't take Jack during our kegster next weekend. If you'd rather come to the party, brah, I totally understand, but dogs aren't big fans of loud music and drunk people, so—"
"Friday or Saturday?" Eric asked, already opening his calendar app. "Lucky for you, I live with Ford, she won't mind if I sneak a dog into the apartment for a night. Especially since she knows how well-trained Jack is. I mean, er, Dog Jack," he stuttered, catching Jack's eye and then wishing he hadn't. "Obviously. Should I pick him up or do you want to drop him off? What time? Do you want him to spend the whole night, or do you wanna come get him when the party's over?"
"Oh, I think you should definitely keep him all night." For some reason, Shitty looked pointedly at Jack as he spoke. "He'd like that."
"What the fuck was that?" Jack rounded on Shitty as soon as they got back to the Haus.
"Uh, that was me getting you invited to your crush's apartment for the night. It's not like you wanted to go to the kegster."
"Invited to his apartment as a dog!" Jack ran a hand through his hair, pulling lightly in agitation. "So I can learn more things about him that I'm not supposed to know. Jesus, Shits, what if he walks around naked or something? Or what if he has a boyfriend, and his boyfriend is there and I have to watch them, or—or listen to them…"
"Jack, my love, calm your tits," Shitty said, leading the way into the kitchen to grab a drink. "First, I can assure you, based on his Twitter feed, that he is most definitely single."
"He told you his Twitter name thing like ten minutes ago, how can you already know that?"
"Because he is constantly lamenting that fact. Kinda hard to miss, bro. Second, if he walks around naked, pretend to be asleep. Real dogs sleep a lot, he'll buy it."
"It's still creepy. He doesn't know he's inviting me over. Please, Shitty, just tell him your regular dogsitter un-cancelled."
"And deprive him of the opportunity to see his favorite dog who he misses something fierce?" Shitty's grin was enough to make Jack blush, though he scoffed and looked away as he did. "C'mon, bro, he's head over heels for dog-you, he'll be crushed if I call it off now. Consider it a chance to perform some reconnaissance, figure out the best way to woo him."
Jack gaped at him. "And you don't think it's creepy to spy on him without his knowledge in order to figure out the best way to ask him out?"
"Okay, then, don't spy on him. Just be the same dog he got to know at the shelter and know that whatever else happens, you've made him happy for one night, right?"
"One night, sure. Shitty, we know this type. Loves dogs, can't have one himself, found one he bonded with—"
"So you bonded with him, did you?" Shitty's grin was back, but this time it made Jack grit his teeth instead of blush.
"—Point being, if I let him 'dog sit' me next weekend," Jack insisted with angry finger quotes, "he's going to be begging to do it every time there's a kegster."
"And like magic, you have an excuse to avoid the kegsters and hang out with the guy you're hung up on. And he'll probably lavish you with affection. I'm not seeing the problem here."
Jack groaned, covering his face with his hands.
"Look," Shitty said, clapping a hand on Jack's shoulder, "if he winds up getting freaked out by the whole Were thing anyhow, then it's not like you're destroying your chance with him. And if he doesn't, he'll understand why you couldn't tell him immediately, you can blame me for the petsitting, and he'll probably think it's hilarious. It's only creepy if you make it creepy."
Jack lowered his hands and fixed Shitty with a flat glare. "By spying on him like you suggested?"
Shitty shrugged, unconcerned. "Not all my ideas can be good ones, brah."
Eric found himself getting coffee with the captain of the hockey team after every class together over the next week and a half.
He wasn't sure they were dates, but he wasn't sure they weren't dates, either. Jack hadn't tried to kiss him or hold his hand, hadn't asked him out for a more datey date like dinner or a movie, hadn't made any overtly romantic move at all. It was possible that Eric, with his dearth of romantic experience, was reading too much into innocent things.
Things like the way Jack smiled when Eric would get to class, that hopeful puppy look as if he wasn't sure Eric would sit next to him this time. Or the way Jack sat a little closer to him in class than necessary, or let their knees knock under the table at Annie's.
Eric was still nowhere near confident enough to ask him out, but with every little look or touch it seemed like less of a crazy idea. When he imagined going for it, it started to feel less like a wistful daydream and more like formulating a plan.
On Friday night, he buzzed Shitty up to his apartment at eight o'clock on the dot. He tried not to let his disappointment show when he opened his apartment door to find only Shitty and Dog Jack—he'd kind of been hoping that maybe Human Jack would tag along just to say hi. The team captain probably had to help set up for the party.
Luckily, Eric couldn't be all that disappointed when he had this beautiful pupper standing in his doorway, tail wagging like crazy.
"Well, hello there!" Eric dropped to his knees and Jack immediately came over to nose at him. It was probably silly to be so thrilled that a dog remembered him, but it was better than being crushed if Jack hadn't. After letting his fingers get reacquainted with Jack's thick, silky fur, he looked back up at Shitty. "You can come on in if you want," he said. "Any special instructions or anything?"
Shitty just shrugged and handed him the leash, not taking more than a step into the apartment. "Nope. He's been fed, just keep a bowl of water out. He'll let you know if he needs to go outside. What time is good for me to come get him in the morning?"
"Oh, anytime after about nine should be fine," Eric said, thoroughly distracted by Jack, who was now leaning against his chest. Eric gave his soft fur a quick nuzzle. "Huh," he said as he pulled back, "he smells like—"
He realized at the last second that it might seem a little weird that he could identify Human Jack's smell, even though it wasn't his fault the guy kept sitting so close to him and smelling like heaven. Shitty probably gave Dog Jack a bath with Human Jack's shampoo or something.
"—uh, he smells good. Like he just had a bath?"
"Yeah," Shitty said slowly, watching thoughtfully as Eric stood up. "He had a bath today."
Eric told himself that Shitty couldn't possibly know what he'd been about to say. Well, unless Shitty did bathe the dog with Jack's shampoo, so he knew Dog Jack smelled like Human Jack, in which case—
"Anyhow, thanks, brah. As you can tell, he's psyched to see you again, and that seems to be mutual, so I'll just leave you to it!"
Before Eric could say another word, Shitty took off skipping down the hall to the stairs. Eric closed the door after him, then looked down at Jack, who was sitting and watching him calmly. He'd forgotten how intense this dog's eyes were. He reached down and unclipped Jack's leash.
"Well, Ford's out at parties for the night, so I guess it's just me 'n you. My big plans are watching The Great British Bake-Off and eating some of this pie once it's cooled. Oh!" Eric dashed into the kitchen, Jack following after a second. "Look what I made you!"
He grabbed the plate of dog treats off the counter and held one out. Jack sniffed toward it and his ears perked up immediately. He sat neatly and waited for his treat.
Eric laughed as he handed it over. "I almost forgot what an incredibly good boy you are! Well, there are more where that came from, but since Shitty says he fed you already you're only getting one at a time. Last thing I need is you throwin' up on my couch."
He watched Jack devour the treat, tail wagging, then gave him a scratch behind the ears and headed for the couch. Jack followed him into the living room and sniffed around a bit. Eric probably shouldn't have been surprised when Jack then sat politely on the floor by his feet instead of trying to jump up onto the couch.
