"I don't know how you can stand this," Aysel, one of his pack mates, says when she visits him at the Azerbaijani Eurovision studio for the national semifinals. Farid looks around them at the backstage area. He kind of gets what she means: the two of them are surrounded by performers, cameramen, assistants and sound people who are all exuding hectic tension. The hot, musty air is pungent with the smells of make-up, people sweating under the stage lights, nervousness and excitement. Beneath the chemical smell of hair spray lies the faint, sour underlining of stress and fatigue. Farid knows that even regular humans find this kind of environment overwhelming. Most Canavar people stay away from things like this, even wolves from city-based packs like his.
Aysel shudders, and Farid can tell that she's fighting the instinct to hold her nose, the way she is breathing shallowly through her mouth to avoid the smells. He just shakes his head and smiles. He's been exposed to places like this for years. It's part of the business and can't be avoided. For him the singing has always come first, the thrill of performing in front of a crowd. But the rest of it he has learned to tolerate and even enjoy over time. Sometimes he thinks that it's because of – not in spite of – being Canavar that he can stand it. He can smell the human emotion beneath the glitz; he can hear hearts and bowels and muscles moving beneath crinkling taffeta and auto-tuned voices. It grounds him in a way that makes other performers praise him for being calm and level-headed despite his young age.
The truth is that it is hard for him to get a big head about the shirtless photo sessions, flirty journalists and slightly hysteric TV presenters when he knows that all of that will all slide away and become utterly unimportant, once he slides into wolf form and goes running across the Baku region with his pack. Farid was born a wolf, and both his parents are betas. To the pack he is just a young, middle-ranking male - only just old enough to not be regarded as a pup any more, and in the process of trying to find his place in the hierarchy without causing a fuss.
To the Azerbaijani public, though, he is a rising star. He goes on to the national finals with more than fifty percent of the televotes. He wins the finals the following week. The whole of Azerbaijan goes a little mad.
Many weeks of preparatory work and a couple of promotional tours later, he's in Malmö for the international Eurovision competition. It kind of takes his breath away.
Farid has been singing professionally since he was eight, as part of the Bülbüller Ensemble. Since then he's been on AZTV countless time, he has performed in front of large live audiences, and just two weeks ago he performed on Boyuk Sehne in front of a jury of international hit-makers. He's not at all unused to crowds or cameras. But Ell and Niki were right when they told him in the prep session to expect to be overwhelmed anyway. The international show is big. Malmö is swarming with reporters, national delegations, stage hands, volunteers and fans. The overflowing sense of joy and excitement is palpable everywhere they go. Farid's flattered and honoured that he gets to be part of it. He is also a little awed, and it comforts him to recognise that same overwhelmed expression on most of the other contestants faces.
He's fluent in Turkish; he speaks some Russian and a tiny bit of English. But here everyone is babbling away in 39 different accents - and most of them speak English - so he's been told to bring an interpreter wherever he goes. It irks him a little. The last many years he's been working hard on honing his stage presence, and by now he takes pride in being charming and well-spoken. It frustrates him to not be able to interact with people directly. It makes him feel slightly out of the loop, and the feeling is amplified by being away from his pack. Of course, there are no other wolves in the Azerbaijani delegation. They are a small, carefully selected crew, all professionals, and there wasn't a convenient excuse to bring anyone from the pack along.
It creates an element of cognitive dissonance to his experience. Part of him is loving it; he sleeps for five hours and wakes up thrumming all over, hungry for more. He feeds on the excitement and energy from the fans. But at the same time, he's aware that the wolf inside him is a little spooked by the sensory overload - by being alone so far out of its territory.
It's been years since he got over the weird bout of stage fright that suddenly struck him around age fifteen, but here his press people lead him from interview to interview with people who all smell, sound and act different - and the attention is so overwhelming that he finds himself reverting to bad habits, so that his press team have to remind him to look directly at people, to smile at the camera. It brings him back to what it had been like in the beginning of his time in the Bülbüller ensemble, when Aybeniz had been constantly telling him to: "Straighten up, Farid, smile at the camera! Don't look so shy!"
The international press is overwhelmingly interested in his looks and his athletic capabilities, and a lot more shameless about it than what he's used to. The journalists love the fact that he is a capoiera instructor, calling him Eurovision's next top model and asking him to show off his tattoo. Farid does like to look good, but a lot of his interest in exercise also stems from being able to use it to keep his wolf in check and because it makes transitioning easier. It's not unusual, though, for Wolf People to have a certain physical pull on humans, and even though he is flattered, it never fails to embarrass him a little, as well.
