Set after the events of Little Wolf and A Mate of One’s Own
(Content tags: therapy, vague references to the abuse in Tim’s past.)
Copyright © R. Cooper
Tim crossed his arms. Then he immediately uncrossed them, because crossed arms displayed fear and weakness for anyone to see. Arms locked across the chest and belly meant someone trying to hide their soft spots. Dr. Finch might be human, but he was good at reading body language—better, in a lot of ways, than Tim was. Which wasn’t surprising, since Tim was half a were at best.
The thought turned his stomach, made it roil unpleasantly with the reminder that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, a granola bar. It was tourist season and he’d been helping out all over the place. He didn’t have time to eat, which meant he definitely didn’t have time to come all the way out to Carson for these ridiculous therapy sessions. Nobody had time to drive him, either. These weren’t that important, or at least, they weren’t worth inconveniencing everyone for. The sessions didn’t do anything to make him better, or stronger. Mostly, they made him feel like a small, shaky, frightened, whiny baby, and he hated them.
He bit down hard to keep from saying any of that and stared across the room at Dr. Finch. Tim had read all the man’s credentials of course. He was educated and had good reviews, even if he was human, but none of that mattered. He was Tim’s shrink because he was the only one in Carson. Wolf’s Paw, of course, didn’t have one.
Real weres didn’t need them. No one had said that, but it was plenty implied by the mere fact that no one had ever even heard of a mental health professional who specialized in weres.
Tim knew, deep down, that this was bullshit. He personally had met weres who could use a little help, more than him maybe. Weres who had lost their mates, or been rejected, or been rejected even by human packs, like Zoe. But knowing and feeling were different things, according to Dr. Finch.
God, Tim hated therapy.
And no doctor should wear track pants to therapy sessions.
Tim glared at the human curled up in the big squishy chair across from him while sinking further into his own big squishy chair. Dr. Finch wasn’t speaking. This was a ploy to get Tim to talk. Tim knew it well, and had stayed silent for the whole hour—forty minutes—more than once out of spite. The money was nothing.
But Nathaniel seemed to think these sessions were a good idea, worthwhile enough to rearrange his schedule to drive Tim out here once a week, or ask Zoe to do it when he couldn’t.
So Tim stayed, and crossed his arms. He was more comfortable that way. And, whatever—he was a weak wolf. This wasn’t news.
Dr. Finch stared down at the notepad in his lap. “I’m content to get paid to doodle, if you don’t want to talk today,” he remarked, in that easy tone that drove Tim nuts, because it was a lie. He was alert and attentive and waiting. Tim knew it and Dr. Finch knew that Tim knew it. “Of course,” Dr. Finch continued, “it seemed as if something was bothering you when you stormed in—sorry, came in so calmly and sedately.”
Tim lifted his lip and growled. Then he jumped. “I’m not supposed to do that to humans who don’t deserve it.” God, why was he even apologizing? “Not that I’m scary. At all.” He really wanted to pull his legs up into the chair and wrap his arms around his knees. “That was barely even a growl. It was absolutely pathetic compared to—”
He stopped and Dr. Finch looked up.
Tim’s stomach turned again, but he refused to glance away first. He was weak, but he was still a Dirus.
Dr. Finch had no expression. “Compared to other weres?” he prompted easily. “Or to—”
“Don’t.” Tim flinched, tightening his arms around his chest.
“Or to Nathaniel?” Dr. Finch continued as if Tim hadn’t spoken.
Tim hated that, hated that Dr. Finch knew about it, because Tim had given it away somehow. Tim hadn’t even known it was there. But that was standard for him, wasn’t it? Tim was out of touch with his instincts, with himself, with the amount of damage he had that other people didn’t seem to have. He hated that, too. That he was damaged and that he never even saw the cracks until he tripped over them.
He realized he was breathing hard. Other than that, the room was quiet.
Dr. Finch regarded Tim with interest that was probably meant to be gentle and nonthreatening. Not that he had ever seemed especially worried about upsetting the were in his office. “Have you worked on what we talked about?”
“You ask that every week.” Tim’s evasion was clumsy and obvious. Silas would have sneered. Silas, Tim sometimes thought, could fuck right off. This wasn’t a chess match. This was strange medicine that a real were shouldn’t need, but Tim apparently did, and some days were better than others, and today Tim hadn’t decided whether to talk or wait out the clock.
Thing was, he could sit in silence the whole time, but he’d be back next week. If not to talk about this, then something else.
Talking about everyday stuff should have been easier than telling Dr. Finch about Silas… or Luca. But sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes Luca was easier, for whatever reason. Maybe because Luca was an obvious bad thing, and Tim could prepare. He could walk in here knowing that he was going to bring up a memory and it would be messy. He couldn’t prepare for days like today.
Anyway, the bad stuff, the Luca stuff, he could talk about at home, with Carl or Robin’s Egg or Zoe. He could call Albert, if he needed to.