Eric lowered the remote and watched this beautiful, strange dog, just sitting there and looking around the room like he was actually interested in Eric's decorating or the books on his shelves.
"Well, come on up here," Eric finally said, patting the couch next to him. "I'm not gonna make you sit on the floor all night, not when I don't even have a dog bed for you to lay on."
Jack hopped up on the couch next to him. For most dogs, the next step would be to try and fit as much of their body on the human's lap as possible, regardless of their size—but of course, Jack was not most dogs. He curled up next to Eric, feet tucked neatly beneath him, just close enough that the fur on his head brushed Eric's arm.
Eric clucked his tongue, shaking his head as he lifted his arm to rest it on Jack. "Too polite for your own dang good. How on earth are you Shitty's dog?"
He went to rub Jack's tummy and Jack rolled over partway, wiggling a bit and baring his belly. As Eric scratched him, he let his head loll onto the couch, then pressed it against the side of Eric's leg. Gratified that this had finally garnered some enthusiasm, Eric laughed and got his show started.
By the end of the episode, Jack had relaxed onto his side, head still against Eric's leg, and he didn't move when Eric got up to get himself some pie. Even when Eric sat back down, he barely lifted his head to sniff at the pie.
"Don't go gettin' any ideas," Eric said, pointing his fork at the dog. "You try and get my pie, and you're banished from the couch 'til I'm finished."
To make up for it, he handed over the treat he also had on his plate, which Jack ate happily as Eric fired up the next episode. Jack, as usual, was a perfect gentleman and made no move toward Eric's pie, even though Eric saw his nose twitch in its direction a couple of times.
Once Eric set his plate aside, he tried to get a little snugglier with Jack, who definitely seemed a bit more reserved than he'd been at the shelter. He hadn't made any move to get closer to Eric, to put his head in his lap or lick him or anything, like maybe the new surroundings had him just nervous enough to be a little standoffish. But when Eric pulled him in, he immediately relaxed and went with it.
Eventually, Eric got to where he could get his nose in Jack's fur, which he did with relish.
"You smell so darn good," he said. Jack looked up at him, probably startled by the sound of his voice when he hadn't said much since the episode started. "Don't tell Shitty this, because I have a feeling he's the type who'd never let me hear the end of it, but you smell like Human Jack. Don't you dare ask me how I know what he smells like, it's not like I go sniffing him. He's just there and he just sits there smelling like that and how am I supposed to not notice that? I wonder if he knows Shitty used his shampoo or whatever to give you a bath."
To Eric's surprise, running his mouth was apparently the way to get Jack to finally settle in, because suddenly he had a cold, wet nose nudging his throat.
"Awwww, you're the most serious dog I've ever met but you're such a sweetheart, too." Eric ruffled Jack's ears. Then Jack surprised him further by laying his head down on Eric's lap with a sigh. The only problem with that position was that it made it harder for Eric to bury his nose in Jack's fur, but he bent down and managed it, anyhow.
He straightened back up as a thought struck him. "Wait a second. You always smelled good at the shelter, too. I mean, I think it might be a little stronger now, but it's… I'm pretty sure it's the same. That's so weird. Even if you had a bath in Jack's shampoo right before you got there, how'd it last so long?"
Jack just sighed again (how do dogs always sound so put upon when they sigh?) and flopped onto his side, pawing at Eric's lap until Eric laughed and started rubbing his tummy again. Even without his nose in Jack's fur, the smell of it lingered. It was a scent he'd recognize anywhere by now, even though he couldn't exactly name what it smelled like besides Jack (Human Jack? Dog Jack? Both?), and for some reason it always made him feel warm and settled. It was weird that a cute guy's shampoo had such an effect on him, but it wasn't like he was doing it on purpose. It must have some kind of essential oils or something in it, lavender or some such.
To keep Jack in a snuggly mood, Eric kept up a running commentary through the next two episodes. He turned in after that, letting Jack sleep on his bed. When Jack curled up at the foot of the bed instead of coming up on the pillows with him, he couldn't quite say if his twinge of disappointment was because he didn't get to snuggle with a dog for the night or because his pillows wouldn't smell like Human Jack in the morning.
"So… I wasn't gonna say anything…"
"And yet here you are," Jack said with a sigh, turning in his office chair to face Shitty, who was lounging in the bathroom doorway.
"… but Bitty said you smelled good."
Jack's cheeks heated immediately, though he was surprised Shitty had managed to wait almost half a day before teasing him about this.
"And like, maybe you put on cologne right before you shifted or something, but brah… You didn't smell any different to me. You smelled like you always smell as a dog."
Jack sighed again and ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah?"
"You can take over whenever you want, here." Shitty gestured expansively as he crossed the room to sit on Jack's bed. "I'm just trying to give you an opening."
"An opening." Jack snorted. "Right. Look, what do you want me to say, Shits? He—he told me, dog me, that I smelled like human me. I smell really good to him. All the time."
"Ahhhh. And exactly how good did you say he smelled, again?" Shitty drew his words out, making Jack grit his teeth.
How good Bitty smelled wasn't really the issue. Parse had smelled incredible, but not like anything serious—more like sex and competition and victory. Bitty smelled like love and home and warmth. Like stability. Like permanence.
"He's my mate," Jack finally admitted quietly, not looking at Shitty. "But trust me, Shits, he doesn't know anything about Weres. The idea that any of the dogs at the shelter were anything besides just dogs never crossed his mind. What am I supposed to say? 'Are you free for dinner Friday night? By the way, I'm the dog who slept in your bed last weekend and we're destined to be together. What do you think of a June wedding?'" Just saying it out loud had his heart racing.
"Take it one step at a time, man." Shitty leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees, looking more serious. "Ask him out. Let him get to know you. Get to know him. Then deal with the life-altering revelations one at a time. You've got the rest of your life; you can afford to take it slow for a little while and do things right. Do whatever you'd do if you weren't mates."
"…and I'd like to remind you that when I say the paper is due before class on Friday, I do mean that it had better be sitting in the digital dropbox before I walk in that door. If you need an extension talk to me today, not Friday morning, or you won't be getting one."
The second Professor Atley started putting her things away, Eric felt a hand on his arm. In the past week or so, since about when Eric watched Dog Jack, Human Jack had become more touchy-feely. It was wonderful. Another week of it and Eric might even be confident enough to bring up the idea of a date.
"How's your paper coming?" Jack asked.
Eric laughed. "Oh, Lord. I've got my sources and some kind of outline. Well, it's almost an outline."
Jack narrowed his eyes. "Wait, have you not even started writing the actual paper yet?"
"It only has to be five pages, I can get a first draft done by tomorrow night no problem and then I'll have all morning to edit it!" Eric said as they left the classroom. He knew most people started their papers earlier than that, but it just never worked for him. Every time he started on a paper more than a few days before the deadline, tops, he just wound up staring at a blank Word document for two hours.
"Um. Hmm." Jack frowned, looking at the ground as they walked. He looked… conflicted?
"Well… I… uh."
When they exited the building, Jack turned right to go toward Annie's even though the Haus was to the left, and Eric followed right along. He'd known Jack for just over a month, had exactly one class with him and so far, other than Annie's, hadn't seen him outside of that class, yet they somehow had a routine together.
