LAURA TAYLORFantasy and Romance Writer
“What are you doing?”
Baron braced his arm against the wall of his shower and peered over his shoulder. As expected, John was standing there, staring at him with that peculiar look that said he was desperately curious, but also unbearably confused.
Shit. Baron really didn’t have time for this.
He straightened, stretching out the kinks in his back while he bought himself a few precious seconds to think of the best answer. It was about three months since John had joined the Den, only a couple of weeks since he’d moved into Baron’s bedroom, and while Baron was trying his best to accommodate the boy and his understandably traumatic past, he frankly found many of their interactions to be completely exhausting. The questions were endless, worse than the incessant ‘why’ of a three year old, but on top of that, the sheer intensity of John’s emotions were difficult to handle. If he liked something, it was paradise, bliss, the best, most wonderful gift he’d ever imagined. If he feared something, it could trigger a full blown panic attack that could last anything from five minutes to three hours. And if he was angry about something…
“I’m cleaning the shower,” Baron replied, bracing himself for John’s reaction. Such a simple thing, but it could still set the boy off…
“Because it’s dirty,” Baron said, before he could think better of it.
With no regard for any kind of personal space, John shoved his head in under Baron’s arm and looked the shower stall up and down. “No it’s not.”
“Yes, it is,” Baron said, knowing he was likely going to trigger a long-winded argument on the subject. “There’s soap scum on the tiles and mould is starting to grow on the grouting. If I clean it regularly, then it doesn’t turn into a huge job.”
“But why do it at all?” John insisted. “I hate having showers anyway. No one cleans the mould in the pond outside, so why do you have to clean this?”
Baron let out a sigh. John’s trains of thought were hard to follow at the best of times, and Baron tried to figure out which way to address the issue: whether he should remind John of the necessity of showering, or explain that yes, actually, they did clean the pond, but only about twice a year, or just stick to the topic at hand and try to muddle his way through.
Then again, he remembered, hadn’t he had a very similar conversation with Kendrick, back when he was a new recruit? He’d still been human then, not even converted yet, as it was only a few months since Kendrick had pulled him out of a budding career as a gang member, drug dealer and all-round thug. It had been a hard road, but Kendrick had had the patience of a saint and the street-smarts to know how to get through to a lost young man with a chip on his shoulder…
13 Years Earlier
Joseph Baron slouched up the stairs and along the hall, heading for Kendrick’s bedroom. It was time for his daily lesson on shifter etiquette – a mind-numbingly dull lecture on the intricacies of rank, and how to behave in front of the Council, and what would be expected of him come the Densmeet in summer. As far as Joseph was concerned, it was just another set of rules designed to keep the power in the hands of the rule-makers and turn everyone else into obedient robots.
Usually, the lessons were held in the library, a hopelessly dull room full of musty old books, but today Kendrick had called him up to his bedroom instead.
Joseph stepped through the open door and glanced around, but there was no sign of Kendrick. He was just about to leave again, thinking maybe Kendrick was in another room nearby, when the sound of a tap being turned on caught his attention. He headed for the small ensuite bathroom…
“Morning Joseph,” Kendrick called, shooting him a grin from the depths of the shower stall. He was wearing rubber gloves and had a scrubbing brush in one hand and a spray bottle of some bathroom cleaner in the other.
“I still hate that name,” Joseph reminded him sullenly. “What are we doing in here?”
“Grab a seat,” Kendrick said cheerfully, ignoring Joseph’s moodiness. “And I’m perfectly happy to call you something else, if you ever get around to choosing a different name.”
Joseph looked around the small space, and when there was nowhere obvious to sit, he went back into the bedroom, picked up a chair from beside the desk and set it in the doorway. “Why are we having a lesson while you scrub the shower?” he asked, his tone implying that it was the most ridiculous plan Kendrick had ever come up with.
“If you ever have the misfortune of becoming alpha,” Kendrick said, his head craning to see the underneath of the taps, “you’ll rapidly discover that there’s never going to be enough time to get everything done. So you learn to multitask.”
