Don't feel like you have to eat everything'.
Rhydian, his mouth still half-full of shredded chicken, glanced up from his plate to fix Adam with the most menacing lupine stare he could muster.
'Ah, let the young wolf feast'.
As one, both men's heads swivelled to regard Sarah, who'd spoken in a voice as bright and innocent as ever, casually dangling her champagne flute between her fingertips. They'd returned from the Chilterns not ten minutes before to find a banquet prepared in Rhydian's honour, Sarah having apparently passed their brief absence in an orgy of shopping and cooking. It was her coping mechanism. 'Whenever you're anxious or scared', she'd told him once, years ago, when a violent thunderstorm had caused him to wake up screaming, 'the best thing to do is to find someone who's even more afraid than you are, and help them'. Rhydian could still remember her face as she'd sat perched on his bed that night, so tired and yet so full of life. 'The braver you act, the calmer you'll feel'. From the table now spread before him, stacked near to breaking as it was with every conceivable form of livestock one could reasonably slaughter, Sarah had guessed – correctly, he supposed – that learning the truth of his situation had come as an even greater shock to Rhydian than it had to her.
'He's only a wolf occasionally, dear', wheedled Adam, in that voice characteristic of a husband trying to put things with as much delicacy as is reasonably consistent with keeping his dignity intact. It never works, and this attempt of Adam's was no exception. Perhaps sensing this, he hastily cleared his throat, and continued, more sternly, 'and all this meat is bad for his digestion'.
As luck would have it, Rhydian's stomach took this as its cue to send the most monstrously large burp hurtling up his oesophagus, which his mouth, being open in readiness to respond to Adam's point, was powerless to prevent from escaping with huge reverberation.
'See?' exclaimed Adam, thrusting his knife towards Rhydian so suddenly that the latter almost leapt out of chair, though he was in fact merely being pointed to.
Sarah however was unperturbed. 'Gas in teenage boys is a sign of health', she replied matter-of-factly, dismissing Adam's complaint with a wave. 'No sense in hiding what you are'. She allowed herself another sip, then abruptly changed her mind, gargling briefly before finally remembering to swallow. Eyes wide, she set her glass down carefully and turned to face Rhydian, a familiar gleam of mischief dancing across her face. 'That reminds me', she said, wiping her mouth on her sleeve, 'I was speaking to Nadia the other day: my counterpart from Chingford and Wood Green. She and her husband have this dog: guard dog, German shepherd, very good pedigree. Well, it just so happens this is the time of year when they get uh, well, pregnant, if they can, and it seems Lily, or Lizzie or whatever her name is, has come into heat'. Sarah's smirk erupted into an all-out maniacal grin, accompanied by a wink so sensual Rhydian was just barely able to keep from gasping. 'Thought you'd be interested', she intoned, devilishly.
Rhydian, who knew Sarah well enough to be able guess from midway through her anecdote where it was heading, had no sooner opened his mouth to deliver the witty riposte he'd prepared than he immediately began choking on the piece of lamb he'd stopped chewing in order to listen to her.
'Now look what you've done!' whined Adam as he leapt from his chair, grasping Rhydian by the shoulders.
'What?' cried Sarah indignantly as she rose to her feet. She gave Rhydian a solid thump in the small of his back, the offending fragment of chop splattered into the bookcase on the far side of the room, and the two resumed their seats, staring daggers at each other. 'I find out my foster son belongs to the legions of the undead and I'm not allowed the odd sex joke? Anyway', she continued with feigned innocence, 'I've always said he could do with finding himself a girlfriend. This seems like the perfect opportunity'.
'He isn't a dog, Sarah, and he's not undead'. As Adam said this, neither he nor Sarah had so much as glanced at Rhydian, who having flung himself over the back of his seat was now gasping violently for air.
'And any…way', he huffed out between breaths, causing them to regard him with interest at last, 'I'm not…ready to…be a…father'.
As usual Adam failed to find humour in this remark, but Sarah's titillated laugh was sweet and refreshing. 'Don't worry', she said, patting him warmly on the wrist. 'I have it on good authority Nadia wants puppies. I'm sure she'll take good care of them'.
Sarah and Rhydian then exchanged a knowing smile: a smile that said so much. That he was sorry, that she knew; that it wasn't his fault, that it wasn't hers, either. Everything about Sarah tonight - the highness of her cheekbones, the soft glint in her eye, the confident set of her shoulders and her relaxed manner – all told Rhydian what he most needed to know: that she was back, that she would be there for him, too, in her own way, no matter what it took. All of a sudden Rhydian felt full: in his stomach, and (though he felt a fool for thinking it) in his heart, also. The food, he decided, would keep until tomorrow: his nerves having been calmed, he need no longer look for comfort save in the two brave, compassionate faces that regarded him on either hand.
'Do you think', he began hesitantly, his eyes darting from Adam to Sarah before settling on the rim of his mostly-empty plate, 'I mean, do you s'pose…it's possible I could…be immortal?' The question, he realised, had been playing on his mind since forever, rumbling just below the surface, never able to pass his lips until now.
