Eric had certainly never expected to be wolf-bonded.
The Phelpses had a family pack that went back, through various lineages, to before the Civil War. Unlike some family packs, they'd kept a firm hold of the notion that a man became brother to a wolf for some reason beyond tradition.
Eric's PawPaw, who had died before Eric was old enough to remember him, had gotten his wolf at sixteen and took him along when he joined the Army, the same as all his brothers and uncles. Mama and Aunt Judy didn't have wolves--no one would've even considered letting them meet a litter of pups--but most of their boy cousins did. Their Cousin Jimmy and Cousin Len and Cousin Andy and Cousin Russ had all gone off to the army for at least four years, while Cousin Randy went to the State Patrol and the rest of the Phelps men of that generation were local police or firefighters.
The second and third cousins in Eric's generation had done the same--even AsheLee and Jenna, after all the tsking and head-shaking and who'd have thought, had been allowed to bond with the pups who chose them. Jenna was doing ROTC at Georgia now; AsheLee was a paramedic.
That was what Phelpses did. If they were chosen by a wolf, then they did something that a wolfbrother (or wolfsister) and wolf could do better than an ordinary unbonded person. Even playing competitive capture-the-flag or another wolf-sport might have been all right, at least for a proper red-blooded son of the family.
Eric, on the other hand, was a figure skater.
Except he wasn't even that, now. He was a former figure skater--out of his sport before his sixteenth birthday, with nothing to look forward to but moving to Madison over the summer. Another new start at a new high school; they had a hockey team, apparently.
Mama had told him that with a certain look in her eye, the one that always made Eric wonder if she knew the thing he hadn't even let himself know in so many words. Because that look made him think she wanted it not to be true just as badly as he did. And if he played hockey, well, then he couldn't possibly be... whatever he might otherwise be. A figure skater.
It was pretty hard to care about anything that spring, after his last practice with Katya. He could have kept going until they moved, but what was the point? What was he training for? There was no call to waste Mama and Coach's time and money anymore.
"Well!" Mama said. "You'll be able to sleep in for the first time since you were six years old--won't have to be up until, goodness, seven, I should think? That'll be nice!"
It was supposed to be nice, Eric told himself, lying in bed in the dark, waiting for dawn. It was supposed to be nice. He was supposed to be sleeping.
He ought to get up and bake something, if he was going to be awake anyhow. He couldn't remember the last time he'd baked anything. He thought maybe baking was something a figure skater would do.
Maybe he shouldn't, anymore. Maybe he should try as hard as he could to be a hockey player; that would get him through the next couple of years, at least. No one would mess with a hockey player, as long as they didn't suspect he was something else. He could manage a couple of years, couldn't he?
But there were different skates, and all that heavy gear, and all those other hockey players. And he still had to get through the last two months of his sophomore year before that, and honestly he didn't even know how he was going to get through the two hours until his alarm went off.
The phone rang, and Eric sat bolt upright, looking at the clock to assure himself he hadn't dozed off for hours--but no, it was still dark, not quite six in the morning. No one would call this early, not unless a baby had been born or someone died, and none of their close kin were pregnant.
MooMaw? If it was MooMaw, Eric didn't know what he'd do. Dimly, far away, he heard his mother answering. He waited for a wail of grief, a shout, something, but there was just his mother's voice, muffled and far away, saying--
The sound of his own name brought everything into sharp focus. Eric's fists clenched in the covers as a nameless terror filled him. They know. Someone had called his mama to tell her about him, to tell her--
She tapped gently on the door, and Eric managed to make some kind of sound, nothing near a word.
She opened the door and peeked in, the phone held against her shoulder. "Honey? Cousin Russ is on the line for you. He said he's sorry for callin' so early, he wanted to make sure he caught you before school."
Eric blinked at the phone, staring, and realized that the call must be about someone getting born after all: Cousin Russ was bonded to a she-wolf. Sometime during the winter Eric had become aware, without anyone ever really saying so, that she had had a heat. One wouldn't say so, of course, because to acknowledge what one or more male wolves did to a she-wolf in heat would mean acknowledging what their human brothers did to her human brother at the same time, and of course no one would ever want to think of that happening to a member of their own family.
Of course no member of a good family would ever allow anything like that to happen to him for any other reason.
But now, two or three months later, came the part that could be spoken of. Her litter must have arrived.
But why on earth should Cousin Russ want to say anything to Eric about that?
