"What the fuck took you so long?" Jack was ducked down in the back of Shitty's beat-up car, pulling on the clothes Shitty had brought for him. They were parked behind a strip mall down the road from the shelter. "You realize that if somebody had wanted to adopt me, they seriously would have tried to neuter me."
"Okay, one, you're the one who got to school a week before anyone else. I didn't even know to start looking! And two, how the fuck did you wind up in fucking Sharon, of all places? You never go that far when you're shifted. You're lucky I even found this place; I'd already called like fifteen shelters and went to check out a definitely not you husky at one of them yesterday."
Jack sighed and sat up to pull a t-shirt over his head. "The guy who caught me apparently didn't think to take the dog he found to a shelter in the town where he found it. His mom lives in Sharon, he took me to her vet to check for a microchip and then to the shelter he was closest to at that moment."
"I can't believe you let some dude catch you." Shitty said, shaking his head as he started the car.
"I was asleep when he snuck up on me," Jack explained as he climbed over the back of the passenger seat. "Just in the fucking woods out back, definitely on our property. We need to put up more No Trespassing signs. Anyhow, I ran, but his buddy was hiding in the opposite direction from him and tossed a blanket over me when I got near him. Then once I tripped and got tangled in it they tackled me."
Shitty let out a low whistle. "They're lucky you're a fucking Were and not a normal dog, that sounds like an excellent way to get mauled half to death."
"No shit." Jack shook his head. "I nearly bit them anyhow, I was so shocked. If I could've shifted that night I could have snuck out of his apartment, but you know how I get when my anxiety acts up, and I was definitely panicking. Then the shelter padlocks all the pens as soon as the staff go home at night, so unless I wanted to shift into a naked guy in the middle of the day in a busy animal shelter…"
"Well hey," Shitty said with a knowing grin, "look on the bright side. At least that dude took you to the shelter with Bitty. What the hell's going on there, man? He's definitely your type."
"I regret ever coming out to you," Jack said with a sigh.
They'd only had that conversation a few weeks ago—Jack had gone to a couple of prospect camps over the summer, and realized with some finality that he didn't want to go to the NHL. It would suck to be a public figure while hiding that he was a Were, but there were actually a lot in hockey, mostly due to the fact that there were more Weres in northern climates, so that wasn't a dealbreaker. But that plus hiding his sexuality, especially when he was pretty sure that his interest in women was entirely sexual and he was going to want to settle down with a guy long-term… that was a lot. Too much. Spending even just a couple of weeks in that kind of environment had been unhealthy and, what's more, unpleasant. He'd barely enjoyed the hockey he was playing because he was so miserable off the ice, and he'd realized that while he wanted to play hockey, he didn't want to do it under those conditions.
His father was surprisingly supportive. He'd encouraged Jack to think about putting up with it for a couple of years, just until his first contract was up so he could take the money and run. Jack had said he'd think about it, and he supposed it was still an option. But he was sure enough of his decision that he'd talked it over with Shitty, and that meant coming out to him.
Ever since, he'd felt a strange lightness every time he thought about it—he was free. Not free of hockey, he'd never want that. But free of all the shackles playing in the NHL would keep him in, ones that he'd already felt tightening.
He could date a guy if he wanted.
He could date Bitty if he wanted.
If Bitty wanted.
"He goes to Samwell," Jack muttered, looking firmly out the window.
"Fucking what?" Shitty hit the brakes a little too hard as they approached a red light, and Jack remembered why he didn't usually let the Masshole drive them anywhere. "Are you serious, brah? Dude, we gotta get Ransom on some serious Facebook stalking here. Jack-o, this was clearly meant to be. You get kidnapped and taken to some random-ass shelter a half hour away, where there just happens to be this adorable shelter worker who's exactly your type and who just happens to go to Samwell? Right after you've decided to change your life around just so you can date dudes? C'mon."
Jack could feel his cheeks burning.
"I like him," he admitted, still looking out the window. "He talked to me a lot. He's really interesting. Plus, he, uh… he wears these really short shorts sometimes. He's… got a nice ass."