Adam lifted his head as if scanning a faraway horizon, his breathing deep and slow. 'I think it's unlikely, Rhydian', he said eventually. 'Nothing in nature lasts forever. And despite what the books and movies may say', here he directed his gaze pointedly at Sarah, who waggled her eyebrows, 'you're every bit as natural as the rest of us. Though as to how long you'll live – whether it's more time or less time than most people get – who can say? It's yet another thing we simply don't know'.
'Better get making babies, pronto', Sarah interjected, exploding all trace of seriousness in trademark fashion. 'According to Doctor Doom here, you could be ready to kick the bucket any second'.
'Is that possible?' said Rhydian quickly, before Adam could react. 'I mean, if I was to…fall in love – with a woman – would we be able to…have kids together?'
'It's probably best not to think too far ahead, Rhydian', replied Adam loudly, silencing Sarah who had been about to offer her own views on the matter. 'I would suggest for the time being you focus on coming to terms with what you are, and with how it's going to affect your life. That should be more than enough…dilemmas, to keep you occupied'.
'He's right, Rhyddo'. Sarah sighed long and deeply: a parody of mourning. 'Much as I hate to admit it, you're kind of on your own as far as the whole werewolf thing goes. And keeping secrets, well, that's no orgasm, believe me'. (This was the Sarah equivalent of saying: that's no fun). 'They say in my job you should trust no one. Do that, and sooner or later you go cuckoo. Which probably explains the behaviour of most MPs. But a secret like yours? Well, let's just say you're going to have to be very, very careful about who you choose to reveal yourself to. And always use protection'.
Adam and Rhydian exchanged blank stares.
'What?' protested Sarah as usual, idly swigging champagne. 'He's a fine-looking, healthy young man. We don't want an unexpected litter of wolf cubs giving him away now, do we?'
Adam huffed; it was the sort of reaction he had when he came as close as he ever did to losing his temper. 'He's also a very sensible young man, Sarah', he said, as icily as he could manage. 'I'm sure he's mature enough not to –'
'There you go again!' yelled Sarah, thrusting an accusatory index finger forward. 'Mature this, sensible that. He's a wolf, for god's sake: a creature of passion. Stop trying to neuter
'I am not!' As always happened when Adam tried to sound indignant, his reply came out as a half-shout, half-whine. He turned to Rhydian, a pleading look in his eyes. 'I'm not trying to neuter you, am I, Rhydian?'
Rhydian smirked, not looking at either foster parent. They were both being stupid: it was an argument neither of them deserved to win. 'Yes', he sighed, the look he gave Adam the same as the one teachers use on their most hopelessly errant pupils. 'But,' he continued quickly, glancing at Sarah, 'at least you're not trying to breed me'.
Sarah's expression, briefly triumphant, morphed with disquieting smoothness into a scowl which promised fitting vengeance to be exacted in due course.
'Anyway', said Rhydian casually, hastily looking away, 'I don't know about wolves being more passionate than people. I reckon we're a lot more…calculating, than you think we are'.
Sarah arched an eyebrow. 'Spoken like a true wolf', she intoned silkily.
And that, realised Rhydian with a start, was exactly what he was. A true wolf – or rather, a man who became one – not an ugly hybrid, a monstrous departure from the natural order. Rather, Nature in Rhydian Morris had taken two of her most noble creations – wolf and man – and interwoven their forms so seamlessly, with such pure precision and skill, that the result was more than the sum of its parts: neither creature being diminished by or diminishing the other. It was exactly as Adam had said. What he alone possessed – his superhuman abilities, the powerful beast in whose form he could escape – were a gift, a privilege even. How could he ever have thought them otherwise? A troubling thought struck him: was he worthy of such an honour; did he deserve, in fact, to be favoured with such a magnificent and secret treasure? Well, only time would tell. But for now, Rhydian felt liberated. At peace with himself. He smiled: thinly at first, yet all the while he could feel the corners of his mouth turning up, lips parting to expose gleaming white teeth. Who would ever have guessed a day that had begun in such frightening fashion would end with him glad to be a werewolf; happy that this man, who'd raised him as his only son, and this woman, who feared and adored him in equal measure, were to show him the most profound love of all by setting him free? Free to be his true self – and with their shouts of blessing ringing in his furry, pointed ears!
'What are you thinking about, Rhydian?'
Rhydian turned to face Adam, perfectly aware that he'd been grinning like an idiot, yet strangely unembarrassed. 'I was just thinking', he began slowly, eyes darting from Adam to Sarah and back again, 'we're…we're sort of…like a pack, aren't we? I mean, we're not related, but we…. strengthen each other. Feed off one another'.
Now it was Adam's turn to smile hugely. 'Of course, Rhydian, of course we are!' he said, breathlessly. Then he looked across the table, and for once the expected, tension-slicing quip from Sarah failed to arrive: she was staring at Rhydian with a look of unconcealed awe. Wordlessly the three of them joined hands, and sat, each looking from one companion to the next, experiencing for the first time – and as few humans ever do – the true wonder of each other; the sheer, unimpeachable joy of togetherness.
None could afterwards say how long the moment had lasted, but when it was over Adam was the first to speak, a look of sorrow etched into the hard lines of his face. 'I just…wish there was some way our pack could stay together', he sobbed, though no tears fell. 'Rather than…being torn apart like this'.
Rhydian shook his head, his face serene and boyish. 'We'll never be torn apart', he said confidently. 'Not really. Not ever'.