Unless one of the pups had been a little she-wolf, and... Eric felt sick at the thought of that, of being judged worthy of a wolf only if it was a she-wolf. If the family might allow him to be what he was starting to suspect he was, as long as no one ever spoke of it. As long as it was only because of the she-wolf he bonded to, and only when he had to, and only when it was awful.
Eric shook his head, wide-eyed, and he didn't know what Mama saw on his face, but she picked the phone up off her shoulder. "Russ? He's wakin' up awful slow, do you think... All right. I'll tell him. Thank you for--you too. You take care."
Eric couldn't move, just watched his mama finish the call and walk away to hang up the phone. He couldn't even think; he didn't know what to think. He'd never expected this.
"They were born a week ago," Mama said, returning to stand in the doorway. "Russ said Danica only just told him their scent names, and, well, he thinks you ought to meet the pups."
Eric struggled to make sense of that. Cousin Russ must've known whether the pups were boys or girls as soon as they were born; if it was something in a pup's scent name... if it was something Danica decided...
Cousin Russ's sister Danica came to all the family gatherings he attended, which wasn't all that many of them, even now that he'd been out of the Army for a few years. But Eric remembered, suddenly, a particular Christmas when Cousin Russ and Danica had been around.
Eric had been ten, feeling pretty close to grown and hovering on the edge of a group that included Coach and some uncles and grown up boy cousins, even though he'd rather have been in the kitchen with MooMaw and Mama and Aunt Judy. Somebody had said something--Eric didn't remember the words, just the feeling that went through his body, the sudden, electric shock of shame and exposure, as though he were suddenly naked. No one had even been speaking to him; no one noticed him slipping away.
That was when he had known for sure, crystal clear, that he was different, that he had something to hide. He had found himself tucked into a corner of an upstairs spare bedroom, and only then realized that he still had a plate in his hand, a half-eaten slice of MooMaw's pecan pie on it. He had just sat and stared at it, feeling sick and wondering how he could ever eat pie or anything else with this lump in his stomach, when someone had slipped through the half-open door.
Not a person, or at least not a human. It was Danica, Cousin Russ's sister, who tended to stay to the outskirts of the party herself. She was taller at the shoulder than the double bed Eric was hiding behind, so he watched her slink over to him. She studied him for a moment, her amber eyes seeming almost to glow in the dimness of the bedroom, and then she started licking all over his face, cleaning him like a pup, until Eric started giggling.
She had curled herself around him then, and he had had a thought in his head--clear and distinct from his own thoughts, so he knew it had to be hers, though he'd never heard her speak like that before. You're not alone, pup. You'll be all right.
He had eaten most of the rest of the pecan pie, trying to keep the crumbs out of her fur and mostly failing, and fed her a little of the plain crust, which was just flour and lard, nothing that could hurt a wolf. Though Danica was at least twice his size and seemed like nothing could hurt her at all.
It might not be so bad, he thought, to be brother to a she-wolf, if she was like Danica. It might even be worth everything else. If Danica had chosen one of her pups for him...
Eric swallowed, looking at Mama still waiting for him in the doorway. "I... I oughta make a pie to take with me, don't you think, Mama?"
She smiled, looking relieved. "Of course you should."
It was only when he was on the stairs, Mama behind him, following him to the kitchen, that she said, the same way she had said Madison has a hockey team, honey, "You know, Russ did say they're all boy pups."
"Oh," Eric said, the word coming out a little strangled, and without anything else he should have said. That's nice, maybe, or That's a relief, or a laugh and a joke... but any of those would be at Cousin Russ's expense, would mean Eric was saying he didn't want a sister like Danica, even though no one was supposed to want a sister, really--even though he didn't want a sister.
It wouldn't end, he thought, getting out the flour and butter, mentally rummaging through his recollections for Cousin Russ's favorite flavor of pie. Even if one of the pups--a boy pup--was meant for him, even if he became a wolfbrother hockey player... he would still be him, and everyone would still be expecting him to be something else. To be worthy of a wolf. Not a baker, not a figure skater. Not him.
He shook off all thoughts of what it meant. He was going to go visit Cousin Russ today, and he couldn't go empty-handed: he needed to make a pie.
"Custard," he said, finally recalling Cousin Russ's preference from the handful of times he'd ever seen him eating dessert. "I'll do a custard pie--we still have some of last year's peaches put up, don't we?"
