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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6. Taunted

Dina hugged the knit shawl tighter around her shoulders as she leaned against the split rail fence lining the edge of her property. The wind had a bite to it more commonly fall further into the fall season, and she knew in her bones they were in for a rough winter this year. Summer would lose its hold on North Forest early, and winter would come hard and stay late.

                Twigs snapped to her right; she whipped her head around, listening intently for any sound of footfalls or the soft padding that would indicate a shifter in its four-legged form. Nothing. Not even a scent on the breeze.

                She shivered. It had been a rough couple of days, not only for her but for Finn. Especially for Finn, and guilt washed through her at the thought of the male’s name. No matter how many times he explicitly told her – and he’d informed her numerous times by then – it wasn’t her fault Mac had sought another’s bed while still Finn’s as well, she couldn’t help but still regret ever introducing them.

                Finn hadn’t been at their early morning “class” the past two days. Dina had to change her plans slightly, teaching the children more meditation for meditation’s sake than calming them down enough to have them shift, since Finn wasn’t there to take them for a run. She hadn’t seen hide nor tail of the other shifter since their conversation in her kitchen, and she was worried.

                Leaves rustled and twigs snapped again.

                Dina tensed, ready to either run back toward the safety of her house or shift. She hesitated to do the latter as it had been a while, and the longer one went without shifting, not only the harder it was, but it was more disorienting coming out on the other end with four paws instead of two legs.

                The breeze shifted, bringing with it a familiar scent and she relaxed. Moments later Finn’s yellow eyes emerged from the tree shadows followed by the rest of his russet-furred body. Covered in mud and erroneous twigs and leaves, he favored his front left leg, though his tail started to wag when he saw her.

                “Finnegan Shephard, what the hell have you gotten yourself into?” she said, starting down along the fence to get around front and let him in the gate. He’d normally drop his belly enough to slink under the bottom rail, but she doubted he could coordinate his front paws enough to do so.

                He beat her to the gate, left paw off the ground and tail wagging happily.

                Dina opened the gate with a huff, slamming it shut once he’d limped through. He whined when he couldn’t nose open the door to the kitchen, and she grumbled more obscenities than when he’d dropped the edge of her stove on his foot when they’d first moved it into her kitchen. She left him alone in the kitchen to go upstairs and see if she had anything that would fit him, otherwise he’d be wandering around in a blanket for the rest of the night. Not that it would bother him…

                Finn shifted with a grunt, positioning one of Dina’s chairs tastefully in front of him and only slightly worried about the mud he’d trailed in the house. He was in dire need of a bath.

                “You’re lucky,” Dina growled as she pounded down the stairs. She drew level with the sink, eyed the mess on her floor and the equally messy male responsible, and damn near shifted on the spot out of anger. “You owe big, Finnegan.”

                “I’ll clean it up. Promise.” He edged a little to his right, holding out his one functioning arm. “Can I at least have the pants, please?”

                She snorted. “And you’re going to get into them with only one hand? Really? That alone is almost worth the mess.” Dina tossed him the breeches, smirking when he had to stretch for them. Wrapping the shirt around her knuckles kept her hands occupied because she wanted him to struggle for a minute. Damn stubborn half-assed alpha males.

                “I’ll clean the damn chair, too, okay?” he said as he sat carefully on the edge of the kitchen chair he’d been hiding behind. It was the only way he was going to get into the breeches, and even then it was a struggle. He had to yank them up to his hips one side at a time, and he didn’t have enough dexterity to close the button. Hunching his shoulders hurt, but he did it anyway, hoping to garner some sympathy.

                Dina rolled her eyes, slapping the shirt on the table top on her way by. She investigated his left shoulder as she did up his breeches. Dislocated, and probably aching fiercely. One good shove would do it, as long as he didn’t struggle. She ran her fingers lightly under his belly button. He twitched away from her, and she grabbed his wrist with one hand while punching his left shoulder back into socket with the heel of the other. He curled inward, dropping his head to shoulder with a whine. Funny, that was the same sound he made when she accidentally stepped on his paws.

                “Can you not use it or do I need to strap it down for you?”

                Finn mumbled something that sounded vaguely like “Won’t use it,” against her shirt, and she let him rest for a moment. She shuffled forward, leaning down enough to plop him upright in the chair. He tucked his left arm against his midsection, reaching up with his other hand to wipe at the flaking mud clinging to his forehead.