Joseph thought about rolling his eyes, but decided against it. Though he thought Kendrick to be a bit of a wet blanket about a lot of things, there was still something about the man that he couldn’t help respecting. The quiet confidence, the way he sometimes came out with the wittiest retorts at a split second’s notice. The way he had never, ever lost his temper with Joseph, despite him doing his best to piss Kendrick off at times.
“Why are you scrubbing the shower anyway?” he asked, realising he was more surprised than annoyed about the change in their usual plans.
Kendrick peered back at him and quirked an eyebrow upwards. “Because it’s dirty.”
Joseph did roll his eyes that time. “No, I mean why are you doing it. You’re the alpha. Aren’t you supposed to be all important and busy and telling everyone else what to do?” He was getting better at this, Joseph thought privately, realising he’d just got through five or six whole sentences without swearing. It was one of the things Kendrick was always going on at him about.
Kendrick put down the scrubbing brush and turned to face him. “And just who do you think should be cleaning the bathrooms?” he asked. The question was said mildly, but there was a deeper weight behind his words that Joseph couldn’t quite place.
“Can’t we hire cleaners to do it?”
“We’re shape shifters,” Kendrick said, stating the obvious. “So that means we have a limited number of options. We can bring humans onto the estate, which means a complete lockdown every time they come, and the ongoing risk that one of them will discover something unusual about us. Not a great plan. Or we can employ a handful of humans and let them in on all our secrets, which the Council is very much against, except when there’s a clear necessity or overwhelming benefit to us to outweigh the risk. Or, if neither of those options works, we could always recruit people and convert them into shapeshifters for the express purpose of cleaning the manor.” He grinned sardonically, though Joseph didn’t see what was funny. “I can’t imagine anyone who would embrace the power and mystery of turning into a wolf, just so they can scrub floors. Unless, of course, you’re volunteering for the role?” he added, looking expectantly at Joseph.
“No,” Joseph said quickly. “Uh… no, I’m not.”
Kendrick gave a knowing chuckle. “So in the absence of any other options, that means I have to do it myself, alpha or not. Remember, Joseph,” he said, returning to his task. “With rank comes privilege, but also responsibility. Being alpha means I get this bedroom. It has a beautiful view of the gardens, but it’s also one of the few rooms where you can see the front gate from the window. Which means that if trouble is coming onto the estate, I see it coming first. Anna and I get first choice of food at dinner, but we’re both expected to use that nutrition to keep ourselves in peak physical form, and if a battle breaks out, we’re front and centre. My rank means I get an ensuite, but then I have the responsibility to keep it clean. Privilege,” he said, stretching out one hand like he was holding something, “and responsibility,” he added, holding up the other hand. He weighed each imaginary object in his hands, then shrugged. “That’s a lesson for you to remember, Joseph. Don’t ever get so full of your own self-importance that you’re too good to scrub your own shower.”
He turned back to cleaning the grout. “Now, the Densmeet is only five weeks away, and that time is going to fly by faster than you’d ever believe, so let’s go over basic etiquette again…”
Back in the present, Baron sighed again. Somehow, Kendrick had always known what to say, and how to say it, to get his younger self to listen. He glanced over at John, and felt his hopes slump. He had none of Kendrick’s glibness, and far less insight into the minds of troubled youths.
“We have a wolf side and a human side,” he said in the end, as John watched him with fierce, calculating eyes. “The wolf side is like the pond outside. We leave it alone until it’s overgrown, then give it a good scrub, maybe twice a year. But the human side is cleaner, more careful, more civilised. So the human side takes a shower every day, and we brush our teeth and hair, and it’s a part of that humanness that means we need to keep our living quarters clean.”
John thought about that. “And we eat different things,” he said, the comment seeming to come out of nowhere, until he went on. “Wolves will eat a rotting carcass that’s been buried and dug up, but humans keep things in fridges and wash our plates after we use them.” He nodded, seemingly satisfied with his own explanation. “Cool. That makes sense. Thanks.”
Without another word, he was gone, leaving Baron staring after him, wondering what the hell had just happened.