The first thing I hated about him was his smile. Nobody genuinely smiles that much. It’s fake. I don’t trust fake people; they tend to hide things. And Korban Keller was as fake as they came.
He was older than me. Not by much, just a few years. With our packs being relatively close in proximity, I had seen him a handful of times when we were boys.
My clearest memory of him back then was of his eyes—they were a rich navy, the color of the deepest part of the ocean. He had a weird habit of tracking me with those eyes, and I wondered if it was because he planned to attack me or if he was waiting to catch me making a mistake so he could call me out on it in front of everybody. Whatever the reason, it distracted me, so when we were in the same room, I struggled to focus on anything other than Korban watching me.
His father was Alpha of the Miancarem pack, which lived on the edge of the same forest as my pack, Yafenack. But where their pack lands started on the northern end of the forest and abutted a human town, ours began in the center and continued with dense woods protected by a wide spring on one end and a rocky mountain on the other. The humans built a highway on the other side of the creek, but it didn’t have an exit near our town, so we remained secluded and safe.
Even at age eight, I understood the Yafenack pack would be my responsibility one day. I needed to learn how to be a good Alpha, so I rarely left my father’s side. Korban was in line to be Alpha of his pack too, but he seemed to have no sense of duty.
My first time going to an interpack council meeting with my father, Korban walked right up to me and said, “Hi.”
It was weird.
After thinking about the best way to respond to the son of the Miancarem Alpha and eliminating a couple of options, I finally went with, “Hello.”
“I’m Korban Keller.” He smiled so broadly his nose crinkled a little. “What’s your name?”
I glanced up at my father to see if he could help me figure out how to deal with the unexpected interrogation, but he was busy talking with the other adults.
“I’m Samuel Goodwin,” I said eventually.
“How old are you, Sam?”
I hated being called Sam. I also hated being asked questions when I didn’t know why they were being asked. And I didn’t like people poking their noses in my business. But on the other hand, I worried it’d be considered rude if I didn’t answer. I’d have to work with this boy one day because I’d be Alpha of my pack, he’d be Alpha of his pack, and my father said getting along with people was important. I wasn’t sure why or if I agreed, but he was a smart man and I tried to listen to him.
“Cool. I’m eleven.”
He kept grinning and looking at me. I wondered if I was supposed to say something or if we were done talking and he’d go away so I could stop feeling nervous and focus on my dad’s conversation.
“You want to go play, Sam?”
“It’s Samuel!” I snapped.
His eyes widened in surprise, but that was his only reaction to my obvious annoyance. “Do you want to go play, Samuel?”
I looked him over and tried to figure out what he was doing.
“They have a football in the back.”
I stared at him.
“And the yard is really big.”
Big as in big enough that nobody would hear me if I got hurt? Was he threatening me?
“But if you don’t like football, they have checkers too.”
Why wouldn’t I be able to play football? I was one of the strongest boys in my grade and, yes, Korban was bigger than me, but that was only because he was older.
“If you like checkers.” He smiled again, but it wasn’t as big that time. There was something softer about it. “It’s okay if you don’t.”
Oh, so now I wasn’t strong enough for football and I wasn’t smart enough for checkers. The nerve of that guy!
“We can shift instead. I bet we can find good stuff to sniff when we’re in our wolf forms.”
The conversation made me uncomfortable. He made me uncomfortable. I felt off-balance and confused, which was probably exactly what he intended. No way was I wandering off with him away from my father and the other adults. No way.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to—”
“Go ahead, Samuel,” my father said.
Surprised he was listening to our conversation, I jerked my gaze up.
“I’m sure you’d much rather play outside with your new friend than stand in here listening to a bunch of boring old guys talk.” He winked at me, smiled, and then ruffled my hair as he said, “Go on.”
I growled a little, not happy about this turn of events. Why would my father send me off with someone who made me feel strange? It was probably more of his training about getting along well with others. He was constantly talking to me about that and asking who I hung out with at school and why I didn’t have friends over to the house.
