The fire at the Wagner house was the top news story for a week after it mysteriously burned down and speculation ran rampant that Anita Wagner had done it for the insurance and then done a runner with her children. In a sidebar the newspaper reported sightings of a massive red wolf in the area, but interest soon fizzled out when the witness proved to be a drunk old man. After the first week a series of massive storms took over the top news spots and flooding turned the ashes of the Wagner house into a gooey grey mess before washing it all away.
Yoah stood at the window of his apartment on the day the storms began and watched the rain come down, glancing up occasionally at flashes of lightning and the muted rumble of thunder. Behind him Dante and Alia slept in a tangled pile on the futon Nikkam had once used, both of them snoring almost louder than the thunder. Yoah looked back at them then quietly walked past, resisting the urge to tweak Dante’s bare foot where it stuck out from under the blanket. He sat down at the kitchen table and opened the envelope he’d received in the mail that morning, shaking out his teaching contract for the upcoming school year.
“Stop lurking,” he said out loud. “You think I haven’t learned to sense your presence by now?”
“Who’s lurking?” Dhanya took the seat across from him, absently scratching at the fresh scar curving around his neck. “How’s your shoulder?”
“Healing. Slowly.” Yoah shifted his arm in its sling. “Should be okay by the time school starts again. I hope.”
“That your new contract?” Dhanya reached across the table and snagged it, flipping through the stapled papers.
“I’m going to sign it,” Yoah said, his voice a lot calmer than he felt inside.
Dark grey eyes flicked up to meet his. “Okay.”
“What, no complaints, no claims of ownership?”
“You don’t want to be owned.” Dhanya slid the contract back across the table. “Still have the summer though. Could bring Nikkam up and visit for a while.”
“You could,” Yoah said slowly, then grinned. “I can show you the national park, it’s not far from here.”
Dhanya passed him a pen, the corner of his mouth twitching up into something that wasn’t quite a smile. “Sign your contract then. I’ll go kick Dante out of bed and send him for the puppy.”
“Thanks,” Yoah said as Dhanya got up to leave the kitchen. Dhanya only ruffled his hair and headed into the living room. Taking a deep breath, Yoah carefully scrawled his signature with his left hand and re-folded the contract up ready to send back.
In the week that Dante and Alia were gone, driving to Mount Sorrel and coming back with Nikkam, Yoah spent most of his time resting and letting his shoulder heal. Dhanya proved apt at playing the attentive—if slightly overbearing—nursemaid, cooking dinner most nights and arguing Yoah into eating properly. Yoah watched him sometimes, when he was sure Dhanya wasn’t paying attention, studying the new scars and the old, trying not to admire the play of muscle in Dhanya’s back and shoulders. Gradually comfort replaced the tension that lingered between them and with comfort came the affection Yoah had to admit he had missed; Dhanya’s hand stroking his hair, curling up on the couch together to watch a movie, even random hugs and neck nuzzles that always sent a jolt right through Yoah's belly.
“You look happier,” one of his colleagues, Susanna, told him when he stopped by the school to pick up some paperwork. “Any particular reason? A big redheaded reason, maybe?”
“He’s a friend, Susanna. Give me a hand, would you?” He handed her the paperwork to staple.
“You can’t be that oblivious, Yoah. He looks at you like a puppy watching its master, all adoration and puppy eyes.” She raised an eyebrow. “You really don’t see it?”
“I think you’re confused on who wants to be the master there.”
“Never would’ve pegged you as the kinky sort.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek, passing along a faint whiff of some sort of light perfume. “I’m glad you’re happier, no matter what caused it. You always looked a little lost, like you were missing something.”
Yoah studied her face then smiled. “Thanks. See you in a month.”