Jack took a breath.
"I was, um. I was going to ask if you wanted to get dinner with me tomorrow night, but, uh, I'm not sure that's how you should be spending that time."
Internally, Eric jumped up and down and clapped his hands.
Externally, he shoved Jack with his shoulder. "Excuse you, I can manage my own time, thank you very much."
"Can you, though? Really?" Jack chirped with an exaggerated grimace.
"Need I remind you," Eric said, nose in the air, "that you are the one asking me on a date, which I have not yet accepted." As soon as he said it, his pulse picked up. What if Jack hadn't meant it as a date?
"Except that I haven't actually asked you yet, so there's nothing to accept," Jack pointed out. "Academics should come before romance."
Well, that answered that. Eric bit his lip to keep from doing something silly like smiling like a goon or kissing Jack.
"You know, there is an easy solution to this," he offered as they approached Annie's.
"You could just ask me to dinner on Friday night instead."
"I don't know, I'm sure you've got papers due next week, too." Jack opened the door for him, which would have seemed more gentlemanly if he hadn't also been smirking.
As Eric brushed by him into Annie's, that smell filled his nose. He'd been planning on drawing this out more, making Jack work for it if he insisted on being a smartass, but somehow that scent knocked that idea right out of his head.
"Fine," he said as they approached the counter, "then I'll do it. Do you want to get dinner with me on Friday?"
Holy crap, he just asked Jack Zimmermann out on a date. Like, for real. Using words that came out of his own mouth. He studied the menu intently to hide his blush and prayed that he wouldn't pass out before Jack could answer.
"Yeah," Jack said, his voice so soft and gentle that Eric had to look over at him. "I'd love to."
They just stood there for a moment, smiling shyly at each other. As Eric lost himself in Jack's eyes, it was too easy for him to wonder if this might be the start of… Well. Something he shouldn't even be wondering about with a guy he'd known for a month.
Yikes! Sorry for the delay - I was trying really hard to add a scene that red asked for while betaing, but it just was not working. That scene did not want to be written. Plus the whole Tumblr thing derailed me a bit this week.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The next three weeks were everything Eric could hope for. He and Jack went on several dates, hung out even longer after class, and texted almost constantly. They didn't take things much beyond kissing, physically, but Eric was fine with that. He'd been a little worried, honestly, given his own lack of experience and the fact that Jack was a few years older. But Jack was a perfect gentleman and hadn't pressed the issue at all. Eric had to admit he was kind of starting to hope that Jack would press it sometime soon.
But… there were a couple of odd things. Jack had been to his place twice, once to study and once for dinner, but they had yet to hang out at Jack's together. He met Jack at the Haus sometimes to walk to class, but Jack made no move to invite him in. Eric had asked about Dog Jack a couple of times, hoping that maybe at least he could come in and pet him real quick, but Human Jack always deflected. When they hung out with a few of Jack's hockey friends, including Shitty, Eric had asked him about dogsitting again. Before Shitty could answer, Jack gave him a pointed look and reminded him that the person who watches the dogs (apparently there were a couple in the Haus; Eric saw a shiba inu running around in the backyard once) when they're out of town was going to watch them for the next kegster.
If Eric didn't know better, he'd almost think that Jack didn't want Eric around Dog Jack. It was an absurd thought, really. Jack was a mature adult, why would he be jealous of a dog? But Eric couldn't think of another reason for Jack to act so strangely whenever Dog Jack came up, or for him to keep Eric out of the Haus.
With the kegster coming up, Eric had assumed that since he couldn't dogsit then clearly that would be his chance to go into the Haus, maybe see Jack's room, maybe do more than see it…
Unfortunately, Human Jack didn't like kegsters much more than Dog Jack. When he asked if he could come over to Eric's during the party, of course Eric said yes—he was happy for any chance to be alone together—but if this kept up he was really going to have to just come out and ask Jack why they couldn't hang out at his place occasionally!
The night of the kegster, Jack showed up a little after eight with takeout, and they cuddled together on the couch, eating and watching a movie. But when Eric came back in from clearing their plates and picked up the remote to unpause it, Jack stopped him gently.
"Um. I was hoping we could, uh, talk. For a minute." He was blushing and not quite looking Eric in the eye.
Half of Eric perked up, hopeful that this was some kind of Relationship Talk, because he thought things were going well enough that maybe it was time to have one of those. The less optimistic half of him was sure that it must be a You're Really Cool But… talk. He turned off the TV as he nodded.
"Okay, sure," he said, twisting his hands together in his lap. "What's up?"
"I really like you," Jack started. "A lot. A whole lot."
Eric gave him what he hoped was an encouraging smile. "I like you a whole lot, too." But Jack didn't look pleased, or relieved, or anything like that—if anything, he looked more nervous. Not good.
"So, I have some stuff I need to tell you about," Jack continued. He only seemed to get more nervous as he went, his words becoming jerky and hesitant. "That I've been hiding, and I don't want to hide it from you anymore. And it's… it's the kind of stuff that I'm really worried is going to change how you see me, and it might freak you out, and I just… Just promise me you'll hold off judgment until I've explained everything?"
Eric took his hand. He didn't know what this was about, but he was willing to give Jack the benefit of the doubt. He knew there was some dark stuff in Jack's past; he didn't know the details, but Jack had alluded to some of it a few times. Eric didn't think anything would be a dealbreaker as long as Jack was willing to be open about it and work things out together.
"I can do that," he said, trying to sound reassuring. "Whatever it is, I'm sure we can talk it through."
Jack looked unconvinced. He took a deep breath. "Okay, uh. This is gonna sound really weird, but hear me out, okay? You know… werewolves?"
Eric frowned. What? "Um. Yeah?"
"So…" Jack scrubbed his hands over his face. "There's no way to make this not sound crazy, so I'm just gonna say it, but if you'll hear me out I promise I'll explain everything, I'll answer any questions you have."
A knot of worry was forming in Eric's stomach by this point, but he nodded even though Jack was looking at his own knees instead of him. When Jack continued, his words were rushed, almost blurring together.
"Werewolves are real, but they're not like the stories. We're not like the stories. I'm one. But most of us don't change into wolves, just dogs, and we can change whenever we want, not just at the full moon, and we don't hurt people or go crazy or anything, we're still in control of ourselves. And I'm the—the dog—the husky—that Jack is me. I'm the same as the dog. I mean, I can turn into a husky and I'm the husky named Jack that wound up at your shelter this summer."
With every word Jack said, Eric's chest got tighter. By the end he was barely breathing, not even sure his heart was beating. When Jack finally looked up, his eyes were wide and fearful enough that for a brief second, Eric's anger dimmed and he very nearly wanted to believe him. Just a brief second.
"Oh… my… God," Eric said, shaking his head. His face twisted in disgust as he looked at Jack. The knot in his stomach wasn't worry anymore, and he just hoped he could keep from throwing up until after Jack left. Which had better be very soon.
"I know it's a lot—"
"I can't believe I actually bought all that. I actually believed that you liked me!"