“Fine,” I grunted. “We can shift.”
Football was okay. Checkers too. But I was stronger in my wolf form, always had been. It was easier to follow my instincts as a wolf, and I wasn’t hampered by the constant questions I had in my human form about what I was supposed to say or do, neither of which came naturally to me.
“Great!” Korban grabbed my hand and yanked me toward the door. “Let’s go.”
Shocked that he was touching me, I could only follow speechlessly while my mind reeled. Wolves were naturally affectionate, I knew that. When our pack members shifted, cubs often rolled together on the ground and adults nipped at each other playfully. But that was different. They were friends or family members. And besides, I wasn’t usually involved in those games.
My father said people shied away from me because I was strong and they knew I’d be Alpha one day. He said that meant I needed to make the effort to approach them instead of waiting for them to approach me. Apparently he didn’t realize I wasn’t waiting for them and I had good reasons.
First off, when I grew up, my job would be to keep an eye on everyone in the pack and make sure they were safe. Starting that habit as a cub would be helpful, I’d decided, and it wasn’t something I could do if I was distracted by being part of the fray. Sometimes my father noticed what I was doing and insisted I take a break and have fun. But even then, I had no interest in playing silly games with hyper wolves. Fun meant running free, feeling the wind in my fur, and hunting.
And yet there I was, being dragged through a stranger’s house by a boy I didn’t know. To make matters worse, he was holding my hand, something only my mother did, and even then, I didn’t like it. But though I knew I should pull away, I didn’t. Later, when I thought back to that moment, I decided the reason I let him put his hands on me without socking him in the belly was because it was so unexpected.
“Should we race?” Korban asked excitedly as soon as we stepped outside.
I didn’t respond.
“Or we can wrestle.” He let go of my hand, clasped the back of his T-shirt, and peeled it off. “Or hunt. Are you hungry?” He tossed the shirt aside and kicked off his shoes. “Maybe there’s a stream nearby and we can swim.” He wiggled out of his pants and briefs in one move and left them where they fell.
With my brain working overtime to absorb all his questions and think about what he probably meant or could mean by each one of them, I hadn’t thought to take off my own clothes. So when Korban was finally undressed and ready to shift, I was left looking stupid. Immediately, I realized that had been his goal in distracting me with his litany of questions.
“Why are you still dressed?” His light blond hair was disheveled from when he’d pulled his shirt off. “Did you change your mind about shifting?” He bit his bottom lip. “We don’t have to race or, uh, hunt, or whatever. We can do something else.”
Because the fact that he caught me off guard so he could get undressed faster meant he could beat me in a footrace in wolf form? No.
“Racing is fine,” I bit out. “Hunting too.” I looked him straight in the eyes; my father taught me to do that. “We can do both.”
Unlike him, I was grateful for my belongings. I carefully unbuttoned my shirt and then folded it before setting it on a small patio table. Then I unlaced my shoes and placed them down under the table with my socks tucked inside. Finally, I removed my briefs and pants and, after folding them neatly, put them next to my shirt. Korban might have undressed faster, but I did it better.
“We’ll race to the trees,” I told him, making clear right off the bat that being older didn’t mean he was in charge. “Then we can track something to eat.”
He wasn’t smiling, so I figured I’d made my point, which was a good thing. Still, something didn’t sit right about it. Thankfully, it didn’t last long.
Korban shook his head quickly, like he was in wolf form and was flicking off moisture. Then he grinned again, squeezed my shoulder, and said, “Let’s go!”
Surprisingly, he didn’t shift midsentence or even after he finished speaking. Instead, he watched me, and only once I’d started taking on my wolf form did he change into his wolf. With his blond hair, it was no surprise I was standing next to a pure white wolf. His eyes were the same navy blue, and even as an animal, they seemed to be twinkling with mirth and laughing at me.
I huffed in frustration, knocked my muzzle against his, and jumped off the porch. I was going to win the race and then I’d track an animal faster and take it down. With that decision made, I ran off toward the trees.