"You know we do, Dicky. Always want to save the last few for something special--and today's special, isn't it?"
Eric nodded, still not looking straight at his mother as he hurried down to the fruit cellar to find the peaches.
It was light out by the time the pie was cooling, and Coach was up and in the shower when Eric said, "Mama, do you think... could I... I know I don't really have my license yet, but it's not that far, could I..."
He did look at Mama then, still a little sideways. Her smile was sweet and a little sad, and she reached over to brush his hair to one side. "My little Dicky, growing up so fast. 'Course you need to do this for yourself, honey. I'll tell Coach why you need to stay home from school today, and you just wait until he's gone to work before you leave, okay?"
Eric nodded, feeling only a little sick at all the nested secrets--the things he and Mama kept between themselves that Coach didn't need to know, and the things he couldn't let even Mama know.
If he had a wolf, there would be one creature in the world he didn't have any secrets from. Maybe more than one, depending on how they fit in with the pack; Eric had never paid a whole lot of attention to how the pack-sense worked.
So that was something he'd need to ask Cousin Russ about.
Not that far still meant Cousin Russ lived halfway up to Athens, down a dirt road off the county highway. It wasn't total boonies--there were houses at pretty regular intervals, if widely spaced, with plenty of trees and wide open space between them. Sometimes a few clustered companionably close on opposite sides of the road, but there was nothing across from Cousin Russ's driveway but a thick stand of trees.
By the time Eric eased his mama's car all the way up the gravel drive to park behind Cousin Russ's truck next to the tidy little house, there was nothing in sight but more trees, except for the pond and the fresh-turned earth of a garden patch out back. Eric had only been here maybe once or twice, coming with his mama on visits for one reason or another; Cousin Russ didn't host any holidays, even though there was certainly plenty of room.
He remembered someone asking Cousin Russ why he wasn't living in Madison proper, or at least in town somewhere, and he'd just shrugged and said, "My sister likes her space."
That had been the end of that conversation, and it had been a lot later that Eric had thought to wonder what Danica liked her own space for, or what other reason Cousin Russ might have for wanting a bit of privacy.
His cheeks heated, thinking of it now, but he forced himself to focus on picking up the pie and the bag of pie-crust cookies from the passenger seat. By the time he looked around again, Cousin Russ was leaning against the rail of the back porch, just visible around the side of the house. Waiting for him.
Eric steeled himself and then swung out of the car with a smile on his face, holding his offerings out ahead of him as he went around back. He was family, after all, not a guest, and maybe about to be even closer than that. "Hey, Cousin Russ!"
"Hey, Dicky," Cousin Russ said, watching him come. He was Mama's cousin, not Eric's, of course. He was a little younger than Mama, but without children of his own he'd never quite seemed to belong to one generation or the other. He had the Phelps brown eyes, and dishwater blond hair, and the start of a beard, like he hadn't bothered shaving in a while. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, which made Eric feel a tad overdressed in his khakis and button-down, but he'd felt the distinct urge to make a good impression.
Cousin Russ's gaze swept down over him, but he didn't remark on Eric's fashion choices, or the pie, or the fact that he'd driven alone, though Cousin Russ surely knew perfectly well that he was still more than a month short of his sixteenth birthday. That made him a little too young to be wolf-bonded, too, technically, but... well. Here they were.
"C'mon in," Cousin Russ said, when Eric had climbed up onto the porch, turning and opening the door and ushering Eric ahead of him, through the mudroom with its chest freezer squeezed in by the washer and dryer. "Here, I'll take that pie--thanks for that. Why don't you just go on in and see Dani? No use dragging out the suspense."
That was... an awful lot more direct than anyone else in the family would have been, but Eric had heard that wolfbrothers were that way, often.
"I'll, um--I brought--" Eric waved the bag of pie-crust cookies, which were really just the leftover pie crust made into shapes and baked. "I thought Danica might..."
Cousin Russ smiled a little, then stifled a yawn, leading Eric through the kitchen to the front of the house. "Yeah, she'll like that fine. Go on, shoo. Go meet--well. Go see."
Eric looked in the direction Cousin Russ had indicated, and realized that the door standing open led to the master bedroom. There was one light on inside, and he followed it to the walk-in closet. Shoes and boots were heaped into two tubs to either side of the door, and inside the closet the cleared floor was lined with blankets, and...
