Murder of Crows Page 7

“And men like sex,” Merri Lee said, giving Meg a measuring look. “Whether or not you want sex has to be your choice, same as it is for the rest of us girls.”

Choice. Yes. She felt something inside her relax.

“It’s kind of romantic,” Heather said. “Simon staying with Meg and watching over her. It’s like one of the stories where a Wolf or a vampire falls in love with a human girl.”

“Those stories are fiction and wishful thinking,” Merri Lee said.

“Plenty of terra indigene have tried sex with humans,” Heather insisted. “Or at least necking. If they weren’t interested in having a physical relationship with us, why would Ms. Know-It-All’s column in the Courtyard newsletter always have advice about dating and personal interaction between Others and humans?”

“Just because a human guy wants sex doesn’t mean he wants a full, committed relationship with every girl who says ‘yes,’” Merri Lee countered. “And who knows what the Others really think about it? Does it feel good to them when they’re in human form in a way that’s commensurate with our experience, or do they view it as an experiment—the equivalent of one of us tonguing the family pet to see what it’s like?”

“That’s gross!” Heather said.

“And possibly nowhere near the truth,” Merri Lee said, giving Meg another measuring look. “I guess our girl-talk intervention didn’t help much.”

“Not much,” Meg admitted. “But Simon getting into bed as a human changed things. I’m not sure why that’s true, but it is. I just don’t know what to do about it.”

Simon sat on a bench in Henry’s studio watching the Grizzly touch the totems and other pieces of sculpture that were in various stages of completion. Yes, the Beargard touched the wood, but he didn’t pick up any tools—a sign that Henry was too troubled to work.

“The best Nyx could figure out from what she heard is that Meg is worried that I want sex because a human male would have expected it,” Simon said.

“Do you?” Henry asked as he turned off the electric teakettle, dropped tea bags into two mugs, and poured boiling water over them. “Did you want sex that morning?”

“No! The room was chilly. I just wanted to get under the covers. I thought me being in human form but still having fur would be upsetting to Meg. I was trying to be considerate despite getting kicked off the bed, which wasn’t my fault!” Technically, he’d fallen off the bed while dodging that second kick, but no one else had to know that. “And why would Meg think I was looking for sex? She didn’t smell lusty the way human females do when they want sex.” In fact, she’d smelled nervous, even scared. But he’d thought that was because of the dream. It hadn’t occurred to him that it might be a reaction to him. He sighed. “I’m confused.”

“Where Meg is concerned, you’ve been confused since you met her.” Henry handed one mug to Simon and sat beside him. “And now, my friend, you’re a Wolf who has bounded into a pretty meadow and discovered it’s full of snakes and steel traps.”

He didn’t think that was a flattering description of Meg, but he swallowed the impulse to defend her.

“She’s not terra indigene, Simon,” Henry said gently. “She’s not one of us. She’s human.”

“She’s not one of us, but she’s not one of them either,” he snapped. “She’s Meg.”

Henry nodded. “Something new to us and not understood. She came here alone and frightened, with little experience of the world. You gave her a job, gave her a place to live. Became her friend.”

“Nothing wrong with being a friend.”

“Nothing wrong with having a friend. You just forgot she isn’t a Wolf.”

Simon sipped his tea and didn’t comment. He hadn’t forgotten, exactly, but as the days went by it had seemed less and less important. Until Meg got weird about him being in bed with her when he was wearing his human skin.

“You’re isolated from your own kind,” Henry said.

“Not living in the Wolfgard Complex is my choice.”

“It’s a good choice for the Courtyard to have the leader living in the multispecies complex, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good choice for you. Wolves are not happy being solitary for too long.”

“I run with some of the pack several times a week, and I have Sam living with me.” Or had until he became uneasy about having Meg and Sam together on their own. A simple accident could do so much harm to both woman and pup, but that wasn’t something he could explain to them or anyone else. Not yet.

“Now you have Sam,” Henry said, nodding. “You used his curiosity about Meg to thaw the fear that had kept him frozen in Wolf form and unable to communicate with any of us. You used Meg.”

Simon flinched away from that particular truth. Meg had been used for someone else’s benefit all her life. He never wanted to be like those humans and sometimes feared he would need to be. “It helped her too.”

“Yes, it did. But if you had done all the things with a female Wolf that you have done with Meg, it would be considered a courtship. You would be presenting yourself as a potential mate.”

“I wasn’t … She didn’t …” He hadn’t been thinking of her like that. But had she been thinking of him that way?

“She isn’t one of us, so you didn’t consider that the play and grooming and sleeping together would be thought of in that way, especially because she plays with other Wolves. But now that Sam is living with the rest of the Wolfgard, she only sleeps with you, and you were careful to stay in Wolf form. Until yesterday.”

“I just wanted to talk to her, to find out about the dream,” Simon protested. “She can’t communicate the way we do. How else could I talk to her?” When Henry just looked at him, he snarled. “It’s the fault of those stories humans write about Wolves and humans mating.”

“We have those kinds of stories too,” Henry countered. “But they are cautionary tales because they rarely end well for the lovers. And what about offspring?”

“I wasn’t planning to mate and have pups while I was leader of a Courtyard.” He’d been young when he’d set his sights on running a Courtyard, but even young, he hadn’t been foolish. A leader had to stay alert and aware of the enemy who lived all around his people, had to enforce rules and agreements. Had to decide if the humans needed to be exterminated. And a leader ran the risk of absorbing too much that was human, becoming too much like the enemy.

By rights he should be spending this summer in an earth native settlement in another part of Thaisia where he could run and roam and be a Wolf for days on end with no responsibilities. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not when the sickness that had touched humans and Others alike had shown up in a town too close to Lakeside.

“What should I do?” he asked.