It felt like he had to tear every word from his throat. He reminded himself that if he were into a girl, they'd talk about her just like this. This was exactly how he should talk to Shitty about someone he liked. It was fine.
"…And how did he smell?" Shitty asked, far too knowingly. The grin he gave Jack made Jack hide his face further.
He was not ready to admit to Shitty how good Bitty had actually smelled. That he'd smelled like mate. That Jack had wanted to curl up in it and never leave. That he missed the smell already.
"Really good," Shitty repeated, still grinning. "Really good, huh?"
"He's a Nawolf," Jack said, sharper than he meant to. "And trust me, he has no idea Weres exist. If I ever ran into him on campus and if I managed to get a date with him, he'd probably bolt when he found out what I really am. He's cute, I like him, I'm interested, but let's keep expectations low here."
"Fine, fine," Shitty said and mercifully changed the subject. "Y'know, maybe we should all get microchipped…"
"…it's made with honey instead of table sugar, actually. I was reading how they used to make 'em like that during World War II, what with the sugar rationing and all."
"Were you, now?"
"Yes, ma'am. I've got the textbook, and it just looks amazing. I know this class isn't offered every year so I just want to be absolutely sure I can fit it in, just in case it's not offered again before I graduate. I'll admit, I'm not always the best student, but Lord, I've already read five chapters of that book, and some classes I barely manage that much all semester!"
Professor Atley smiled. "Well, I do like to reward enthusiasm. But you need to understand that as a senior-level seminar, this class will have higher expectations than a lot of the other classes in the department, so I hope that enthusiasm will continue."
"Oh, absolutely, Professor Atley! If there were ever a class I was ready to give a hundred and ten percent to, it's this one!" Eric sure hoped she could see how sincere he was and didn't think he was just laying it on thick. The truth was, if he could build a major out of classes exactly like this he'd be set. Well, if he could do that and also replace all the gen ed requirements with more classes exactly like this. Then he'd be set.
"All right, let's see how you do."
After thanking her profusely, he turned around to find a seat. As it was a small senior seminar, the students were seated around a large table instead of in rows of seats, and most of the chairs were full. He headed for the first empty seat he laid eyes on.
He was halfway there before he realized that it was right beside the the captain of Samwell's men's hockey team. The extremely handsome captain of the hockey team. Jack Zimmermann, who was about 1/3 of the reason Eric had kept going to hockey games last year.
Jack Zimmermann, who was looking right at Eric as he approached. And smiling like he was happy to see him. Which was ridiculous, since Eric had never talked to the guy in his life. He'd been to one party at the hockey Haus, and Jack hadn't even made an appearance. One of Jack's teammates had said something about him being upstairs "getting sucked off by a Zimmermann puck bunny"—and boy, Eric did not need to think about that in the middle of class. But he'd also overheard another hockey bro, one who sounded less bitter and sarcastic, say that Jack didn't like parties and had gone upstairs to read.
At any rate, he was probably looking at someone behind Eric. Or something.
By the time Eric got to the seat, it was undeniable—Jack was looking directly at him and grinning, like seeing Eric had made his day.
"This seat open?" Eric asked, nodding at the empty chair.
Jack blinked, then looked down at the chair like it had just appeared. "Oh! Yeah, yeah." He pushed it out, inviting Eric to sit, so he did. "Hi," Jack said once he was seated. He was still looking at Eric with a slightly dopey grin; between that and the intensity of those eyes, Eric willed himself not to blush.
"Um, hi," Eric said. He held out his hand. "I'm Eric."
"Eric," Jack repeated, leaning in to shake his hand. Whatever soap or shampoo or aftershave or something he was wearing hit Eric, and he suddenly wanted to bury his nose in Jack's neck. How dare an athlete smell that good? "Right. I'm Jack."
"I know," Eric blurted out, then he really did blush. "I mean, I've been to a few of your hockey games. You're the captain, right?"
"Yeah—" Before Jack could elaborate, Professor Atley cleared her throat and class started. Eric turned away from Jack reluctantly, but that scent—vaguely familiar, though he couldn't quite place it—lingered in his nostrils.