Once they're inside the arena, though, things are simple. The singing he's not nervous about. He has never had reason to doubt his voice, and he feels confident and self-assured as soon as he is standing on the stage. He knows Dimitrios Kontopoulos wrote him a good song. He knows that their stage show is going to catch people's attention.
Excitement is steadily building around his camp. The bookmakers are putting him in the top five, along with Norway, Russia, Ukraine - and Denmark slightly ahead and leading most of the polls. Reporters start telling him he has a winning chance, and every time they do, a waft of nervousness rises up from the people in his delegation.
Whenever he gets the chance, Farid goes jogging through the streets of Malmö, looping in and out of the city parks. The air is very different from back home - mild and domestic in the day, cool and moist and nearly scentless in the evenings. By now, Farid has been in Malmö for nine days, for rehearsals and press junkets. Before that he travelled through Turkey, Malta and Greece to promote their song. All in all, this represents the longest time he's ever been separated from his kin, and he's never gone so long without shifting before. Being a born wolf, he feels entirely as much at home in his Canavar form as in his human one, and the wolf in him is becoming impatient. It is longing to stretch out running, or to be allowed to follow the faint scent trails across the city.
The full moon comes up the day after the second semifinal. Already in the early evening, Farid can feel it like a heavy pull. His muscles feel heavy and aching like after a hard work-out. He's never had to resist the moon before, but he knew that the cycle was going to be like this as soon as the dates for the shows were announced. He talked with his parents and his pack about it before he left. They gave him good advice on how to placate the wolf and they assured him that it was possible.
Back then he'd felt sure that he'd be able to do it. Now he paces in his hotel room, feeling cooped up and tense. He scratches his nails over his skin, tries doing some stretches, takes a long hot shower - but he can tell that it isn't going to do the trick.
His pack advised him against shifting as long as he was away from home. But they also talked about an emergency plan if he couldn't avoid it. "Pick one person to help you," his mother said, "someone you trust."
In the end he seeks out his dancer, Alexander, who is staying just two doors down from him in the hotel. Alex opens the door on the first knock.
"I need to get out of here," Farid says simply, "will you help me?" He must look a little desperate, because Alex nods mutely, not even asking any questions. He probably thinks that Farid's crumbling under the pressure. Alex quickly grabs a coat and steps out into the lobby. Farid hands him the keys to their rental car, feeling weak with gratitude. All the time they've spent together in rehearsal and the wolf in him is beginning to think of Alex as pack.
They drive North for an hour and a half to get to Söderåsen, the nearest national park. They follow Google Map directions on their brand new sponsor gift Iphones. Farid is reassured that he chose the right person to trust, because Alex still doesn't ask any questions - he just drives, following the prompts from the phone. Farid is in no state to hold up conversation, anyway. He's anxious and antsy. The wolf inside is right beneath the surface, staring out with mindless longing at the fields and forests passing by.
They finally reach the entrance to the park. Farid is toeing off his shoes even before Alex has put the car in park. As soon as the car has stopped completely, Farid throws open the door. He almost falls out onto the parking lot asphalt in his eagerness to get outside and remove his clothes all at the same time. It only takes a couple of rough pulls at his coat, his shirt, his trousers, and then he's finally rid of any constrictions and naked under the light of the moon. He lets his head fall back, taking a deep, relieved breath.
Behind him the car door on the driver's side slams shut. Farid spins around.
Alex is standing on the other side of the hood, watching him with wide eyes. "You're Oboroten," he exclaims in Russian, then shakes his head, obviously searching for the Azerbaijani word. "Canavar," he finally says.
That statement is enough of a shock to bring Farid closer back to his human way of thinking. He regards Alex assessingly. No regular human is supposed to know about the Wolf People, but Farid has heard that some packs choose to have a few human associates. Alex looks shocked, but not scared. He must have some basic knowledge about Canavar, then. Maybe someone in his family is a bitten wolf. Jerked back to human sentiments such as modesty, Farid shrugs uncomfortably, very aware of being naked and suddenly feeling a little shy. "Can we just pretend that I went a little crazy because of nerves, and felt a sudden urge to go communing with nature, or something?" he tries jokingly, wanting to keep things easy. Alex seems to be too stunned to manage a smile, but Farid doesn't smell fear on him, so he hopes they're good. He can't wait any longer for a reply, so he turns towards the dark forest and sets off in a quick jog down the gravel road. He shifts, still running, as soon as he feels certain that he's out of Alex's line of sight.