"What?" Jack actually looked confused, but he must have been a better actor than Eric ever realized, so that didn't mean much. "I do like you, that's why I'm telling you. Because I want a real, official relationship with you, but I didn't want to keep hiding things from you—"
"Just fucking stop, Jack." Eric jumped up from the couch, needing to get away from him. He wasn't sure who he was more disgusted with—Jack for doing this or himself for falling for it. "Joke's over, ha ha, you made the stupid little figure skating twink think you could actually like him. I don't even get it, you can't possibly be straight, not with the way we've made out—"
"I'm not straight, I just said I want to be your boyfriend!"
"—so is it just some jock thing? Even queer jocks feel the need to find the weakest, most feminine guys—"
"You're not weak at all—"
"—and lord your masculine, muscle-bound superiority over us? If I were desperate enough to play along with this 'werewolf' story, how far were you gonna take this?"
As good as shouting at Jack from across the room felt (well, no, it felt awful, but it was better than letting this asshole run all over him), Eric paused, trying to breathe normally, not sure what else there was to say. Jack was still on the couch, looking panicked. Good. He hadn't expected Eric to fight back, and he didn't know what to do.
"At—at the shelter, you baked homemade dog treats, and usually they were peanut butter and they were really good, but one time you made some with dehydrated chicken bits in them and as a human I'd probably think those were disgusting but as a dog they tasted so good, you have no idea—"
"Oh, is that supposed to convince me of this whole stupid story? The fact that you know about the dog treats, which I damn well know I told you about last week?" Eric clenched his fists and jaw, ignoring the voice in the back of his head that was pretty sure he'd only told Jack about the peanut butter ones. He obviously just wasn't remembering the whole conversation.
Jack finally stood up, holding his hands out in a way that was somewhere between placating and pleading. Eric took a step back, and thankfully, Jack didn't try to come near him. "When I was here, as a dog, the dogsitting! You said I smelled like me. I mean, you said that the dog Jack, which was really me, smelled like the human Jack. Which is me, too. Obviously."
Eric's brain tripped for a second, giving Jack time to keep going.
"You thought Shitty gave me—dog me—a bath with human me's shampoo, but it's just because I'm me both ways! I mean, since the dog was me I just always smell like me. I smell the same whether I'm a dog or a human."
Eric narrowed his eyes. For a second there Jack had almost had him doubting himself. "I told Shitty I thought you'd—ugh! I mean, I told Shitty I thought he gave the dog a bath, he could tell you that. You'll have to do better—"
"No!" Jack smiled a little, looking triumphant. "You told Shitty you thought I'd had a bath, but you didn't say a word to him about me smelling like me! You didn't tell him you thought he used my shampoo. You told me not to tell him because you didn't want him to know that you know what I—what human me smells like."
Eric swallowed. Something tugged at him—the part, deep inside, that had wanted to believe Jack from the beginning. The part he'd done such a good job of squashing until now. It was stupid, it was just because he'd developed such a crush on Jack, part of him was desperate to cling to him… except it didn't feel like that, not really. It felt like some deeper instinct.
"I don't know how you—fine. Fine, look, this is easy enough to sort out." He crossed his arms, giving Jack a saccharine smile. "If you're some magical werewolf dog thing, show me! Change into a husky. Shouldn't be hard, right? Now. Here."
Jack hesitated. Of course he did. There. Gotcha.
"Okay—" Eric's heart froze. Okay? "—but my anxiety—I have an anxiety disorder, and when it gets bad, I can get stuck as a dog, like I can't—I can't shift back, and I'm, y'know, not feeling great right now so if I shift now I might be a dog for, like, the rest of the night? Just warning you. You might have to call Shitty to come drive me home or something, so I don't get picked up as a stray. Again."
And wasn't that just about the weirdest way Jack could have chosen to try and weasel his way out of all this. But it wasn't gonna work.
"Oh, that's just fine!" Eric said, letting his accent thicken in sarcastic politeness. "I don't mind a little thing like you bein' a dog for a while, you just go on ahead and do your little shapeshifting trick for me, sweetheart."
Jack nodded. That instinctual part of Eric told him yes, of course, he's not trying to weasel out of anything, but Eric grit his teeth and willed it to shut the fuck up.
"Okay. But, um, you should close your eyes. The actual shifting looks really creepy, you probably don't want to watch it, especially right now, the first time—"
Eric actually laughed. "Oh, right, I'm gonna close my eyes so you can do whatever the hell you want to me." He turned away, striding off toward the door. "Okay, this has been hilarious, but it's time for you to go now—"
As he reached for the doorknob, there were strange sounds behind him, like clothes sliding around. He froze for a second, then spun around as he opened the door, having no idea what Jack might be doing or trying to do back there—
And instead of Jack the human, there was Jack the dog.
Human Jack's henley hung off him loosely, his front paws hidden in the cuffs, while Human Jack's jeans pooled around his back legs. He was cringing away from Eric slightly, ears laid flat and tail between his legs. Eric had too much experience with dogs for the position to not tug at his heart, even as the rest of his brain shorted out, dumbfounded.
He closed the door very, very gently, locked it, then turned and leaned back against it, his hands still gripping the doorknob behind him. There was a tiny piece of his brain that wasn't sure what was happening but was sure that anything that could cause him to feel this close to panic might necessitate a quick escape.
"Jack?" he asked quietly.
He hadn't really expected a response, but the dog nodded.
The dog. Nodded.
"You just nodded."
Jack did it again, then cringed back harder, like he thought Eric might hurt him. It made the animal-loving part of Eric want to cry, which was convenient because other parts of him wanted to cry for entirely different reasons.
"So you…" He wasn't sure he could say what he was thinking, but he reasoned that there were two possibilities: It was Jack or it wasn't. If it was, he'd answer the question. If it wasn't, it didn't really matter whether it was a dream or hallucination or a normal dog; either way it couldn't tell anyone what Eric had said to it. "When you're a dog, you can still think like a human?"
Jack relaxed a tiny bit as he nodded again, more vigorously. His ears unfolded a bit and his tail even wagged a little, even if it was still held low.
"Okay. Okay. I just—I need a minute," Eric said, before dashing toward the bathroom. He wasn't sure if he was going to throw up or pass out, but he really needed to not do either in front of Jack. Who was a dog.
Eric locked himself in the bathroom, then slid down to the floor and sat there as the first of many noisy, messy sobs tore out of him.
He'd been on the verge of crying for the past ten minutes, constantly flashing back to being fifteen, his mind superimposing Corey Marx's face over Jack's. When he'd seen the husky sitting there, the righteous rage that had been keeping him afloat had abandoned him in a rush, and it didn't take all those delicate emotions with it. Instead it just left him raw and cut open, bared to them. Add that to the incredible wave of relief crashing over him in place of the rage—the realization, which he still hadn't quite processed yet, that Jack wasn't lying to him, wasn't tricking him, wasn't laughing at him, and instead wanted to be his dang boyfriend—it was all too much for his brain to handle without a good, nasty cry.
When his sobs subsided into sniffles and hiccups, he grabbed a wad of toilet paper and started cleaning himself up as he moved on to the things his brain really wasn't equipped for.
Jack was a werewolf.
He was a were…husky. He could turn into a dog at will.