"He bribed his way into the class with a pie. I mean, he talked about baking a lot at the shelter, but he brought an actual pie, that he baked from scratch, to class and gave it to the professor."
"Takes some chutzpah," Shitty commented as they crossed the quad. "I like this kid. You should marry him."
Jack sighed. "Shut up, Shits. Look, maybe I'll ask him out eventually. But for right now, I need to figure out how to have a conversation with him without letting on that I know all this shit about him I shouldn't know. Or, like, accidentally calling him Bitty."
"Or you could take the direct approach. Hey, you remember that amazing dog you met a few weeks ago? The one you maybe felt like you had some freaky connection with, even though you're clearly a perfectly normal person who is not in any way into bestiality?"
Jack grabbed Shitty's sunglasses right off his face and tossed them across the grass. "Fetch, Shits."
He made it almost all the way back to the Haus before Shitty caught up to him.
"Not even remotely bordering on cool, brah," Shitty said, ramming his shoulder into Jack's as they started up the porch steps. "Especially considering how I was about to help you out with your boy trouble."
"Oh, really?" Jack asked. "What sort of help were you about to offer?"
"Uh, duh." Shitty slipped into the Haus ahead of Jack. "He doesn't know he met you this summer, but guess who he does know he met."
Jack paused. "Ohhh." Maybe Shitty actually could be useful.
"Yeah, ohhh. I'll swing by when your class gets out sometime next week."
Jack frowned as they ascended the stairs. "But you shouldn't know much more about him than I do. What, like… his nickname, and that he works at an animal shelter?"
Shitty reached the top first, and turned around to fix Jack with a look. "Jackabelle, my love. Light of my life. If someone were to ask me who, between the two of us, had a better slapshot, the answer would clearly be you. Which of us is more likely to win a faceoff—you again. Who has the better ass—definitely you."
"While I'm flattered," Jack said as they reached Shitty's bedroom door, "do you have a point?"
"I'm getting there. The point is, out of the two of us, who is more likely to deftly guide a conversation with your cute shelter worker-slash-baker to ensure that he tells you-you all the things he told dog-you this summer?"
Jack considered this. "Point taken."
After promising to make a list of everything he shouldn't know about Bitty but did, Jack retreated to his bedroom.
He was safe shifting to his dog form in the comfort of his own home. Everyone on the team knew Weres existed, and most were Weres themselves, including everyone living in the Haus. Samwell was the only hockey team in the NCAA with policies in place to protect them.
Jack knew it was why he'd felt so stifled at the prospect camps that summer. In the Q, it had never seemed like a huge deal to hide it, to never shift unless he was back at his parents' house. But now that he'd had a taste of real freedom—never having to live with only half of himself, never having to hide from his teammates and closest friends, never going a week without shifting—it felt unnatural to hide. Going to the NHL would mean giving up half of himself for long periods of time.
He was lying on his bed chewing on a deer antler when the dog door to the bathroom nudged open and Shitty came scooting through in his dog form—a long-haired miniature dachshund. He was dragging his favorite rope toy, which he deposited at the bottom of Jack's bed before looking up hopefully.
Jack glared at him. He thought he'd convinced Shitty that this was a bad idea—that he should play tug with anyone in the Haus other than its largest dog resident.
Jack barked at Shitty, but Shitty just shook the rope and growled. With a sigh, Jack bent down over the side of his bed, grabbed the other end of the rope in his teeth, and slowly stood up on the bed. Shitty whimpered, eyes wide, as Jack pulled him up onto his back legs and finally right up off the floor. Jack had half a mind to just drop him, but placed him carefully back on the ground to protect that long back. He dropped the rope and shifted back to human form.
"Shitty, seriously. Playing tug with you isn't even fun. Call Lardo."
"Lard's in studio all night," Shitty pouted, sulking on Jack's floor.
"Already? The term just started!"
"Hey," Shitty said, shaking the rope at Jack as he stood up, "the muse does not obey an academic timeline. C'mon, man, just one round?"
"I have to be too careful! Go play tug with a kitten and tell me how much fun you have."
Shitty stalked back off to his room, grumbling. Jack shifted again and curled up on his bed, thinking about anything but Eric Bittle.