Danica lifted her head and looked at Eric as he crumpled down to his knees, his eyes fixed helplessly on the row of pups nursing at her side. There you are, pup, she said, more clearly than she'd ever said anything to him. Come see what I made for you.
"I made..." Eric couldn't even bring himself to say it. No pie crust could even begin to compare to a litter of wolf pups, or even just one of them.
Come here, closer, she said.
Eric nodded and knee-walked inside, over the padding of blankets. He barely noticed the damp spots and discolorations, his eyes fixed on the four pups--no. On just one of them, with fluffy fur as gray as a skate blade and white as ice.
Danica curled around and nosed at that pup, licking him roughly until he drew back from her side in a movement between waddling and swimming, his tiny paws barely reaching the blankets under him. He curled and rolled and flopped blindly right into Eric's outstretched hands, his whole back end wagging, fluffy flaps of ears twitching.
Eric picked him up carefully--the pup went still in his grip, only raising his nose and making tiny hopeful sounds. His eyes weren't even open yet. Eric could feel the pup's breaths, the stopwatch-ticking of his tiny heart. He touched their noses together, breathed in the milk-and-animal scent of him, and then was overwhelmed with an entirely different scent.
Pecan pie. And not just any pecan pie; the exact one that MooMaw had brought to Christmas the year Eric was ten. The one he'd shared the crust of with Danica in an upstairs bedroom.
I named him for you, Danica added, in something more like words, and Eric dragged his gaze from the tiny pup to her. So no one could mistake. He belongs with you, and you'll need him.
Eric looked down at the pup just as the pup found his thumb, latching on strongly and sucking. He didn't even have milk teeth yet, to prick at Eric's skin.
"Hello there," Eric whispered. "Hello, brother."
He felt the little spark of a response, unformed, nothing he could interpret into words yet, just something there recognizing him. His brother, who belonged with him. Who he had surely needed.
Tears started to roll down his face, and for the second time in his life--but far from the last--a wolf licked them away. There, pup, Danica said. There. That's better, isn't it?
Eric leaned into her gingerly, looking down to be sure he wasn't squashing any of the other pups. They were all clustered safely by Danica's flank, though, nipping at her tail and flopping over each other. They were so tiny--his brother was still so tiny, but already his, already chosen for him and choosing him. Eric pressed a careful kiss to the pup's fuzzy little head and then set him down with his brothers and wrapped his arms around Danica.
"Thank you," he whispered. "Thank you, I--thank you."
From Danica he felt a wave of affectionate dismissal--it's nothing, you're family, of course--and then she nosed at his side, sniffing around. And what did you make for me, then?
Eric laughed, wiping his face briefly with his hand, and opened the paper bag he'd put the pie crust cookies in. Danica stuck her nose in and tore the bag open with a decisive shake of her head, then snapped up a couple of cookies.
"Looks like that's going all right, then," Cousin Russ said, and Eric jerked a little and looked up at him. Cousin Russ was smiling gently. He tilted his head. "Come on, then, you ain't movin' in there until the pups are weaned. Don't think your brother's even old enough to bond properly yet, is he?"
Eric looked down, thinking at that spark, but shook his head. He'd felt something, but it was only the earliest beginning.
"Come on, then," Cousin Russ repeated. "I think you and I have have a thing or two to talk about, and I'm not eatin' this pie all by myself, either."
Eric nodded, and took Cousin Russ's hand when he offered it, letting himself be pulled to his feet. Following Cousin Russ out of the bedroom closet, the bed was in front of him--a king, neatly made. There were nightstands on both sides.
There were lamps and phone docks on both nightstands. Eric looked down--saw the two bins of shoes--and his gaze jerked next to Cousin Russ, who was standing a couple of steps away, watching him. Eric looked at the bed again, feeling like he was seeing something else entirely, then back to Cousin Russ.
"Yeah," he said quietly. "Yeah, my sister's not the only one who likes some privacy. Come on, Dicky, let's sit."
Eric nodded and followed Cousin Russ out of his--his and someone else's--bedroom, back to the kitchen. There were two slices of pie already on plates, two cups of coffee already poured. Cousin Russ sat by one, and Eric dropped into the other chair, feeling like his knees might not have supported him any farther. He reached for the milk and sugar without thinking, mixing plenty of both into his coffee before he took a fortifying gulp.