                “Where ya been, Finnegan?” Dina asked as she fired up the stove, putting the kettle on. The male was probably ready for something with a little more kick to it than tea, but she wasn’t in a generous enough mood to break out the good stuff hidden away in the root cellar.

                “Around. Thinking. Running.” He reached for the mug she handed him. “We’ve got problems, Dina.”

                “We’ve had problems ever since we were born, dear. What makes this any different?” Dina leaned against the counter, her long hair over her shoulder so she could braid it.

                “There’s non-food kills in the forest.”

                She froze. “What? How many?”

                “A deer and a few rabbits. Fresh kills. Shifter tracks nearby.” He rubbed wearily at his face; mud-flakes wound up in his mug.

                “One of ours?” She shut the kettle off before the whistle could become annoying, pouring the water directly into her teapot. She brought the teapot and her own mug to the table, settling across from him. “What scent did you find?”

                “I didn’t find one.” Finn spun his mug. “It was odd. They’re obviously shifter kills, but there wasn’t a scent I could find with any of them.”

                Dina poured them both a cup of tea after giving the leaves plenty of time to open properly. Finn slid his mug back to his side of the table, leaning over and inhaling the steam. It did wonders scouring out the inside of his nose.

                “Should we have a meeting?”

                Finn looked helplessly at her. “I have no idea.” He wrapped his palm around the warm ceramic. “I honestly have no idea what to do.”

                “Do you think it was just a drifter? Someone who’s already moved on?” She hoped so. It would do no one any good for them to have to accuse one of their village, their pack, of doing this. It would damn near tear Finn apart, too.

                “I have no answers, Dina, and that frustrates the hell out of me,” he said, taking a sip and grimacing. He didn’t want to sleep tonight, anyway.

                “So we wait, then.” She drew her legs up in the chair, curling one arm around her shins. “We wait and see.”

                “That’s pretty much all we can do.”

                Uncomfortable silence descended between them as they sipped their respective mugs. Dina finally cracked after spending several moments of trying to make eye contact with Finn. “How did it go with Mac?”

                Finn slouched in the chair, clearly uncomfortable with the change in topic. “Better than it should have gone.”

                She leaned forward. “Finnegan.”

                “What, Dina?” He angled himself so he could prop his dirty bare feet up in the chair to his left, easing his aching shoulder against the stiff back of the one he was in. “He didn’t say he was sorry, if that’s what you’re looking for. Though you’ve said that particularly phrase enough for the both of you.” She flinched; he plowed on, “Didn’t bother to deny it, but wanted to know how I knew. Told him I could smell it.” Glancing down at his mug, he really wished for something significantly stronger. “He was cheating on me with Katerin.” He snorted derisively. “I don’t know what’s worse, that he was cheating on me with a female, or he was cheating on me with Katerin.”

                Dina folded her hands neatly on the table in front of her. “Well, if I had you, I wouldn’t want anybody else.”

                He straightened sharply and leaned forward. “You didn’t want me, Dina.”

                “And the thought of mating me nearly made you ill, if I remember correctly, Finn.” He couldn’t have the monopoly this particular feeling. “We were thirteen, your father was a prick, and you were my best friend. No I didn’t want to settle down, mate you, and make babies.”

                Finn’s eyebrows crawled up his forehead. “Tell me how you really feel.”

                She snapped her shoulders back and hissed, “Do not take that tone with me. It was a mutual decision on both our parts.” Dina sat back, blowing out an angry breath. “You don’t even like females, anyway.”

                “True,” he said with a smirk, “but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good-looking one when I see one.” Both his tone and his expression softened. “And you were always the prettiest one in the pack.”

                Dina pushed her mug out of the way so she could say her arms on the table and pillow her head on them. “You still are my best friend, Finnegan, even if you make me want to hit you over the head with my heavy skillet. Repeatedly.”

                He reached across the table, flicking her nose with his middle finger and quickly drawing his hand back when she snapped her teeth at him. “I love you, too.”

                She sighed heavily out of frustration. It was damn near impossible to stay mad at him, especially covered head to toe in mud while wearing a borrowed pair of breeches and with an aching shoulder. He’d have been nothing but trouble if she’d mated him. Of course, he was nothing but trouble on his own, but at least he wasn’t tied to her in the marital sense. Just in the bonds of friendship and the occasional drunk episode where he’d start on the sofa in the living room and migrate upstairs to end up nestled against her come morning.