That was a thing that Eric was going to have to integrate into his worldview.
It was disturbingly easy, was the thing. He'd apparently made a subconscious connection between Dog Jack and Human Jack and their startlingly similar personalities, and now it was almost a relief to bring that out into the open. Hell, he had consciously made the connection, hadn't he, with the scents?
Just thinking about the way Jack smelled made him feel calmer, which should have been weird. But dogs were all about scent, weren't they? So there must be some werewolf… thing. With people's scents. Eric didn't even know what sort of thing that could be, but that was a detail to sort out later. He liked how Jack smelled, and he'd realized weeks ago that Dog Jack smelled the same. Some part of him was more ready for this strange new information than he ever would have expected.
He splashed water on his face and attempted to make himself somewhat presentable. He kind of hoped Jack had managed to turn back into a human while he was in there, but given the anxiety thing it didn't seem likely. Then again, if Jack were human when he came out, Eric would probably take it as evidence that he'd hallucinated the whole thing.
So it was probably for the best that when he finally emerged from the bathroom, there was still a husky sitting by the end of his couch. Jack's clothes were off to one side in a pile.
Eric sat down next to Jack, back against the arm of the couch. He didn't reach out to pet him just yet, and Jack didn't press for contact. He just watched Eric nervously, his ears folding back a little again even as the tip of his tail twitched against the carpet.
Eric gave him a wavering smile. Lord, he really was as pretty a dog as he was a human. His eyes even looked nearly the same.
"So," Eric said, trying to sound lighthearted, "my boyfriend's a dog."
Jack froze for a second, then his ears perked up. He turned his body so he was fully facing Eric and cocked his head to one side.
"I mean, if you still wanna be my boyfriend after that little display."
Jack barked, tail fully wagging, then suddenly Eric had a cold, wet nose pressing under his ear. He reflexively twitched away a little, but giggled. He only laughed harder when Jack started licking his ear and the side of his face, his cold nose still tickling Eric's skin. Even wiggling away, he couldn't help the way his hands sunk into Jack's fur and didn't exactly push him back.
"Oh my goodness, if you don't stop that I'm gonna lick all over your face as soon as you're human again!"
The threat stopped the attack for a moment, but as soon as Eric turned his face to look at Jack he got one more quick lick right on his nose. He yelped and wiped away the wetness, but immediately threw his arms around Jack's neck and buried his face in the soft fur. He wasn't even embarrassed at the way he breathed in the scent there, relaxing as he did.
"I'm sorry I assumed the worst," he muttered. "Not even that you were some kook who believed weird things, but jumping right to this all being some elaborate set-up to humiliate me. I haven't had the best experiences with that."
Jack whined a little and his paw came up to rest on Eric's arm, gentler than any normal dog could manage. After a moment, Eric pulled back from the dog-hug.
"So, now that I'm not yellin' at you and trying to kick you out, can you turn back into a human? Or does your body need longer than that to calm down?"
Jack looked at the floor, concentrating. But after a few seconds he looked back up at Eric and shook his head.
"That's fine," Eric said, smoothing a hand over Jack's fur. "How about we finish our movie, and then see how you feel?"
Jack nodded and nuzzled the side of Eric's face.
"No wonder you were the weirdest dog I ever met," Eric said as he grabbed the arm of the couch and pulled himself up off the floor. "I still had half a mind to take you home, though, so I don't know if that says more about you or about me."
As he sat down on the couch, Jack hopped up beside him and immediately flopped down half in Eric's lap. When Eric automatically started scratching behind his ear, he made a pleased noise and leaned into it, resting his head against Eric's stomach. He was a totally different dog from the one who'd sat neatly next to Eric on that couch a month before.
Eric looked down at Jack for a minute, thinking back to that night. The dogsitting had been entirely Shitty's idea; Jack had actively tried to dissuade him. He must have been so uncomfortable, invading Eric's space and knowing that he was lying about who he was while doing it. No wonder he'd been so distant and polite for so much of the evening. It wasn't his fault that he'd had to hide this, and now Eric appreciated that Jack hadn't used that to take advantage of his attempts to snuggle.
Jack looked up at him, probably wondering why he hadn't turned the TV back on yet.
"Sorry, sorry. Just thinkin'. Not sure there's much point in talking about it until you can talk back, though."
Jack gave a small, sad whine and dropped his head onto his paws, shaking it slightly. Eric sighed and restarted the movie.
An hour later, they were both sprawled out a little more. Eric's hands hadn't left Jack's fur once, though now they were more idly twisting the hairs than actually petting him. He had to admit it was a little odd watching a movie with a dog who could respond to what was happening onscreen (Jack couldn't quite laugh, of course, but he could snort), but he could certainly get used to it. As the credits rolled, he nudged Jack to move so he could stand up.
"You said your tastes are different as a dog, right?" he asked as he stretched. "Would you be interested in some cherry pie?"
Most dogs Eric knew would have devoured pretty much any pie you put in front of them, but Jack shook his head.
"Would you rather have some of those peanut butter treats I made?" Jack's ears immediately perked up at that, and he gave the kind of strange yowling bark that only comes out of an excited husky. Eric laughed as he headed toward the kitchen. "So you're definitely a dog when you're a dog then, because the secret ingredient in those things is chicken stock and believe me, they do not taste good to humans."
Eric cut himself a slice of pie, then put two of the dog treats on a plate for Jack. He was looking into his fridge, wondering if he should even bother offering Jack some Coke in a bowl or if that would just be messier than it was worth, when he heard a very human groan from his living room.
"Jack?" He started to turn around, then remembered Jack's clothing sitting in a pile and quickly looked back in the fridge.
"Euh, yeah, I guess I've calmed down enough now," Jack called from the living room. Eric could hear fabric moving around. "Is it too late to change my order to the pie?"
"Of course not," Eric said with a laugh. As he was cutting another slice of the pie, he could hear Jack zipping up his pants, and he suddenly had a thought that made his face go hot with what was probably a very dark blush.
"Can I… ask you a really weird question?" he asked without turning around. He couldn't even finish cutting the pie, he was so frozen with mortification.
Jack laughed, and the sound drained some of the tension from Eric's body. "I'm kind of expecting the next hour to be nothing but weird questions."
"Well, this might be the weirdest," Eric admitted, staring resolutely down at the pie. "And I'd just like to get it out of the way so I don't spend the rest of the night thinking about it and feelin' awkward."
"Yeah?" Jack's voice came from closer, probably the kitchen doorway, which meant he was probably dressed, but Eric still couldn't look at him.
"Is it okay… or… strange, or… I mean, I guess, how do you feel about the fact that technically I've seen your, uh, your… privates? Oh gosh, and possibly accidentally touched them? Oh Lord, I'm sorry if I did anything while you were a dog that made you uncomfortable!" Even with his back turned, Eric's face reflexively twitched further away from Jack. It was all he could do to not find a piece of furniture to hide behind.
"Oh. Uh." Jack paused. "I guess the short answer is don't worry too much about it? I mean, technically what you can see isn't a dog's penis anyhow, it's a sheath."