Cousin Russ took a bite of the pie and closed his eyes, smiling as he chewed. That steadied Eric a little, as he felt the same glow of satisfaction he always felt at someone enjoying his pie. He managed to set his coffee down and settled a little more firmly in his seat, still struggling to think of what to ask.
Cousin Russ spoke first, eyes down on his pie. "His name's Jim. He's--he hasn't got a brother."
For a second Eric just wondered what it mattered that Cousin Russ's--boyfriend? partner?--was an only child, and then he realized what brother meant here. He felt his eyes widen.
Cousin Russ flicked a glance up, snorted softly, and nodded before taking another bite of pie. "Yeah," he said finally. "That's why. It'd be fine with everybody--or, well, closer to fine--if we were shieldmates. If it was because of the wolves. But me and Jim, we're just... just for us. Doesn't stop everyone assuming I'm the one getting--"
Eric made a tiny noise, and Cousin Russ stopped short, watching him. Eric dropped his own gaze, taking a tiny bite of pie, then another big swallow of coffee.
"Anyway," Cousin Russ said. "I'm not making any assumptions--"
Eric couldn't help a snort, and Cousin Russ laughed a little. Eric grinned, trying to hide it behind his hands, but not trying very hard.
"Yeah, okay, I'm making some assumptions," Cousin Russ said. "Danica's not totally clear on how this stuff works for humans, but she's even worse at keeping secrets from me, you know? But we don't have to talk about that, and it doesn't have to be about that. She's convinced that you and Pecan pie are gonna need each other, and I'm not about to argue with that. No one is. I just want you to be real clear on the fact that it's not just the two of you, okay? You're both a part of this family. This pack."
Eric thought for a moment of what it would be like to face down the varsity football team with a wolf at his side. He wouldn't end up locked in a closet, for damn sure. It wouldn't make them not want to, necessarily, but... maybe that would be enough, for the next few years. And he'd have Cousin Russ--and Cousin Russ's... Jim...--to talk to, and...
"Oh, Lord," Eric said, realizing how much further that secret might spread. "The... the rest of the litter, who... will they..."
Cousin Russ grimaced. "The other three are promised to their sire's pack. And I guess maybe it's not obvious from the outside, but me and Danica, we're not exactly tight with the rest of the Phelps pack. In the old days she's the type who would gone west to start a new branch of the pack someplace else. A queen wolf, they called them, in the North."
Eric understood that when Cousin Russ said North, he didn't mean the other side of the Mason-Dixon line; he meant the snowy country trellwolves came from, a thousand years ago.
"So the pack you're getting--I'm not saying you won't have a place in the big pack, because you certainly will, but day to day, it might be more me and Danica."
"And Jim?" Eric felt daring saying the man's name, even though Cousin Russ had told him; even though the man was family, as good as. Family Eric had never known of until now. "How long have the two of you...? And, Lord, what's his favorite kind of pie?"
Cousin Russ laughed a little, looking startled by the question--like even he, even knowing the thing neither of them said aloud about Eric, hadn't expected Eric to see Jim as someone just as deserving of Eric's baking as Russ himself was. "Uh, chocolate, I think? Chocolate chess pie, is that right?"
"Well, it's definitely a kind of pie, I wouldn't know if it's his favorite," Eric said. "But once he's had mine, it just might be."
Cousin Russ laughed, and the conversation got easier after that.
Eric returned home barely in time for dinner. He was ready to apologize for not being around to help when he stepped inside, only to be met by his mother's beaming, hopeful face, and Coach looking quietly approving, almost smug.
The ease and openness of the day spent with Cousin Russ collapsed into the long-familiar need to hide. His parents were happy because he was going to be a wolfbrother--to a boy wolf--and that meant he couldn't be what they'd been afraid he was. He'd be a hockey player for sure now, safe and sound.
Eric wanted to be angry, but he could see the relief in both of them, and he couldn't bear to tell them not to be happy about this. He was happy himself, after all. They weren't even properly bonded yet and Pecan pie was already the best thing that had ever happened to him.
There was fried chicken for dinner, which was usually a Sunday treat; clearly they were celebrating. Eric tried to just be happy, to believe his parents were happy in the same way that he was happy and they were all celebrating the same thing.
He didn't tell them Pecan pie's scent name. It felt like revealing something, like confessing to something, to tell them that Russ had known the pup was meant for Eric because of that name. Then they would know that he was going to have a brother because he was exactly what they were all afraid he was, not as a proof that he wasn't.