The last month of his summer vacation passed in a blur of too many people crammed into his small apartment and nights spent laughing so hard he nearly made himself sick; of refereeing mock battles in his living room and physical therapy on his shoulder to help restore a full range of motion. More than once he ended up the center of a cuddle pile with Alia, Dante, and Nikkam, while Dhanya sat a little apart and eyed them with amusement. Dhanya reserved his affection for quieter moments, when the pack had collapsed in a heap in exhaustion and it was only him and Yoah still up late in the dark.
“You’ve matured,” Yoah said one night over coffee.
“I matured a long time ago, Yoah, I’m nearly thirty.” Dhanya dumped sugar in his coffee, considered a moment, and added more.
“No, but...” Yoah thought for a moment. “I mean you’re not all overly aggressive and possessive. Is that what almost dying does to a wolf?”
“I was never in any danger.”
“Don’t side-step the question, Dhanya. You okay? Any trauma?”
Dhanya snorted, shaking his hair out of his eyes. “What are you, an armchair psychologist? I won. There’s no trauma there.”
“You haven’t even tried once to claim me.” Yoah arched an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re not an alien?”
“Maybe I’ve just lost interest in you.”
“Oh.” Yoah forced a smile to try and hide the fact that he felt like he’d been punched in the gut. “Well, good. Bluntly put, but good. We’re still... we can still be friends, right?”
Dhanya said nothing, only got up and kissed him on the forehead before leaving the kitchen.
On the last day before the pack left to go home to the desert, Dhanya invited Yoah out for lunch without the pack, an invitation Yoah was a little hesitant to accept. Dhanya had been somewhat distant since their midnight conversation over coffee and Yoah went to lunch half-expecting to be hit with bad news. Instead Dhanya seemed more relaxed than he had been in days, lounging in his side of the booth and flashing his quicksilver smile. Their teenage waitress couldn’t seem to decide if she was charmed by him or terrified of him, blushing every time he grinned at her.
“Don’t tell me,” Yoah said when their food had been delivered and the waitress had wandered off. “You’re going into heat.”
Dhanya gave him a dirty look, rolling his eyes. “You wish.”
“You’re that happy to be going home?” Yoah asked, not really joking anymore. “If my company’s really that bad—”
“Be quiet, Yoah.” Dhanya said it without force but Yoah snapped his mouth shut and returned to his food.
They got ice cream from a little shop near the restaurant after and walked along the promenade that ran beside the lake, chatting idly about the upcoming school year and Dhanya’s job at the gym. Teenagers on roller skates buzzed past them at high speed, one or two calling a greeting, and down on the beach people lay on beach towels, soaking up the late-summer sunshine. Yoah took a deep breath of the salt-tinged air and let it out slowly, feeling his muscles relax in the warmth of the day. When Dhanya reached for his hand he was startled, but after a moment let Dhanya’s fingers lace through his.
In the middle of the promenade, where the crowd was thickest, Dhanya stopped suddenly, pulling his hand free from Yoah’s. Yoah gave him a puzzled look that turned to red-faced surprise when Dhanya suddenly dropped to both knees in front of him. Someone in the crowd giggled and there was a faint smattering of applause.
“The fuck are you doing?” Yoah growled. “You propose to me and I’ll drown you in the lake, I swear it.”
“I’m not proposing.” Dhanya reached up to take his hand and pulled him a step forward, until Yoah’s fingers rested against the collar of his shirt. Dhanya’s eyes went gold and he tipped his chin up, just enough to expose the pale line of his throat, baring it to Yoah and the crowd around them.
“I’m going to kill you,” Yoah said, a little breathless. “Are you out of your mind? This doesn’t mean—”
“It means exactly what I want it to mean.” Dhanya gave his crooked little smile. “Maybe I just wanted to see what it was like from the other side.”
Yoah looked at the crowd that had gathered around them, most of them wearing puzzled and uncertain expressions. He could feel the warmth of Dhanya’s skin through the thin material of his T-shirt, and the slightly unsteady rise and fall of his breathing. He looked back and met Dhanya’s eyes, where the gold had completely overlaid the grey, and deliberately slid his hand up from Dhanya’s collar to the delicate skin of his throat. Dhanya’s eyes slid half-closed and his breathing hitched, but Yoah only stroked a line across the scar marking his flesh then grabbed him by the front of his shirt and forced him back to his feet, standing on tiptoe to kiss him.
