Terrathela

He was damn sure he didn't have a thing left to live for. And he was more than fine with it.

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4. Packmate

“Breathe slowly, and surely out your nose only.” The female had her head tipped back, letting the sounds and smells of the early morning wash over her. She wore a man’s breeches and shirt, her black hair braided tightly over her left shoulder. Sunlight filtered through the trees, shining on the dew-moist patch of grass she’d commandeered for the morning’s meditation, well away from the gathering bustle of their little settlement, deep in the North Forest wilds.

                “When you feel relaxed enough, your body will tell you which form it wants.” She held her arms out, raising them gracefully toward the blue sky peeking through the clouds, arching her back. “It will tell you what it needs, when it needs it – push Leina one more time, Nico, and you will not like the consequences.”

                The small boy in question hastily snatched his hand back, wondering if Miss Dina could see through her own eyelids.

                Behind the group, leaning unobtrusively against a large maple tree, was a young male. He wore nothing but a blanket, like the children. It was better than completely losing a perfectly good set of clothing if the body decided it wanted its non-human form instead. He slipped around behind the tree when he saw the first twitch of a child’s shoulders, signaling the change.          

                Dina opened her eyes, arms still above her head, palms touching, and surveyed the dozen or so children before her. Looking beyond them, she thought she’d caught scent of Finn. She rolled her shoulders slightly, turning her attention back toward the little ones, and fought a smile as Leina was nearly there.

                A large, russet-colored wolf padded out from behind a maple tree, blanket held securely in his teeth. He dropped the bundle a few steps behind the last child, stepping carefully between the neat rows and pushing his cold nose behind some ears on his way by. His ears pricked at a yelp to his left, the massive head swinging around to find a black-furred pup standing on shaky legs.

                “Well done, Leina,” Dina said, bringing her arms down to rest on her knees. “Calm you breathing, little ones. Who can shift next?” She smiled at the larger wolf making his way over. “And can everyone say good morning to Finn?”

                A cacophony of “Good morning, Mr. Finn,” rang through the little clearing, and Finn’s tail wagged happily.

                Leina’s belly hit the grass with a whine, her legs not steady long enough to hold her up to be able to sit properly. A set of massive paws appeared in front of her, and she looked up as best she could. Finn licked the top of her head before picking her carefully up by her scruff and settling her on his front paws as he sat. She was tiny, compared to his bulk, and Leina leaned into the warmth behind her, allowing herself to get used to her new form.

                Two more yelps came from the back. Dina craned her neck a little; Finn’s head swiveled.

                “Yes, Doran. Good job, Roarke. It gets easier, doesn’t it?” Dina watched the two slightly-steadier furballs make their way through their friends to plop down near Finn. The older shifter allowed the younger males to settle against his sides, upright ears swiveling for another sign one of the other children had managed to successfully shift. It had only been him, Doran, and Roarke on a little jaunt through the forest to stretch their four legs, and he was hoping for more to have their first run.

                The weight from his front paws lifted; Finn looked down as Leina stood on all four paws, tail tucked between her back legs as she tried to make sense of her different center of balance.

                “You’re so close, Luna,” Dina said. “Come on, Ash, you can do it. Aerik, you did it yesterday, you can do it again, come on now.” She grinned as Finn’s wolf-smile grew bigger, tongue lolling out to the side at the sound of more small yips and thumps from around him. She watched him carefully dislodge Doran and Roarke to pad over to Ash, taking the pup by the scruff to bring him over near Leina. His legs gave out when Finn set him down, landing the first-time shifter on his belly with a soft grunt. Finn licked his ears to let him know it was alright, and went about rounding up the rest that had managed to make the transition.

                Dina pushed herself gracefully to her feet, wiggling bare toes in the grass. Finn was such a deft hand when it came to handling the children in their other form. It didn’t surprise her, as wandering around Kelleran as a russet-furred wolf was way Finn preferred to be seen. She’d first met him like that, too, way back when they young, still in Finn’s father’s pack and causing enough mayhem on a regular basis to raise Lev from the depths of hell. They’d done a lot of growing up since then, some of it not for the better, but Dina didn’t regret her decision to follow Finn when he’d had enough of close-minded pack politics.

                Probably another reason they had wound up in the middle of nowhere with a half-assed intention of making a pack of their own. So they took in the misfits, the outcasts, and the lonely wanderers, and from seemingly nothing came a blended community and an accidental alpha.

                Finn still hated pack politics in the traditional sense. Dina couldn’t blame him. She wouldn’t have wanted to marry her without a choice, either. But he was the first to step in to sort out trouble before it got brewing, and was the one male and female alike turned to when they needed an open ear. Finn listened. He might not agree – sometimes rarely did, in Dina’s opinion – but he was a decent judge of character and willing to give anyone a second chance when they needed it. With some exceptions.

                Most notably, the male didn’t do well with emotional assaults.

                A soft, “Miss Dina?” came from somewhere around her knees, and she squatted automatically, bringing herself down to a more even level with the wide-eyed child looking fearfully at her.

                “Yes, Miss Raven?” The girl in front of her was tiny for her age – four – and skinnier than a corn stalk.