They did notice him not giving a name for his soon-to-be-brother, but Coach just said, "You have to name him, don't you? You choose?"
Eric nodded. They would name each other, in fact. Pecan pie would give Eric a scent name, and Eric would give him a spoken name.
"You're gonna be playing hockey in the fall," Coach said. "Maybe you oughta name him after a hockey player, huh? Russ, he named that sister of his when he was still thinking about going into racing."
"I'm sure Dicky can choose a name," Mama said, but she was giving him a hopeful look.
"I don't know yet," Eric said, looking down at his plate, trying to feel hungry with his stomach in knots. Would he have to give his brother a name that was a lie? Would he have to tell a lie every time he said his brother's name, forever? Their scent names could still tell the truth, at least, but...
"Well, I guess you got time," Coach said heartily. "Officially you can't get bonded till your birthday. I guess you'll be spending every spare minute at Russ's place, the next month or so."
Eric looked cautiously up from his plate. His parents were still smiling. They wanted this for him; of course they did. They wanted him to be a wolfbrother. They wanted it infinitely more than they'd ever wanted him to be a figure skater--and no matter how much it worried them, they'd spent the last eight years doing all they could to support his figure skating.
Russ had given him a key to the house and assured him that he'd be home continuously for the next three weeks. Just knock if Jim's car is here too, he'd said with a wink, and Eric had blushed nine shades of red and promised he would.
"If I got up early...?"
"You can't be missing any more school," Coach said, with the sort of cheerful sternness Eric usually only saw when he was talking to his football players. "And your mama's gonna need her car. But I figure we can work things out. I'll drive you over there tomorrow morning, early, and your mama can pick you up to take you to school."
"Thanks," Eric managed, and when he thought of seeing his brother and Danica and Russ first thing tomorrow morning, his smile was real. "Thanks, Coach. Thanks, Mama."
Eric visited as often as he could, and did all his homework for the next month at Cousin Russ's kitchen table. Jim did like Eric's chocolate chess pie, and they had a long talk about what was and was not key lime pie that ended with Eric getting Jim's grandma's recipe written out on an index card. He made a pie from the recipe in their kitchen the next day, when he'd had a chance to get ingredients, and Jim looked like he might cry with happiness when he walked in the door and smelled it.
For the first two weeks, Eric just visited Pecan pie in the walk-in closet birthing den, but by the middle of April the pups had grown big enough to be running everywhere. Pecan pie didn't seem to much care for the pouncing games that his brothers played, and would scamper over to Eric when he'd had enough. Eric always picked him up and cuddled him, wishing he'd been able to do the same whenever he was getting jostled by a bunch of boys twice his size or stuck in a gym class with half the football team.
He'd just scooped up his brother out of the grass, one day near the end of April, when his brother nuzzled at his cheek and Eric was suddenly overwhelmed with a scent: syrup-sweet peaches and the steel of a chef's knife, or maybe a skate blade.
Eric blinked down at Pecan pie, and the pup gave a sharp little bark, wagging his whole hind end as well as his tail. He closed his milk teeth on Eric's fingers, in case he hadn't gotten the message.
His brother had given him a name: Peaches and steel.
Eric grinned down at the pup through eyes full of silly tears, and said, "Well, I guess you've never met a magnolia, have you? But that suits me just fine."
The pup wriggled, looking up at him hopefully, and Eric hugged him closer. "I don't know yet," he whispered, because he couldn't say, I know I have to name you something awfully butch and I'm just putting it off.
Pecan pie squirmed down to perch on Eric's knees a while, and then launched himself down to the grass again to chase after his brothers. He wasn't worried; he trusted Eric to give him a name as right as the one he'd given Eric. He was a wolf, and a little one at that. He had no idea how other people could reach in between them and twist their bond just by expecting things.
He wasn't going to know, Eric decided right then. He wasn't ever going to know that anyone could make Eric be anything other than exactly and truly his brother. As long as Eric had his wolf, what did it matter what anyone else thought of him?
But he still couldn't think of a name, and when Coach came by to pick him up and go home for dinner, there was a big almost-familiar box on the passenger seat of his truck. New skates: hockey skates.
"Got 'em sharpened for you and everything," Coach said. "Figured you'll want to get some ice time in and get used to them before you're tryin' out for the team in Madison."
It was a co-ed club team. Eric was pretty sure they didn't have try-outs. On the other hand, he didn't want to introduce himself to his new teammates by falling all over himself on the ice in an unfamiliar pair of skates.