I saw him again when I was twelve and he was fifteen. We were at the next gathering of all the Alphas from our region. I was there with my dad and Korban was there with his.
He looked mostly the same. His hair was still a light blond, but there were more golden streaks in it than when he was younger. His skin was just as pale and seemed to glow, like it had when he was eleven, but I noticed a smattering of freckles over his nose. His eyes, though, were exactly the same. Still a warm navy blue and still tracking me from the second I walked into the room.
“Samuel, hi!” he said as he hustled over to me.
Forcing down the smile that inexplicably started forming, I crossed my arms over my chest. Uncharacteristically, I wanted to say something, but typical to form, I didn’t know what would be appropriate. So I remained silent.
“I’m Korban Keller.”
I didn’t say anything. Not because I was trying to be rude, but because my words stuck in my throat. I hated that he was able to force me off-balance so quickly.
“We met at the last Southeast Alphas meeting.”
Two seconds in and already he was annoying me. So much so that my belly felt warm. I really did need to get my temper under control.
“We hunted in our wolf forms,” he added.
“I remember you,” I said coolly and then gave myself an internal pat on the back because I didn’t yell at him for assuming I was too dumb to remember someone from four years earlier. It hadn’t been that long. Besides, I’d been with him for hours. We had run through the woods, hunted together, splashed in the spring, and even tussled on the grass. It wasn’t until later that I realized he had tricked me into letting my guard down.
“Great.” He sighed in relief and his shoulders lowered, like he was releasing tension.
Immediately, I wondered why he had been stressed. I darted my gaze around but couldn’t see any obvious threats.
“I was hoping your father would bring you again this year, but when you weren’t there for the region leader’s welcome address, I was worried you weren’t going to come.”
My father was normally exceptionally punctual. He said being late was a sign of disrespect because it showed you didn’t value the other person’s time. I always made it a point to get to places early so I wouldn’t send that message. But there was no way for my father to have predicted the multicar collision that forced us to wait for the human police and deal with their paperwork.
Not appreciating Korban’s need to point out our embarrassing and out-of-character lack of timeliness, I hissed, “We were in an accident. We got here as fast as we could, and it’s not like we missed much.”
“You were in an accident?” If it was possible for his already alabaster skin to lose color, it did. “Are you okay?” He leaned forward and gently touched my shoulder.
My mind shot back to that day four years prior, when he had grabbed my hand. Clearly, the guy had an issue with personal boundaries. Then again, maybe it was my issue. Other shifters seemed to touch each other freely. With my thoughts occupied, I forgot to answer him.
“You weren’t hurt, were you?” he asked.
The question refocused my attention on him, and I noticed he was reaching his hand toward my cheek. My first instinct was to lean toward his touch, but as soon as I realized what I was doing, I jerked back.
“I’m fine!” I snapped. “My father is a great driver. It wasn’t his fault.”
“Okay. Good.” He dragged his hand through his shaggy hair. “You had me worried there for a second.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Why?”
“Because you’re—” He slammed his mouth shut, blinked rapidly, and then cleared his throat. “Because you’re the only other kid who comes to these things. The other Alphas don’t bring their next-in-line until they’re adults, and sometimes not until they’re almost ready to take over the position.”
That was true. My father brought me along because he knew I’d be well-behaved and it was important to me—to both of us—that I learn everything I could to lead the pack well. I didn’t know why Korban’s father brought him. Whatever the reason, it bugged me that he only wanted to spend time with me because there was no alternative. I mean, I didn’t want to hang out with him anyway, but still, it was rude to come right out and shove that in my face.
At home, the other kids had more grace than to be so overt about not wanting to be close friends with me. With them, I never felt like they didn’t like me, more that we didn’t have much in common and I intimidated them. That was what my parents always said.