"Right," Eric said, somehow feeling even more embarrassed. "I mean, I guess I knew that, I just wasn't sure if you… I don't know, think of it the same way when it's your own body parts or… I don't know. And… I know the rest of what's down there is exactly what it looks like." He was going to melt onto a puddle on the floor of his kitchen and die, right there.
"Well, yeah. I guess—I guess we really just… don't worry about it? I mean, what can you do? It's like a locker room, you just… see stuff, and nobody cares. Sometimes stuff gets touched. And, uh. When I'm a dog, I can think like a human, but my senses are pretty much dog senses, and, well, uh. A dog's balls aren't, like… sensitive. I mean, if you accidentally, uh, touched them. At the shelter or whatever. I probably didn't even notice."
Eric sighed. "Okay. If you say not to worry about it, I won't worry about it." He shook his head, steeling himself to actually turn around and look at Jack, which he would have to do one of these days. "Sorry for making things weird."
"Uh, Bits," Jack said with a quiet huff of laughter, "I'm the one who turned into a dog in the middle of your living room. I don't think you're the one who made things weird tonight. That was a totally reasonable question."
Eric was about to pick up the plates of pie and turn around (for real, he was, definitely) when he felt Jack's hand on his lower back.
Eric looked up, and somehow as soon as he made eye contact with Jack his embarrassment melted away.
"Thanks," Jack said quietly. "For being okay with this. I was really scared you were going to freak out."
"Well, I kinda did," Eric pointed out sheepishly. He supposed it was perfectly normal that he didn't believe Jack right away, but he felt awful for thinking Jack would be deliberately cruel to him.
Jack just shook his head. "You only freaked out when you thought I was lying. Once you believed me, you needed a few minutes, but then you just came out here and talked to me like it was normal. Like I was still just me."
"Well, you are," Eric said gently, laying his hands on Jack's arms. Obviously, a body might be a little shocked, finding out that werewolves—weredogs?—exist and you're dating one. But that didn't mean you had to go and hold it against them. He didn't want Jack to think he'd ever do that. "You're the same person, I just know more about you now. Granted," he added with a smirk, "you're not exactly the same dog I thought I knew. But even then you're the same person, just in a different body."
"I've never told anyone who didn't already know about Weres," Jack said. His eyes were shy, but he slid his arms around Eric's waist with confidence. "I've heard lots of stories, though. Trust me, most… most people don't just accept it like that. Accept us like that."
He leaned down, and Eric tipped his face up to meet him in a gentle kiss. Eric reached up and wrapped his hands around Jack's neck, pressing in more firmly. Gentle kisses were wonderful, but this was not the time for anything that might make Jack think he was hesitant.
"Thank you for trusting me," he murmured when they broke apart. Jack pressed his lips to Eric's forehead and they stayed there like that for a minute, breathing each other in. He could tell—Jack was doing it, too. Jack liked the way he smelled, too. Jack's scent was always intoxicating; now, knowing that there was a reason for it, that maybe Jack found his just as soothing… Well, Eric wasn't sure he was ready to think too deeply about all that. He had enough other questions about this whole werewolf business, and the things his instincts were telling him, those same instincts that believed Jack before his rational mind did… no, they weren't things he was ready to ask about just yet.
"Let's go sit down," he finally said, nudging Jack so he could pick up their pie. Jack took his and they headed back into the living room.
"You sure you don't want the dog biscuit?" Eric chirped as they went. "You were awful enthusiastic about those earlier."
"I'm not kidding," Jack said, eyebrows raised earnestly. "When I have dog taste buds, those are so good. Pie would be good, too, but it tastes better as a human, so why waste it?"
Eric waited until they were settled in on the couch and had had a chance to take a bite or two of pie to start in with his questions.
"So Shitty knows about this?"
Jack looked down at his pie and took a deep breath.
"Everyone who lives in the Haus is a Were," he said, and Eric's eyebrows flew up.
"That's why you wouldn't let me in there?" he blurted out, then immediately felt silly for zeroing in on that of all things. But Jack just nodded.
"No one who doesn't at least know about Weres is allowed inside without everyone okaying it, except for kegsters. We clean up all the dog toys and shit for those."
"You have dog toys?" Eric squeaked, immediately covering his mouth to hide his huge grin. He wasn't sure if thinking that was adorable would be offensive or not.
Jack looked at Eric out of the corner of his eye and knocked their knees together. "We might keep our human intelligence, but we do have some dog instincts thrown in. Chewing is a big one. And whatever our breeds were bred to do. Ransom's a border collie, and if he doesn't watch himself he'll start herding us without even realizing he's doing it."
"You did really like playing fetch at the shelter," Eric said, thinking back. He looked at Jack and grinned. "I mean, you really like playing fetch, Jack. I have never in my life seen a dog get that intense about fetch. That's gotta be some kind of—" He waved his fork around, indicating all of Jack. "—carryover from your hockey skills or somethin', 'cause you're not even a retriever."
Jack shrugged, smiling a little. "Huskies are working dogs, they like having something to do. But yeah, you're right, there's something about it that's, like… crossing my hockey instincts with my dog instincts, and that's what you get."
"I think I have like twenty more questions than I did ten minutes ago," Eric admitted, shaking his head.
Jack looked him in the eye, and he forgot what they were talking about for a second. "I'll tell you anything."
"Um." Eric pulled himself together. He looked back down at his pie, because if he kept looking at Jack he'd never string two thoughts together. "Is the whole hockey team werewolves? Wait, are any of you actual wolves, or is it only… weredogs?"
"First, no, but most us are and Samwell is the only hockey team in the NCAA that only takes people who know about Weres, to keep us safe. And yeah, there are some wolves, but not all that many." He turned his body toward Eric, balancing his nearly-empty pie plate on his knee. "So, okay, obviously there's not much research on this. A lot of what we know about ourselves is anecdotal, family records passed down, plus a few people have done like informal surveys or things, but I can give you a basic idea. You know there's the genus Canis, right?" Eric nodded. That much he'd heard of. "It's pretty much wolves, coyotes, and jackals. Domestic dogs are a subspecies of wolf, Canis lupus familiaris, but that's not all that important. All the species in Canis can interbreed, and as far as we can tell, that seems to be where the boundary's at. And it seems like the more contact a species has with humans, the more likely it is that Weres in that general area will turn into that species. And before you ask, we're like 99% sure that none of this has ever had anything to do with humans breeding with actual dogs."
Eric's eyes widened. "I didn't expect it to! Though I suppose I can see how that would be one assumption a person could make."
Jack shook his head. "You'd be amazed. It's easy to rule that out because Weres can't breed with dogs, even in dog form. We're actually sterile in dog form, which makes it weird that it's limited to this group of species that can interbreed, but who the fuck knows how these things work. But we're definitely entirely Homo sapiens. Anyhow, most Weres, probably for thousands of years at this point, turn into domestic dogs. Which breed of dog seems to have more to do with your personality than, like, what breeds you're around as a kid, before you start shifting at puberty."
By now, they'd both finished their pie and put the plates on the coffee table. They were curled in toward each other on the couch, Eric listening raptly. He had one of Jack's hands in his, playing with the fingers. "Do y'all have any idea how it started?"