                “I didn’t do it,” Raven whispered, her brown eyes overly large and wet. She clutched her faded blanket tighter around her with white knuckles.

                Dina gently pushed Raven’s dark hair from her forehead. “That’s alright, Miss Raven. We’ll just have to keep trying.” She eased the blanket from harsh grip, wrapping it more securely around the small frame trembling in front of her. “Do you want to know how many times it took Finn to be able to change?”

                Raven turned to look at the russet wolf surrounded by pups of slightly varying sizes. Dina pulled the shivering girl back against the warmth of her own body.

                “It took Finn almost a whole summer’s worth of tries before he could shift himself the first time,” the older female said quietly. True, the male in question had been walking on four paws long before he could walk on two legs at half Raven’s age, but it had taken that little body quite some time to figure out how. “And we haven’t been through a whole summer’s worth of tries, yet. You have plenty of time.”Dina held out her arm to the other two blanket-wrapped figures coming her way. “It may even happen in your sleep. Finn used to wake up with four legs after going to bed with two.” She adjusted two more blankets more securely, and did her best to wrap all three children snugly to her. “It takes time. There’s no rush.”

                She watched between little shoulders as Finn padded over, tail wagging behind him, to snuffle at the ears and cheeks of the children in Dina’s hold. They giggled – even Tanner, who normally wouldn’t say boo to anybody – and allowed the large wolf to snuggle up against them. Raven outright laughed when she was smacked with Finn’s tail, and Dina made shooing motions to get him to wander back to the other young ones, who were nothing more than a tangle of fur, paws, and tails.

                Finn sat a few feet away from the pile, gave a sharp yip, and jerked his head toward the path through the trees to his right. There was a mad scramble – and lots of noise – to be the first one there, and the older shifter jogged dutifully after them once he made sure he had everyone he was supposed to.

                Dina watched them go, snorting softly when Finn got tangled with a little one – Doran, by the look of it – and veered sharply off the path into the underbrush to avoid flattening the pup. Once they were out of sight, she began herding her charges down the same path, careful to keep them entertained with colorful stories.

               

                Dina watched the children disperse throughout their small village after placing the blankets back in the bin. One of the younger teenagers had gone back out to the clearing for her and retrieved them. He and his family had been in the village long enough to have benefitted from the morning “class” Dina and Finn had started once others had begun to put down roots.

                The ones that had successfully managed to shift dispersed as well, though they arrived more spread out than as a single unit. Sure enough, Finn brought up the rear with Leina jogging along beside him while Avery was carried by his scruff.  He gently deposited the pup on the ground, giving him a nudge toward the main cluster of buildings. Once he was sure Avery and Leina had gotten somewhere safe, he took the proffered blanket from Dina in his jaws, and wandered behind the nearest tree. Moments later, blanket tied securely around his waist, Finn meandered out to Dina.

                “Good run this morning?” she asked.

                “Like herding cats.” He ran a hand through his reddish-brown hair, causing it to stick up in odd directions. He blew out a breath. “Dina…you got a few minutes?”

                “For you, I’ve got all year.” She gave him a once over. He was a good-looking male. “And some clothes, too.”

                He followed Dina to her cottage, detouring to the side door that wasn’t attached to her apothecary and herbalist storefront. It was better than risking stepping on something sharp and not easily extracted from the bottom of his foot. Finn had enough problems without limping around on two legs.

                Dina disappeared upstairs; Finn puttered around the kitchen setting up the kettle and finding two mugs. He’d let Dina prepare the tea – she damn near mauled him the last time he touched the teapot – and leaned against the counter. He spent a lot of time with Dina, whether it be in her home or his almost claustrophobically-smaller one. It made sense, considering she was his most trusted confidante, a sister without the ties of blood. She didn’t hesitate to put him in his place when he needed it, and he padded her ego when the female seemed down on her luck.

                And to think, once upon a time he was supposed to have married and mated her. He was quite certain he’d be lacking certain important parts of his anatomy if he’d tried.

                “Here.” Dina tossed a bundle at him. “Didn’t touch the teapot, did you?”

                “No.” He shimmied the breeches on up under the blanket. The shirt went on next, the blanket folded and draped over the back of one of the sturdy kitchen chairs.

                She stepped wordlessly around him, fixing the teapot to her satisfaction. Finn would crack eventually. There had to be something weighing on him to want to willingly talk about his personal life.

                Finn picked up one of the mugs from the counter top with a sharp intake of breath. “I think Mac’s seeing someone on the side.”

                Dina braced both hands on the metal sink basin and looked through the small window, out across the little garden and to the beaten path beyond it, snaking around to the other homes. Out of everything Finn could have said, she hadn’t been expecting this.

                “How do…why do you think that?”

                He looked at his dirty bare feet rather than her face. “He doesn’t smell like him. And he doesn’t smell like me.” Setting the mug carefully on the counter, he more or less fell into one of her three remaining free chairs. “I’m not sure who he smells like – smells female – but he doesn’t smell like exclusively like him, and he doesn’t carry my scent anymore.”

                The kettle screamed in the space between them.