                That was about as far as it had ever gone with them physically. It was as far as they would go, period.

                “Still want to hit you over the head with my good skillet,” she muttered.

                “I know you do. But it would damage your skillet and you love that thing.” He mirrored her position, using only his good arm instead of both. “Mac’s infidelity really isn’t your fault. You didn’t shove him head first into Katerin’s bed.”

                Dina snorted. “No, but I shoved him head first into yours.”

                “And it was fun while it lasted,” he said easily. “Some things aren’t meant to last. This is probably one of them.”

                “Good to know you have more faith in relationships than I do, and I’m the female out of the two of us.” She closed her eyes. “Let’s wait on the town meeting and hope this is just a one-off, yeah?”

                He rubbed his forehead on his wrist. “That sounds fantastic.”

                “I thought so. Now shut up and go to sleep.”

               

                His body was one giant ache from his neck all the way to his knees. At some point during the night he’d drawn his legs up onto the chair, curling up as best he could without putting any undue pressure on his left shoulder, and the result was his right leg was a collection of pins and needles. Not to mention his balance in the chair was somewhat precarious in the morning light.

                Finn picked his head off his forearm, blinking furiously to get mud flecks out of his eyes, and took stock of where exactly he was. The teapot still sat on the table, his mug cold and long ago forgotten. Dina had apparently gotten up at some point and probably wandered to her own bed, the traitor.

                Sitting up gingerly, muscles and pones protesting the change in position loudly, he twisted from his hips with a grunt. He wasn’t surprised to find he was probably getting too old to be sleeping in kitchen chairs. Once fixing himself more toward the middle of the seat so he wouldn’t have an impromptu meeting with the floor, he took a swig of his cold tea.

                Odd, it tasted better cold than warm…

                The kitchen door slammed open behind him; fight or flight kicked him hard, shoving him to his feet and dragging the chair with him with a slightly uncooperative left hand while his right hauled back, ready to throw the ceramic mug at his attacker. Finn froze when he caught sight of Dina standing unimpressed in the doorway.

                She gave him a once-over, snorted derisively, and shut the door calmly behind her. Finn hastily set the mug back on the table and gripped the back of her kitchen chair, hardly fighting the blush creeping up from his collarbones.

                “You scare me some days, Finnegan, you know that, right?” she said, setting up the kettle.

                “Not as much as I scare myself.” Finn rubbed at the mud clinging to his skin. “I need a bath.”

                “Yes, you do.” She looked over her shoulder in response to the tense silence settling between them. “What? It’s true.”

                “You don’t have to agree quite so fast, Dina.”

                She shrugged, allowing him into her personal space to plant a kiss to her forehead as a silent thank you for letting him and giving him a place to get himself back together after running wild through the woods for a few days.

                “Better now?” she asked quietly.

                “Better. See you later.”

                Dina turned back to the kettle, listening to him pad barefoot to the door. It opened, shut quietly, and silence descended quickly. It seemed the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.  

               

                Finn had a habit of parading through the village only half dressed, therefore no one so much as looked twice when he eased his way around the first travelers of the day toward his house. His left arm was tucked protectively against his midsection, and covered in dry, flaking mud probably made for some interesting looks, but all he was really focused on was getting home, getting a bath, and sleeping horizontally.

                The stench hit him first.

                He stopped, well back of his own front door and approached carefully. Stifling the urge to shift, he looked carefully around his property, searching for anything out of the ordinary. There were no strange scents, no tell-tale marks of some event, merely the front of his one-story square-like dwelling he’d built mostly by himself. Some days he was still amazed the roof hadn’t caved in around his ears.

                Sniffing cautiously, he stepped lightly in the grass by the dirt walk leading to the side door, the one that opened to the kitchen. Blood. Somewhat fresh, too. He did another search when he got closer, found nothing, and growled low in his throat.

                A dead rabbit lay gutted in front of his door, killed in the same manner as the ones he’d found in the woods.

                Someone was taunting him.

                The skin between his shoulder blades prickled, and Finn rubbed his nose hard when it started to elongate into a snout. He was so on edge it wouldn’t take much for him to reflexively shift, something he hadn’t done since he’d hit puberty.

                Finn crouched, trying to figure out the best way to dispose of the little body. He was content to wait on the village meeting, but not for much longer if such surprises kept appearing. If things continued as they were, there would be hell to pay when he found who was responsible. That much was a given.

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