Shifting into wolf form after such a long time feels like stretching pleasurably after being crammed up in a too small space for far too long. Breathing in feels like smelling a delicious meal being prepared. Farid just wants to keep filling his lungs and not have to breathe out. He sprints for as long as he can, gulping down deep breaths of air, and then he slows down into a trot, panting.
The forest is not far enough away from cities and houses to completely escape their smells, and he can tell that a lot of people must pass through it. Still, the domesticated smells don't overpower the smells of wild animals, trees, rocks and water. Everything about this forest is different from home. Here, the smell of the sea is replaced with the unsalted scent of freshwater lakes and rivers. The rocks have been hewn smooth and flat by glaciers that are now long gone. The ground is moist, alive with decomposing leaves and a million tiny living organisms. It is very, very different. But it smells safe - no carnivore scent marks, but plenty of game trails - so Farid moves deeper into the forest.
He wades through a shallow river, then gets curious about the cold, soft water that stings his paws, the heavy, metallic scent of minerals that rises from the surface. He stops in the middle of the stream and labs up the cool, clean water.
The flat brown and grey coat that serves him so well in the dry, rocky forests around Baku doesn't serve him as well as camouflage here. He's not intent on hunting anyway. He's still aware of being out of his territory, and even though the forest doesn't smell claimed – except for the weak and sour scent of foxes - he would rather tread carefully. He follows the scent of a rabbit for awhile just for the fun of it, before breaking away from the trail.
There is a mild breeze blowing from the West. Farid is walking downwind and so he doesn't smell the other wolf before they catch sight of each other. The other wolf raises its head from the ground and their eyes meet.
They both freeze for a moment, eyes locked, before they both collect themselves and break eye contact.
Farid puts his nose up into the wind, heart pounding, but it still doesn't give him any information. He hopes his own sudden anxiety isn't being blown downwind like a fog. Meetings like this are tricky and sometimes dangerous. The human part of him is telling him to turn around, give the other wolf a wide berth. The wolf part of him hesitates for a moment, but then curiosity and longing for companionship wins over caution, and he trots up until they are only a few feet apart.
The wolf is a grey female. This close he can finally begin to smell her. She has a slightly longer coat than him, in shades of grey and dirty white. She's taller over the shoulders but of a lighter build. While he approached her she held her head high, watching him carefully, but now she huffs and lowers herself into a less imposing position.
Farid licks his jowls nervously. In his human form he is beginning to learn how to stand his ground - he needs to if he's planning for a life in the media business – but the truth is that his wolf has never been very assertive. He was born into a well-established pack with his parents a comfortably ranking beta couple. Everyone at home is well-fed and friendly, with a large and unchallenged territory. Farid has never really had to fight for anything, and he doesn't particularly want to.
The female wolf moves forward, and Farid is relieved to see that she seems cautious, too, yawning and licking her lips repeatedly. It's obvious to him now that she is just as eager to avoid conflict as he is. She only takes a couple of steps, and then she stops again, seemingly at a loss. She huffs quietly, seeking his eyes for a brief second before turning her gaze politely away again. Farid pretends to smell the ground for a moment, to return her courtesy, then slowly moves in sideways with his tail wagging low to get a sniff at her pelt.
What he learns is surprising. He knows that Sweden is home of a few dozen Canavar packs, but he'd been told that there weren't any this far south. There is no mistaking it, though, this wolf is definitely one of his kind. She's Canavar. She's young like he is, and she doesn't smell like this forest, either. The scent of pack is weak, almost not there at all, so either she doesn't have a pack or she's been separated from them for a while, just like he has. He realises that they're on the same page: alone in foreign territory. It makes everything a lot less complicated. Farid can feel all of his muscles relax with the realisation.
The female wolf must have come to the same conclusion, because she relaxes, too, and he can hear her heart rate drop to a less alert level simultaneously with his own.
Farid pulls back a little. He's aware that he's wagging his tail like a pup, but he finds himself unable to hide the pure joy of meeting kin - and when he looks at the other wolf he sees that her ears are up, her eyes are bright with excitement, and her tail wagging rapidly, too. She whines softly and then bows down, inviting him to play. She only gives him a second to react, though, before she sets of with a laughing yip, daring him to catch her.