Jack shook his head. "Just mythology, really. Fossils aren't much help; they'd just look like a person or a dog unless someone happened to die in the middle of shifting."
Eric nodded, thinking. "So, wait, you said they only take people who know about Weres on your team. Is that why they called and interviewed me? I thought that was strange."
Jack frowned. "You made it to the interview? You didn't mention that."
"Yeah. I did think it was kinda odd. 'Bama didn't really talk to me 'til they'd decided they wanted me, to try and talk me into going there. I'd read that's how it normally works."
Jack's eyes widened. "Bitty, that means you basically made the team. The interview is the very last step; they only call people who they want on the team. The only reason they cut someone at that stage is because they don't know about Weres."
"How did they know I didn't know?" Eric asked with a huff. "They didn't ask me about werewovles."
"They did," Jack said, one corner of his mouth quirking up. "You just didn't know it. There are things they can ask that you'd respond to differently if you're a Were, or even if you're a Nawolf who knows about Weres." Eric opened his mouth to ask what a Nawolf was, but Jack beat him to it. "That's what we call people who aren't werewolves. Werewolf is Old English for man-wolf. Nawolf is Old English for never-wolf."
"So I'm a Nawolf," Eric said. Jack nodded. "That's amazing, I had no idea I was any kind of wolf at all!" Jack snorted, smiling. "Okay, so other questions. What breeds of dog are all your friends? I saw a shiba in your backyard once, who was that?"
"The shiba's Lardo," Jack said.
Eric nodded. "I guess that makes sense."
"Do not say that to her," Jack said with a smirk, "unless you want to get your ass kicked. She's Vietnamese, not Japanese, and the only thing she hates more than people assuming she's Japanese because she's a shiba inu is people acting like it doesn't matter because all Asian cultures are the same."
Eric grimaced. "Well, shit. Glad I put my foot in my mouth now and not next time I see her."
"I won't tell. I said Ransom's a border collie. Holster's a basset hound, Shitty's a dachshund—" Jack looked amused when Eric snorted at that. "—and Johnson is a totally unidentifiable mutt. Which is weirdly rare for Weres, when mixed breed dogs are so common. Definitely fits him, though."
They talked for another two or three hours cuddled together on the couch. Eventually it wasn't even about werewolves anymore. Jack asked more about Eric's experiences with college hockey recruitment. He looked thoughtful all through the conversation, and somehow it resulted in a decision that he was going to come watch Eric's next rec league practice.
Eventually, well past midnight, Eric could feel his eyelids getting heavy. Jack yawned.
"I guess, um. I should get home. The party should be winding down in the next hour or so…"
Eric reached out and grabbed Jack's hand. "Stay? Please?"
Jack smiled shyly. "Like, spend the night?"
Eric looked down at their hands. "Yeah. I mean, only if you want to—"
"Of course I want to," Jack cut him off quietly, brushing his thumb gently down Eric's cheek. "And I don't… I don't have any expectations, okay? I just really want to sleep with you. Literally."
"Well, um. I'm not sure I'd have the energy to get up to much more'n sleeping anyhow. But…" He shrugged. He wasn't sure he could say this without turning beet red, but he wanted to make it totally clear to Jack, what he wanted. "I don't know, once I've got a good night's sleep…"
Jack leaned forward and kissed him. "We better get you to bed, then."
As it turned out, Eric felt much more energetic in the morning.
Bitty asking about Jack's dog dick is the bit that led to this Tumblr post. Look, I still don't know if dogs' balls are actually sensitive, but I am NEVER RESEARCHING THAT TOPIC AGAIN so we'll just go with my gut instinct of no. That scene is totally unnecessary anyhow, but like... how could he not think about the fact that he could totally see Jack's junk a few minutes ago???
I spent even longer researching Old English, but was blessedly unscarred by the experience. I couldn't really find a word for people who aren't werewolves that didn't sound like it'd been made up within the last century instead of being coined at the same time as the word werewolf. So I spent hours reading up on Old English and translating things and figuring out how to conjugate verbs etc etc and came up with some pretty strange possibilities.
The leading contender was something derived from "belǣfaþ in hyd" which means "they are left behind in skin." And which I really like but doesn't really lend itself to a word they might still use today. Belavathenide? Eh. Finally it occurred to me to just look up the dang word for "never." I don't love Nawolf, honestly, but it's better than most of the things I came up with.
Just the epilogue to go!
Three months later
Jack stretched in his bed as Bitty tossed the wet (and now rather messy) washcloth into the laundry hamper in the corner. He watched the way Bitty's muscles moved as he walked back across the room, his appreciation more aesthetic than anything else in his post-orgasmic haze. As Bitty slid back in under the covers, Jack pulled him down into a lazy, slow kiss, their hands wandering without any real intent.
All in all, it had been a pretty nice three-month anniversary. Yesterday, Bitty had attended his first official practice as a member of the Samwell Men's Hockey Team, after getting final approval to join the team as a walk-on from the coaches last week. When Jack had first talked to them back in October, they'd been skeptical—yes, they'd wanted him on the team when he was a senior in high school, but other than a handful of rec league practices he hadn't played hockey in over a year.
But Jack had come to one of those practices and he'd seen Bitty's natural talent. Keeping up with figure skating had definitely helped, as he'd lost none of the speed that defined his playing. The coaches had said he could try out for the spring semester, to give Jack time to work with him. His checking problem was still bad enough to keep him from seeing any ice time during games, but they were both determined to work on that for as long as it took. Jack was pretty damn sure he'd make the lineup for a game by the end of the regular season.
Today they'd had practice again, then they'd gone into Boston for a fancy dinner. Then back to the Haus, which was quiet for once because Farmer had made everyone who wasn't celebrating an anniversary promise to be at the volleyball team's blowout party.
Jack was pretty sure the last hour of their celebration had been his favorite.
Bitty broke off the kissing first, snuggling close with one leg thrown over Jack's hip, his head on Jack's shoulder and his face nuzzled into Jack's throat, breathing him in.
They hadn't talked much about the scent stuff yet, but Jack knew Bitty had some idea. The first time they'd had sex, the morning after Jack had told him everything, he'd noticed Jack's scent changing when he got turned on.
At the time, he hadn't pressed for much information, just asked if he smelled like that to Jack, too. (He did. Oh, did he ever.) Since then, he'd generally followed Jack's lead in terms of when and how they scented each other, both in and out of bed, and clearly found Jack's scent as intoxicating—or arousing, depending on the circumstances—as Jack found his. But he hadn't brought it up again.
Now, as Jack ran his hands over Bitty's body, he could feel a tiny bit of tension in the muscles. Bitty's breath kept hitching like he was about to say something, then smoothing back out in silence. He was working himself up to talking about something.
So Jack wasn't taken entirely by surprise when he finally said, "So, I was wondering about this… scent thing."
"Mm-hmm?" Jack's heartrate ticked up. They'd been together long enough that he wasn't going to lie about anything, but he also wasn't one hundred percent sure how Bitty would respond to the whole truth.