He nodded, swallowing hard, and got in the truck, balancing the skates on his lap. He was pretty sure it wasn't just his imagination that they weighed twice as much as his old skates. They would hold him down to the ice for sure, slowing him down, never letting him jump again.
For a second everything just felt newly impossible, and then Coach said, "I figure... after your birthday, once you've got your brother with you and don't need to be coming up to Russ's all the time, we can schedule you some ice time. Katya said she can get you time in some gaps here and there, and we can get the old truck running so you can drive yourself once you've got your license."
Eric just looked over at Coach for a solid minute, his throat painfully tight, his heart gone all tender the way it did over Pecan pie sometimes. Coach might be trying to steer him toward what he wanted Eric to be, but he was being awfully generous about it, and he'd called Katya and gone and got the skates early so they weren't even a birthday present--the truck might be, or the ice time, but there was something else beyond that.
Eric would be a little bit free, with the truck to drive and his brother for company and the excuse of irregular ice time and visits to Russ. He didn't know what on earth he'd do with that freedom other than... skate and visit with Russ, but he could, not even two weeks from now. Coach was giving him that.
"Thanks," Eric managed. "I can, uh... I can help with the truck tonight? I got my homework done at Russ's already."
Coach nodded. "I picked up a new battery and a couple tires, once we get that taken care of it might not need much else."
Eric nodded and mumbled a "Yes, sir," even though that wasn't really an answer.
Coach reached over and ruffled his hair, gently, and didn't even complain afterward about getting product on his fingers, just grimaced a little and wiped his hand on his jeans. Eric didn't even bother trying to fix his hair until after they were home.
Eric's birthday fell on a Thursday, but it was pretty obvious, even before he opened his birthday card at breakfast to find he was scheduled for ice time from 11-12:15, that he was going to be allowed to skip school. Mama took him up to the DMV in Athens first thing, and Eric brought along birthday mini pies, so he was fourth in line when they got there and first by the time the doors actually opened.
It took barely an hour to get through the whole process, and then Eric was in possession of an actual license with his (not too bad, if he did say so himself) photo on it. Mama drove him home then, so he could get the truck, and she hugged him tight and told him to enjoy the rest of the day and to be home on time for dinner.
Eric promised he would and then lit out for Cousin Russ's place, because now that he was sixteen he was officially old enough to really bond. Pecan pie was six weeks old, so he was old enough too, even if Danica wouldn't really start to wean the pups for another couple of weeks. Eric still didn't even know what he was going to name his brother, but maybe it would be obvious when they were really bonded. Maybe...
Eric snapped out of a kaleidoscope of half-formed daydreams about his future with his brother to find that he was pulling in to the drive, and Pecan pie was already bounding across the yard toward him. Eric hastily parked and tumbled out of the truck as if he'd never learned a single thing about controlling his limbs. He barely made it to the grass before he fell to his knees, and Pecan pie was there, jumping up onto his thighs, licking at Eric's face and throat.
There was a sharp little scratch of milk teeth down Eric's jaw, but it only made him tighten his hands in Pecan pie's fur. His nose was flooded with the scent of Peaches and steel and one single thought echoing back and forth: Mine mine my brother mine.
He opened his eyes when Pecan pie gave an eager little puppy-bark, and looked up to see Cousin Russ standing there with Danica leaning against his leg. Eric realized he was grinning and there were tears running from his eyes at the same time. He laughed, and it sounded shaky and yet he knew he'd never been happier in his life and maybe never would be again; he could feel his brother's presence, and he understood now how desperately he'd needed this.
He would never be alone again.
After another couple of minutes Eric remembered that he had about half an hour before he needed to leave for his ice time, and that he wasn't taking Pecan pie home with him yet.
Eric looked to Cousin Russ again, this time in horror, and he felt Russ and Danica's reactions--fond amusement and reassurance--even before he could blink his eyes clear enough to see them properly.
"Lucky for you, pup," Russ said. "We knew what was like to happen here. I'll give you a ride to the rink, and Danica and the pups can ride along. That do for you?"
Eric couldn't speak, but he didn't have to; he nodded frantically, pushing Yes and thank you thank you thank you through the brand-new pack sense.
Stepping into the rink after nearly two months away felt like coming home, and at the same time it was a wholly new experience filtered through his brother's puppy senses. The bright artificial lights, the scent of the ice, the chill in the air, all were fascinating to Pecan pie, who had his paws up on Eric's shoulder as he looked eagerly around.