But there was no way I intimidated Korban Keller. He was older and he had those navy eyes. Plus, I knew his type. He had one of those shiny personalities everybody liked. And with him being groomed to be Alpha of his pack, we did have something in common. So his considering me a last option stung more than usual.
“Well, maybe you’ll get lucky and another Alpha will show up late with a son and you can hang out with him.” I stepped around him and started stomping away.
“Wait.” Korban grasped my shoulder.
I twisted my head around, glanced at his hand and then at his face, and arched one eyebrow.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said.
Though I was taken aback by how easily he had figured out my annoyance and the reason for it, I knew it was exactly how he had meant it.
“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
What he was sorry about was that he had dropped his “perfect guy” act. Still, I couldn’t let him think he had impacted me. I needed to be strong, not sensitive.
“Please,” I scoffed. “I’d have to care about what you think for that to matter.”
He winced and then closed his eyes and took a deep breath before opening them and meeting my gaze. “Well, I guess that’s good.” He grinned. “What should we do?”
After turning the question over every which way, I still didn’t understand what he was asking. He did it on purpose, I was certain—phrased things in weird ways to make me feel stupid. Well, I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing I cared or even noticed.
“Do?” I said, hoping I sounded nonchalant rather than frustrated.
“Yeah, during the meeting. Do you want to shift and hunt again?” He stepped closer to me, forcing me to raise my chin so I could keep looking him in the eyes. “That was really fun last time,” he said quietly. “I’ve thought about that day a lot.”
My stomach heated again, only this time it felt like a burn. I told myself it was from the seat belt tightening around me during the accident, but I knew that didn’t make sense. I had felt fine until Korban started talking to me. Because he hadn’t given me anything to eat or drink, I knew he hadn’t poisoned me, but it was possible I was allergic to something in his scent.
My body wanted to test that theory, it seemed, because without conscious thought, I inhaled deeply. The warmth in my stomach spread lower, and my muscles spasmed. I snapped my gaze up, confused and a little scared.
“Samuel?” Korban said worriedly as he stepped closer to me. “Are you okay?” He put his hand on my cheek and that, combined with his scent, undid me.
It was the best and worst feeling of my life: relief, elation, and satisfaction, followed almost immediately by terror, disgust, and guilt. Reflexively, I squeezed my eyes shut, and all of a sudden, I felt a strange sensation in my pants. My first thought was that I wet myself. It was the only thing that made sense, the only thing my penis had been used for up to that point.
“I’m, uh”—I blinked rapidly and looked everywhere but at Korban—“fine but I need to use the bathroom.” I gulped and slowly moved my hands in front of my groin, hoping the change in stance wasn’t noticeable. “Do you know where it is?”
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll show you.” He wrapped his arm loosely around my shoulders and led me down the hallway.
Had I been thinking clearly, I would have shoved him away or told him off, but my heart was racing, my briefs were wet, and my groin still felt funny. In a haze, I went along quietly, letting him take me to a bathroom at the far end of the house. He turned the handle, held the door open, and gently nudged me inside.
“Samuel,” he said quietly.
I looked back at him over my shoulder.
“It’s going to be fine.”
I had no idea what he meant, but then I never seemed to know what he meant.
“Maybe not right now, but eventually, it’ll be fine.” My confusion obviously showed on my face, because he smiled once again, this one gentle and understanding. “I promise. I’ll take care of things. No matter what, you’ll be fine.” He started closing the door slowly. “I’ll wait outside and give you some privacy.”
Later, I realized the wetness wasn’t urine and the feeling wasn’t due to an allergy. Though I doubted Korban knew what had happened, my feelings of discomfort around him were exacerbated by that incident. I felt like he’d seen me during a personal and vulnerable time, like he’d intentionally tried to confuse and disarm me and I lacked the control to stop him, and like something was very wrong about him or the way I reacted to him or both. Whatever the case, I made an effort to stay away and I hated him for forcing me to tuck my tail between my legs and hide.
The hate—I found over the years—was much easier to handle, much more comfortable and safe than the storm of confusion it replaced.