"I mean, some of it seems obvious," Bitty said, tracing designs on Jack's chest with one finger. "Smell is real important to dogs, so if you're gonna keep some dog traits when you're human of course it'd be smell. And it kinda makes sense that you can smell changes when we're having sex, what with the pheromones and all. I'm not quite sure I get why I can smell you, though." He propped himself up on one elbow to look down at Jack. "At first I thought, well, Weres just have stronger scents than the rest of us because it's important for you, right? And I'm guessin' you smell so good to me because I'm attracted to you, that pheromone stuff again. But… I can't smell any of the other Weres at all. They don't just not smell as good to me. I've tried to see if I could identify, like, Shitty's scent or Lardo's, and notice it being the same when they're dogs. And okay, Shitty smells vaguely like weed all the time, but that's it. Everyone else just smells like a dog when they're a dog. And they don't smell like dogs when they're human. You don't smell like a dog at all to me when you're a dog, you smell exactly the same whatever body you're in."
"Yeah," Jack said, trying to work out the best way to explain this. He took a deep breath. "Everyone I meet has their own scent. It's as unique as their face. And yeah, people you're attracted to smell better. In different ways, I guess, just like you can be attracted to people in different ways? Like if I just think someone's hot, that smells different than if it's more, like, romantic."
Bitty nodded, biting his lip. "Makes sense."
"So, um, that's how it works for Weres. But, um… usually, Nawolves can't smell us. I mean, not any more than you smell anyone else. Even if they're attracted to a Were, it doesn't mean they can smell their scent. It happens, obviously, but it's… it's pretty rare."
Bitty swallowed, and he seemed to be bracing himself for what Jack was going to say next. That made a tendril of worry bloom in Jack's stomach, but he couldn't exactly hide this forever. Eventually, someone would notice Bitty scenting him and mention it. He needed to just say it.
"It's… it kind of means that we're really, really compatible. Like, so compatible that our body chemistry matches or… or something." Or he could chicken right out.
"Okay," Bitty said, nodding. "That makes sense."
He twirled his fingers in Jack's hair, oblivious to Jack's internal battle over whether he should keep going or just leave it be until Bitty asked for more details.
"But… it kinda feels like you're not telling me everything." Or not so oblivious. "Is there something bad about it?"
"No!" Jack said, maybe a little too quickly. "I mean, I don't think it's bad. I just—It—" He sighed and ran his hand up Bitty's arm to his face, cradling it gently. There was a trace of worry in Bitty's eyes as they gazed down at him, but mostly love. Jack took a deep breath, breathing in their scents together—sex pheromones still lingering in the air, but mostly the scent of love, and home, and forever.
"You're my mate. It means we're… we're meant to be together." Bitty sucked in a small breath, but there was also the hint of a smile on his lips, and Jack relaxed. "It sounds like an old wive's tale—destiny, fate—but it happens. Lots of Weres fall in love and get married and everything without being mates; it's not, like, necessary. But sometimes, you meet someone, and their scent… you just know."
"Yeah," Bitty said quietly. "You just know."
Something in Jack's chest sparked and tingled as Bitty's gentle smile grew. He'd spent the past three months aching to know that Bitty felt the same, that he knew the way Jack knew.
"Does it work, though?"
The question caught Jack off guard. "What?"
"I mean, do couples who are, uh, mates, do they have, like, a lower divorce rate or anything? Has anyone looked into it?"
Jack smiled. "Yeah. I mean, like I said, there's not a ton of research on anything to do with Weres, but Shitty's into this stuff. He's always pissed that he can't write papers on Weres for his classes—but anyhow, he showed me a survey once. It said the divorce rate for mates was really low, like 5%."
Bitty's eyes widened. "Wow."
"And, uh." Jack ran his thumb over Bitty's collarbone, focusing on that instead of Bitty's face. "If one of the people is a Nawolf, it's… it's pretty much zero. I guess because two Weres can always smell each other, so they might, like, mistake a really good smell for being mates? But if you can smell me… That's… there's no mistaking that."
Bitty's smile was radiant, but only for a moment. Then he was burying his nose in Jack's hair and breathing in his scent, then kissing his ear and his jaw and his throat. Jack laughed and pulled him close.
"This is real," Bitty murmured, almost to himself except that his mouth was an inch from Jack's ear. "It's real."
"It's real, bud."
"I've known," Bitty continued, half into Jack's skin. "For a long time. It's… it's instinctual, y'know? Even for me. The way you smell… I've been puttin' off asking about it 'cause I kinda… well, I half worried you'd say I was wrong, and half worried I was right but it was too soon to bring that kinda thing up. I mean—" He laughed, relaxing onto Jack's chest, and Jack squeezed his waist. "—we've only been together three months, it's still too soon, but it's better than a week, right? When we first met, I just thought you smelled good. It took me a while, a few weeks maybe, to realize your scent had some kind of effect on me, it made me feel good. But I still thought it was just your shampoo or cologne or something. As soon as I realized it was just you, back in the back of my mind I had this gut feeling about what it meant. But you must've known what it meant from the start." He picked up his head to look at Jack. "Did you know? At the animal shelter? Were you playin' fetch with me and letting me rub your belly knowing that you were gonna spend the rest of your life with me?" Thankfully, his tone was distinctly amused, not accusatory.
"Not quite," Jack admitted. "When I'm a dog, my nose is so sensitive. Everything smells… just… more. There are so many smells, and I get so much information from them. And you smelled really good, I knew that much. But I thought maybe as a dog, it was like… exaggerated, y'know? I knew you were hot, and sweet, and interesting, and that you'd still smell good when I was human. But I wasn't sure if it would still feel like more than that."
He rolled onto his side so it was easier to look Bitty in the eye. "Then you walked into that class, and when you sat down beside me… I knew. I was worried I was wrong, and you couldn't smell me, but then Shitty did that stupid petsitting thing, and you told me… God, I was so relieved."
"And right after that you finally asked me out," Bitty added with a smile. "And here we are. And now…" He swallowed, and Jack could see tears in his eyes. "Now I'm gonna spend the rest of my life loving you."
Jack's eyes maybe stung a little, too. "And you're okay with that?"
"Of course I'm okay with that! How could I not be?"
Jack shrugged. "Some people think it's creepy, your emotions being controlled by these chemicals and hormones or whatever. Even some Weres."
Bitty just rolled his eyes. "Well, when aren't they? That's what emotions are, aren't they? You dump in more serotonin, you get happier. It's all chemicals and hormones anyhow, so if I'm gonna get chemicals and hormones that guarantee me love and happiness I'm not gonna complain!"
Jack laughed. "I guess, yeah. Romantic, huh?"
"It is." Bitty's face softened immediately. Jack scooted closer and kissed his nose.
"I'm glad this doesn't freak you out."
"Sweetheart," Bitty said, sliding an arm around Jack's waist and pulling himself close until their bodies were flush. "You tell me the guy I'm dating is a werewolf who I took care of for a week and a half in an animal shelter last summer, now that's a bit of a shock. Even I needed a few minutes to pull myself together. But you tell me I'm destined to spend the rest of my life with the man I'm head-over-heels in love with, who's one of the best things that's ever walked into my life? No, Jack. That does not freak me out."
"Good," Jack said. They kissed, long and slow, wrapped up in each other and in the rich, sweet scent of their love.
Thank you guys so much for reading and for all your kudos and comments!