Author's note: Part 6 is here. And hey, you know what? I'm still keeping up. Take THAT, procrastination! This section sees more Corey, because, you know, she hasn't seen enough page time yet.
We had made it about a block when Jamie said, “Sorry you had to see that.”
My inclination was to comment on the likelihood of seeing a drug user break down in public and the irreparable shock it caused me, but for some reason I instead felt compelled to say, “Don’t worry about it.” And, “Are you all right?”
“Oh I’m fine.” We had gone in early, so the morning rush of pedestrians clogged the sidewalk, and I knew it would be almost impossible to walk without running into at least every person between the head shop and home. I had resigned myself to a jostling journey, but Jamie had, somehow, managed to surprise me yet again. His posture had changed. Where before he had the appearance of a giant trying to look less imposing, he now stood at his full height and strode rather than shuffle. Before us people slid to the sides of the sidewalk, and I found that if I walked close to him, the crowd parted around me as well. His fur brushed my arm, but, to my surprise, I actually preferred that to the completely incidental, uncaring collisions of the working class of which I was a part. I felt more comfortable around the giant wolf than with normal people. “It’s like a perverted version of Little Red Riding Hood,” I said, without thinking.
A low rumble: “What big teeth have I.”
I turned and found him grinning at me, and a tingle of fear went up my spine—brief, very brief, and it was gone in an instant, the moment I was able to convince myself that the insanely sharp set of teeth didn’t belong to a wild animal that was about to bite my throat out. They looked bigger now than they had before. Jamie’s lip was curled back, his eyes piercing mine. Still he walked straight ahead, and still we miraculously avoided colliding with anyone. I turned back to the sidewalk, hoping he hadn’t seen my atavistic shiver.
Something had changed about him, somewhere around ten minutes ago, when Rian had asked him where he was from. I was expecting a shy, quiet answer, possibly misdirecting. Jamie had walked over, leaned on the counter like he owned it, and rumbled deeply about his life at home, his parents’ disaffection with his choices, and his decision to take on the world. “It was a sort of test,” he said, the corner of his muzzle quirked up in what was either a grin or a threat that Rian missed but I caught. “I had always assumed that I would make it in the world, but I had no verification.”
“So you ran away.” Rian nodded, a shallow motion that made me realize how little I actually knew about my employer. It surprised me that he could empathize with Jamie. Rian always seemed laid back, the kind of guy for whom the world was a matrix into which he could fit himself with relative ease, then sit back and watch with interest or disinterest, whatever was his whim. He didn’t look like someone who had run away from home. That I might have been reading too deeply into that one gesture crossed my mind, but Rian never explained his nod, and Jamie didn’t press, so I was left standing there, feeling strangely awkward around people who might have had a lot more in common with me than I had thought.
“I prefer to say I ran toward. I knew intellectually what I had only practically experienced in the most hypothetical sense: that it should not be difficult to survive on my own. So now, I’m testing my validity as a man.”
“How’s that going, Jamie?”
“I haven’t failed yet. And I won’t.” Jamie leaned in, but spoke with the same volume. “And call me James.”
Rian had hired him on the spot.
They talked for a few minutes more, then just as I was getting ready to suggest that we leave—all the camaraderie was edging dangerously close to territory with which I was not comfortable—Rian offered his hand, which Jamie took, and said, “Well, here’s hoping we get to see each other for a long time to come,” and the wolf boy froze up, then went back to talking like his old, meek self.
“What are you doing tonight?”
I took my time answering, making sure I got it right. “Nothing,” said I. My heart began to race for reasons that were, at the time, fuzzy. His arm brushed mine again.
“Want to try something fun?”
I laughed, and hoped that it didn’t sound forced. As I said, he was making me nervous. Not in a way that bespoke danger, but in an altogether more… insidious way. “Whoa there, wolf boy. Get too ahead of yourself and I don’t think Tamlin will be too happy. He’s kind of got a big brother-little sister thing going on as far as I’m concerned.” As I said it, I tried to imagine Tamlin meeting this version of our new bipolar roommate. I thought about my scraped arm, and Tamlin’s unbearably alpha-male reaction to weakness. Brother-sister may have been off; it was more hierarchical. I wasn’t sure that Tamlin actually would act like a big brother if some guy was looking to get intimate with me; I had never discerned that he was interested in me that way.
And anyway, I thought, why am I taking this so seriously? It was a joke—that I made!
As soon as I thought that, I felt more than saw Jamie’s arm withdraw, and then drape over my shoulder. Just like that! His forward motion propelled me when my feet would have planted themselves on the sidewalk, his elbow pressing just below the back of my neck, forcing me forward. It was by some miracle that I didn’t stumble. “Yeah,” he drawled, apparently oblivious to my sudden panic. “But I bet his bark is worse than his bite.”
And just like that, I snapped. I was confused his suddenly-shifted personality, and a little scared, and a little pissed, and like any good Homo sapien I seized on that last one, pumped it full of myself until it was big enough to temporarily eclipse the other two. I pulled away from him. “Okay, what the hell is going on with you? First you go from little quiet, kind of dorky kid to Mr. Smooth Talker, and then you collapse on the floor, then you do it again. What the hell is with you?”
He looked right at me, black eyes sucking me in. “What are you doing tonight?” he repeated. His voice was deep, practically a growl. I didn’t hear it so much as feel it. I felt caught by the lure of his gaze, and I didn’t even want to try to wiggle away. “Because I’ve got a few ideas….” I know I shivered. I must have. It’s like an earthquake, when he uses that voice, uses his full seven-foot-whatever body like an echo chamber deep underground. I don’t think anybody else heard him, but they were still giving us a wide berth. Partly this had to do with his size, but partly it was because we had stopped.
In the middle of the sidewalk.
With a giant wolf man staring at me with… hunger.
The city blared back to life around me. I wasn’t even aware I had been blocking it out, but it crashed into me nonetheless, a tidal wave of the noise that I called home. It wrapped me up, put a shield between me and the user in front of me. I backed up, shook my head in as close an emulation of disgust as I could manage, and stomped off, doing everything in my power to keep from sprinting back to the apartment, or down the street, or just away from Jamie in general.