Eric's other shoulder carried the bag with his skates and helmet inside; he figured that was enough new equipment to try on his first time out, and he could add the rest of his pads and the stick once he was used to these. He sat down on a bench near the entrance to the ice to get the unfamiliar skates on, while Russ and Danica herded the other three pups straight out onto the ice--the easiest place to keep them corralled and away from strangers.
Pecan pie glanced after his mother and brothers, then plunked himself next to Eric's feet, sniffing at Eric's skates as Eric laced them up. They were heavy and unfamiliar and ungraceful, but even so it felt good to be in skates again; he tried to focus on that, on what was the same, instead of what was different. Even as a newly-minted wolfbrother, even in hockey skates, Eric was still himself. He just had a few extra layers of armor between him and everybody else.
Pecan pie growled, only half playfully. I'll protect you.
I know you will, Eric assured his brother, who weighed twenty pounds and didn't even come up to Eric's knee once the skates were on. He pushed all his sincere certainty behind that thought; Pecan pie really would protect him from a lot, just by existing, and by the end of the summer his brother would have grown enough to be a force to reckon with.
"Come on," Eric said out loud. "Let's get to the ice."
Pecan pie gave a bright little bark, his whole back end wiggling with the enthusiasm of his tail-wagging, and he all but ran circles around Eric as he clumped the last ten yards to the ice in his new skates. He would have worried about stepping on his brother, or kicking him, but it was an impossibility; each of them knew exactly where the other was every second, as if both their bodies were shared equally between them. Pecan pie, even as puppy-clumsy as he was, never quite got in Eric's way.
When they reached the ice, Eric had to laugh at the spectacle the other three pups were making, sliding and tumbling over each other. Pecan pie leaped out onto the ice immediately, instantly skidding as his feet got away from him. Eric was grinning as he yanked his skate guards off and followed, gliding over to pick his brother up and set him on his feet again. Pecan pie immediately tried to run toward his brothers, who were all fumbling in their direction, and Eric shook his head and hoisted him up again, letting his feet just barely touch the ice as he paddled across it.
Eric let go when they reached the other pups, and he looked around for Russ and Danica, who were both standing near the entrance to the ice, holding carefully and sensibly still. That was when Eric realized he'd skated the whole width of the ice in hockey skates without even noticing. He looked down at his feet in their big ugly black skates.
They were still skates, no matter what. He could still do this.
He pushed off, curving around parallel to the boards so he could skate a lap of the rink. He meant to go slowly, to feel things out, but he'd barely made it a quarter of the way around before he was gaining speed. His center of gravity was different, but his body adjusted automatically. The ice still slid away under his feet; he could still fly.
He'd barely thought it before he was swinging around to skate backward. He stumbled a little before he found his center again and started picking up speed, aiming himself away from the puppies, toward the wide open space of center ice.
Eric closed his eyes and launched into a jump: an easy one, one he'd been able to land without fail since he was eight years old. A double axel.
He didn't get much height, and his form wasn't perfect, but for just a moment he was suspended in air, spinning on his own axis. For a moment, he really did fly.
He landed it, sort of, but then he lurched, throwing his arms out as he tried to find his balance on the new skates. His senses were flooded by his brother's joy in the ice and joy in him, his excitement at what Eric had done, taking flight. In Eric's own body, he lost his balance entirely and smacked down to the ice, and only then did he remember to open his eyes.
He was already gathering himself to jump right back up onto his skates--and already aware that he might just overbalance and fall right back off them--when Pecan pie came sliding over, crashing into Eric's side.
You flew, you flew!
Eric hugged him close. We flew, Eric corrected him, because he couldn't have done this, not any of it, without his brother.
And then he knew his brother's name. That's you. Flying like that, that's what you are for me. Axel.
His brother barked triumphantly, and Eric said it out loud, grinning as he pulled the pup to his chest. "Axel. My brother, Axel. Oh Lord, you're gonna be Ax for short."
It didn't get much more butch than that--and yet he'd be a figure skater's wolf, right there in his name. Hiding and not hiding, all at once. Because with Axel at his side, Eric could be exactly who he was, and never have to bear it alone. With Axel he could fly.
I told you. Axel was full of pride and triumph, singing hot and bright through their bond. I told you I'd protect you.