                Dina let her head hang loosely off her shoulders. When Mac MaKay had first shown up in their village, alone and seemingly unattached to anything but his own wandering spirit, she had seen him and Finn standing side by side and thought it a good match. She’d pushed for it. Bowling over Finn’s reservations about starting any sort of relationship beyond the bounds of friendship, she’d pushed hard for the two of them to be together, especially since it took some of loneliness out of Finn’s hazel eyes.

                Now there was something decidedly worse than loneliness rattling around in Finn’s head, and Dina couldn’t help but feel responsible.

                “What are you going to do?” she asked quietly, once she’d cut off the whistling kettle.

                “Tell him we’re finished.” Finn traced the rough wood of the table with a cautious fingertip. “He’s coming to dinner tonight, but I don’t….I don’t want to see him anymore.”

                She turned, owing him enough to look him in the eye. “I’m sorry.”

                He smiled gently. “It’s not your fault. The male’s responsible for his own actions, not you.” He leaned his elbows on the table, cradling his forehead with both palms. “Some things just aren’t meant to be.”

                The expression on Finn’s face was enough to break her heart all over again. She did the only thing she could think to do to help him feel better – tea forgotten, she plopped herself onto his lap, wrapped her arms around his shoulders and neck, and tucked the top of his head beneath her chin, humming gently.

               

                A bottle of elleston root wine was open and waiting on the counter. Finn didn’t touch it. He wanted to be sober for this, and he knew the minute he started, he wouldn’t stop until the bottle was gone and he was a passed-out wreck strewn haphazardly across his own bed. He rested one hip against the small counter in his own kitchen, watching the back door for any sign of movement. It was shortly after sunset, their carefully prearranged time for Mac to make his way to Finn’s for a night of feasting.

                Not that Finn had bothered to cook anything. Mac wasn’t going to be staying long, and when the other male was gone, he wanted to be good and gone, too. At least for the night. The morning would bring a brand new day, and Finn needed to start fresh.

                The door swung in, Mac sliding his taller frame through the opening and closing it quietly behind him. He grinned, brushing white-blonde hair back from his forehead before holding his arms out to the sides, expecting Finn’s usual greeting of a hug and some sort of nuzzle.

                Finn stayed frozen where he was by the counter.

                Mac dropped his arms. “What?”

                The shorter male ran his tongue along his teeth, trying to force the right words from a blank mind. He finally settled with, “Who is she, Mac?”

                “How do you know?” Mac, to his credit, didn’t outright deny it.

                “I can smell it.” He looked down briefly before staring hard at Mac’s grey eyes. “So, who is she? You have my word I won’t say a damn thing to her, but you at least owe me the name of the person you violated my trust with. Who is she?”

                “Katerin,” Mac said softly. The space between them, only a few mere feet, seemed immense.

                He crossed his arms over his chest, eyes flicking to look at the bottle of wine waiting for him on the counter. Finn swallowed thickly, and had to almost shove the words past his teeth. “Get out.”

                “Finn…” Placating. A drawled apology wrapped in a lover’s whisper.

                Finn flinched as though struck. He rolled his head on his neck to stare calmly at Mac, the male he’d first let into his bed, and then into his heart. “Get out, Mac.” He swallowed back his pain, hiding it behind his fury. “Before I tear you limb from limb and leave you for the crows.” Swiping the bottle off the counter, he turned away as Mac left, listening for soft thud of the door being shut. He didn’t bother with a glass, wrapping chapped lips around the rim and taking a long pull straight from the bottle. It went down smoothly, working to warm him from the inside out.

                Trailing his fingertips across the surface of his kitchen table, he let his eyes roam around the place he’d called home for nearly nine years. It was all one open space – except for the wash room – with the kitchen blending into the living room blending into the bedroom.

                The bed. Wide enough to comfortably sleep two, if they didn’t mind being close to each other. There had been many mornings he hadn’t wanted to get out of it, nestled securely against Mac’s chest as the light began to peak through the flimsily-curtained windows.

                There were numerous memories in the bed alone, not all of them dealing with carnal activity. Deep, meaningful conversation had happened there as well.

                Finn wondered if he shouldn’t just burn the damn thing.

                Nah, he thought, waste of a good bed. Comfortable one, too. He took another generous slug from the bottle, rubbing at his sternum with his free hand. If he couldn’t burn the bed…

                With a half-strangled  cry, Finn hurled the bottle at the nearest wall. Thankfully, it was the one by the back door instead of the one anywhere near where he had to sleep. The bottle shattered, wine running down the rough walls to pool on the floor. He yanked at his clothes, leaving them where they dropped as he stalked nude to the door.

                His head was a tangle of memories and assorted emotions, pain, betrayal, and anger fighting for dominance. The door slammed shut behind him as he shifted, taking off into the woods at a dead run before his four-legged form had settled. He careened off a tree with a yelp, paws pounding out a bruising rhythm in the night Earth.

                In nearly the exact opposite direction, Dina flinched when she heard the solitary howl, curling tighter into a ball in her own bed and regretting a little more the day she’d introduced Mac MaKay to Finnegan Shephard.

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