“Nobody’s owning anyone, you dumb wolf,” he said in Dhanya’s ear. “But your gesture is... acknowledged. Now can we go home before someone on the PTA decides I’m a danger to their children with my lack of taste in friends?”
He let Dhanya drag him out of the crowd, feeling his cheeks go red when someone wolf-whistled. There was laughter and a little more applause, and he was glad to make their escape to one of the side-paths, where they could walk in the shade of trees and meet little more than a few joggers. He kept his hand in Dhanya’s until they reached the apartment and much later, after their midnight coffee, he caught Dhanya’s eye and held the door of his bedroom open in silent invitation.
His alarm went off too early the next morning and he buried his head under the pillow, until Dhanya stole all the blankets by cocooning them around himself. Shivering a little, Yoah slapped the alarm into silence, kicked the Dhanya-shaped bundle of blankets, and hauled himself up to go have a shower. He came back with a glass of icy water from the kitchen and dumped it all on Dhanya’s head, bringing him out of the blankets with a snarl. Yoah just barely managed to toss the glass onto the bed so it wouldn’t get broken before Dhanya tackled him to the floor and pinned him there, dripping cold water from the tips of his hair and the end of his nose.
“Morning,” Yoah said. “We have puppies to wrangle.”
“Was the water necessary?”
“You stole my blankets. It was totally necessary.” Yoah pushed at his chest and gave up after a few moments when Dhanya didn’t even budge. “Down, boy.”
Dhanya leaned in, his breath warm against Yoah’s neck, and Yoah tensed automatically, squeezing his eyes shut and getting ready to be angry. Laughing, Dhanya only brushed a gentle kiss just under the line of his jaw and got up, stretching until his back cracked and heading out the door. By the time Yoah had pushed himself back to his feet, he could hear Dhanya shouting Nikkam, Alia, and Dante out of bed with the power and ease of a drill sergeant.
Yoah went with them to the diner on the outskirts of town for breakfast, stealing hash browns off Alia’s plate when she wasn’t looking and listening to Nikkam chatter away about his new school. He caught Dhanya looking at him once or twice, and after they’d paid the bill and walked out, Dhanya caught his hand and held him back while the other three headed for the car.
“Last chance to come with us,” Dhanya said when they were alone.
“Already signed my contract for this year. And I think... it’s still good for me to be living here, outside your territory.”
“This far outside my territory?”
“I like this place. But, you know, there’s no pack here now. Maybe in the future, there should be. Keep the deer and yappy dog populations down.” Yoah looked up at Dhanya, studying his face. “But not now. Later.”
“Not too much later.” Dhanya kissed his cheek and looked around at the sound of someone blaring the car horn. “Of course, there will be no pack at all if I kill them all on the way home.”
“You’ll find some way to survive.” Yoah shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, rocking awkwardly back on his heels. “So, um, call me. Got a three-day weekend next month, maybe I’ll come see how Nikkam’s getting along.”
“I’m sure... Nikkam would enjoy it.” Dhanya stepped back, lifting a hand in a wave. “See you, Yoah.”
“See you,” Yoah echoed, waving until the car disappeared into the morning traffic.
He went home and finished getting ready for school the next day, tidied up the living room, and went out for a walk just to escape the silence in his apartment. He slept without dreaming and woke when his alarm went off, forcing himself up and pulling on the clothes he’d laid out the night before. It was a chilly morning and he reached automatically for the grey sweatshirt in his closet, taking it out and then just staring at it for a moment. He thought of Dhanya’s crooked grin, Alia’s hugs, Dante’s slapstick sense of humour, and Nikkam’s mile-a-minute chatter, then smiled to himself, pulled the sweatshirt on, and headed to work.