Henry drank tea and said nothing for a minute. “You can’t take back the friendship you’ve already given without bruising Meg’s heart. But you can choose not to go beyond the friendship as it is now. And you should choose not to go beyond what has already been done. Meg has been free of her captors for only two months. She is just learning who she is. In that sense, she is a child as young as Sam, despite having an adult female’s body.” He sighed. “Be careful, Simon. We have contact with humans in ways no other Courtyard does, so what you do with Meg will ripple through the lives of humans and Others alike.”

“Can a friendship carry so much weight and survive?”

“I don’t know.” Henry pulled the mug from Simon’s hand. “But it’s time for you to find out.”

Promptly at four o’clock, Nathan gave Meg an accusing look and slunk out of the office’s front door, abandoning his duties as watch Wolf. At the midday break, it had taken Henry coming over and hauling him out by the scruff of the neck to get the Wolf to leave. Now … Well, he didn’t have his tail between his legs, but it was pretty close.

And that, Meg thought, means Simon is on his way over. While she waited, she tidied up the already-tidy sorting room and sharpened a couple of pencils in anticipation of tomorrow’s work.

Talking with Merri Lee and Heather had felt good but hadn’t provided answers. The person who had the answers was the Wolf who walked in and was now standing on the other side of the sorting table. But after spending an afternoon thinking about males and sex and living in the Courtyard—and remembering some of the bad things that had taken place in the compound—she had an answer. She just wasn’t sure how he was going to respond to it.

“I like you,” she said quietly. “I like you a lot. And I want to be friends.”

He tipped his head and studied her. She hoped he wasn’t going to shift his ears. It was always disconcerting when Jester Coyotegard did that because it was hard to remember what you wanted to say when you were watching furry ears attached to a human head.

“But you don’t want to have sex,” Simon said.

She couldn’t find an image from her training that matched the look on his face. Disappointment? Resignation? Relief?

She shook her head. “No, I don’t want to have sex. I’m still learning how to be a person for myself. I’m not ready to … I’m not ready.”

“That’s fine,” he said quietly.

He gave up awfully quick, Meg thought. Was this so insignificant to him? Am I the only one struggling with this? “You’ve had sex with humans, haven’t you?”

Simon shrugged, a dismissive gesture that bit her heart because it made her think that Merri Lee’s opinion of how the Others viewed sex with humans was closer to the truth than Heather’s. But she didn’t want it anyway, so what Simon thought of it shouldn’t matter.

“Terra indigene females come into season only once or twice a year,” he said. “Having sex at other times is enjoyable. But those humans didn’t work in the Courtyard or live among us. It amounted to a couple of hours and some fun, and satisfying curiosity on both sides. Nothing more.” He paused, then added, “Having you as a friend is more enjoyable.”

She wasn’t sure she believed him but didn’t feel she could ask. Not right now.

“Well, then. I guess that clears things up,” Meg said, wanting him to leave. “If you’ll excuse me, Simon, I have some deliveries to make, so I’ll close up the office now.”

“Sure. You need some help loading up the BOW?” The Box on Wheels was a small, electric-powered vehicle that was used inside the Courtyard.

“No, thanks. The packages aren’t heavy.”

He nodded once, then left by the back door.

Meg stayed in the sorting room until she was sure he was gone—and wondered when she’d started to cry.

Simon leaned against the back wall of the Liaison’s Office.

Done. Simple enough since Meg had done most of the work of setting boundaries around a friendship that had had none before. He should feel grateful, but what he wanted to do was raise his head and howl the Song of Lonely.

Couldn’t do that. Not here. Not today.

Just a misunderstanding. Nothing that was going to stir up the Courtyard or its more dangerous residents. From now on he would keep to the boundaries set by human males and females who were friendly but not friends.

But he would miss curling up with her in bed at night. He would miss that closeness. Would she still play with him, or was this friendship going to be confined to human form from now on? If it was confined to human form, would she let him lick the salt and butter off her fingers from the popcorn she ate on movie nights?

Probably not, and that made him sad because he really did like the way she tasted.

CHAPTER 6

On Moonsday morning, Meg closed her apartment door, then muttered, “Garbage day,” and went back in for the paper bag she’d left in the kitchen.

In the compound where she had lived most of her life, garbage was collected by people who worked for the Controller, and the girls’ knowledge of how waste products were handled came through photographs or drawings of equipment and activities, or in a training video. Even now, she had only a vague idea of how humans dealt with all the debris that came from day-to-day living. She knew they recycled some things out of necessity, but she didn’t think they were as particular about the rest.

The Others wasted almost nothing, so living in the Courtyard meant that sorting garbage was not an all-in-one-bag exercise. Fruit and vegetable waste went in one container. Meat scraps went in another. Bottles were placed in one bin while cans and anything metal went in another. Catalogs that had to be exchanged in order to receive new copies went back to the Liaison’s Office, while other kinds of paper went into a different bin for recycling.

If they weren’t spoiled, cores and other bits of fruit were left on feeders scattered throughout the Courtyard—a food source for birds. If they were spoiled, they went into the compost piles. Edible vegetable bits were scattered on the ground near the feeders for squirrels and rabbits or whatever else liked that kind of food. Meat scraps were distributed in the Hawkgard’s area to feed the rats, which, in turn, kept the Hawks supplied with healthy meat since the rats didn’t wander into human neighborhoods where the food might be laced with poison.

By the time they were done sorting and recycling, the weekly trash for an entire complex usually fit into a big tote that was picked up and taken to the Utilities Complex for final disposal.

When she’d first moved into the Green Complex, she’d divided her trash into compost, garbage, and recycle. It was only in the past couple of weeks that Simon showed her the holding bins downstairs and gave her all the household containers she was now expected to use. At the time, she’d seen that expectation as another sign of acceptance. Now …

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