Farid sets off after her, happy and excited.
They play for a long time, tumbling and snapping at each other in a light-hearted play for dominance. Once they're too tired to wrestle any more, they run together for a while, side by side, simply enjoying the forest in each other's comforting presence. They don't part ways until the sky is showing the first signs of light. Farid goes reluctantly. It's a base human sense of obligation that finally turns him back in the direction of his place of shifting.
When he gets back to the parking lot, Alex is asleep on the back seat in the first morning light. Farid changes back to his human form before he knocks on the window, careful not to scratch the lacquer on the delegation's rental.
He only gets a couple of hours of sleep before he has to be up again, but it's okay. Even though he's tired, he feels more centred and calm than he has in a long time. He does a couple of interviews before noon, feeling relaxed and confident, laughing with the reporters. At noon the entire delegation is gathered, and they set course for the arena. It's time for the second and final rehearsal of the grand final show before they go live.
He's made it through security and is headed for the Azerbaijani team's booth in the green room - walking through a crowd of different delegations - when he is caught by a strong sense of deja-vu. The surprise stops him in his tracks. It takes a moment for him to figure out what it is. It's a scent. It's the smell of the Söderåsen forest; the same freshwater scent from last night.
"What it is?" asks his interpreter, Deniz, who'd been walking right behind him.
Farid shakes his head, distracted. He looks around at the people standing close to him. He breathes in, and then, surprised, walks towards the person who smells like trees and water and play and pack. She's deeply engaged in conversation with one of her drummers, and she is turning away to leave just as Farid walks up to her.
"Emmelie De Forest," he calls out, and she turns back around. He must have mispronounced her name, because he can tell that she doesn't recognise what he is saying for a moment, but then she smiles. "Farid Mammadov," she exclaims, and her inflection is all wrong, too: weirdly flat and drawn out into too many syllables.
"Farid, rehearsals start in two minutes," Deniz mumbles in the background, having caught up with him, "this is not the time to socialise."
Farid ignores him. He reaches out his hand, and Emmelie clasps it with a smile. She stands taller than him as a human, too, he notes absently. This is the first time they talk. Farid has met up with a bunch of the other contestants to do joint interviews and pose for pictures, but Azerbaijan and Denmark are the two top seeded countries in the whole competition, and their respective managers haven't been able to find a shared slot of available time in their busy schedules.
Farid lets go of her hand. He can tell that she doesn't recognise him. Maybe she's a new wolf, still learning to use her heightened senses. The wolf populations in Europe are small, and by word of mouth, Canavar packs are almost always known to one another. Last he heard, there weren't supposed to be any of their people living in Denmark.
It weirds him out to have her look at him with this sweet but impersonal friendliness. Farid hesitates, aware of the way his interpreter's eyes are boring holes into his head, Emmelie's polite and expectant gaze. Finally he turns towards Deniz. "Tell her I didn't think- " he starts, then corrects himself, "ask her if they have wolves in Denmark."
Deniz looks at him like he's crazy, but Farid urges him to do it with a shooing motion.
He turns back around to watch her reaction to his interpreter's words. When her eyes go wide and stunned, he grabs her hand lightly, giving it a reassuring squeeze. Emmelie blinks. She looks at him appraisingly for a moment, and then he sees her nostrils flare imperceptibly. A look of pleasure and recognition spreads over her face. She squeezes his hand and says something in English, smiling widely.
"She says just recently a few have returned," Deniz translates, sounding utterly confused.
Emmelie says something else, shifting her gaze.
"She says, if you both can find the time before the Grand Final, she would like to go running with you?"
The minute Emmelie can tell that Deniz has finished translating, she turns back to Farid and winks. Farid smothers a laugh, then nods. He ignores the expectant silence from his interpreter. "I would love to run with you again," he says in careful English and Emmelie smiles wide and bright.
The bell that signals the beginning of the rehearsal sounds.
From the other end of the room, Emmelie is called by her delegation. "See you later, Farid." She releases his hand and turns to go.
Farid watches her walk away. She's in her stage clothes: fairy dress, gold arm rings and bare feet.
Finally he turns to go to his own booth, with Deniz trailing after. Farid knows that Deniz will have so many questions after the end of rehearsals, and he knows that their entire delegation is going to be ripe with gossip within hours. But there is no chance that they are going to suss out the truth, and Farid can't for the life of him hide the happy grin on his face.