This stuff…. He couldn’t tell them about this.
“But did you?” Dr. Finch pressed.
Tim gave a tight shake of his head, then mumbled, “The pressures of leadership.”
Dr. Finch glanced to him again. “What was that?”
“The pressures of leadership,” Tim repeated stiffly. Sometimes he wished his psychiatrist had been educated in management or warfare, anything to make it so Tim didn’t have to explain so much. “You have people. You are always surrounded by people, but you aren’t ever really one of them. They look to you for strength. So, if you have fe—if you’re scar—you’re on your own.”
“Is that how you feel? On your own?”
“Ugh, fuck off.” Tim scowled and looked away. That ‘how do you feel?’ shit got on his nerves every time. “I have a pack. I have friends.” The churning his stomach briefly gave way to a rising warmth at getting to say that. “I have a town,” he added, because he did. “But that town includes my friends, so I can’t show them this.” He uncrossed his arms to wave at his chest, his exposed underbelly in all its patheticness. “Obviously,” he went on a few moments later, “they already knew there are things I don’t know. How to be a proper were, for example. But it’s different when they look to me for answers on stuff, or when something happens and they look to see what I will do. I can’t turn around and ask them, can I? And there’s no one else to ask.”
There was, in fact, one very obvious person to ask. He and Dr. Finch had spent two whole sessions discussing the concept of mate, because no way could these sessions go forward if Dr. Finch didn’t understand what mate meant.
Which meant Dr. Finch now knew the source of Tim’s mood. Tim hated everything, especially the steady look from his shrink. At least he wasn’t making notes. The scratch of the pen grated on Tim’s senses on the really bad days.
Dr. Finch’s heart rate picked up a little, a sign he was about to say something Tim wasn’t going to like. “The very idea of mate would suggest you don’t have to be alone if you don’t want to. But most long-term couples will tell you that even in healthy relationships, it’s possible to feel lonely.”
“I’m not lonely!” Tim shouted, leaning forward in his chair. He stopped to pull in a breath. “A real wolf wouldn’t have to yell. They can convey meaning and communicate without words. Look, I failed again,” he said sourly. “Surprise.”
“Words work fine for humans.” Dr. Finch made a note.
“Do they?” Tim questioned between gritted teeth. “Do they really? Because humans seem to misunderstand each other a lot.”
That got another note. Sometimes Dr. Finch did that on purpose whenever Tim was sarcastic. Sarcasm was apparently a deflection and Tim relied on it too much. That was something Silas would have said, and he’d told Dr. Finch that, and Dr. Finch hadn’t said it again.
It didn’t make Tim stop hearing it, though. And imagining Dr. Finch making notes on it to irk him, when, really, the man wasn’t a master chess player, and was probably honestly making notes on Tim’s mental state.
Tim held onto his anger for another moment, then sighed heavily and pulled his legs up into the chair so he could wrap his arms around his knees.
“You’re communicating your defensiveness just fine, if you were curious,” Dr. Finch remarked, with a faint smile with no teeth. “Even a human can see it. You walked in like that, as I implied before. I’m merely here to help.”
Tim heard himself growling and went hot with embarrassment.
Dr. Finch wasn’t done. “You know I’ve offered for you to invite Nathaniel in here for a session or two with you—”
“No!” Tim barely kept from yelling this time.
Another faint smile, possibly meant to be kind. “You don’t want him to know, even though he’s your mate?”
There was no point in lying. Tim sighed and looked away. “He already knows.”
“He does?” Dr. Finch’s surprise seemed genuine.
Tim, who wasn’t exactly forthcoming and knew it, chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. He hid his face in his knees. “Probably,” he amended. “But he knows everything. He’s perfect.”
“Nathaniel’s not perfect,” Tim obediently recited, then growled again—but quietly. “I know he’s not perfect. I live with him. It’s hard to find the flaws at first, but trust me” –he snorted— “they’re there. It’s—” He closed his eyes. “Being nearly perfect kind of is his flaw. How am I—I mean, I know what we are to each other. I know that. But sometimes people come into town, humans, weres, fairies, this troll one time, and it’s like… he’s all they can see.”
Tim was a tiny, pathetic excuse for a mate.
Dr. Finch was soft. “Do you think he wants any of them?”
Tim’s voice was rough. “No.”
“Do you think he wants their attention?”
“No.” Tim huffed. “But he uses it, sometimes. He’s clever like that, and mean, when he has to be.”
“So, do you want them to look at you?”
“No!” Tim raised his head. “Or, not like that. I’m practically human to them. I’m nothing--er, no offense. It’s a town of werewolves.”
“I know.” Dr. Finch did seem to know that and not be offended. He rolled his wrist. “Go on. Did something happen on the way here? Something with someone else noticing Nathaniel?”
“Nathaniel didn’t drive me today.” Tim sensed the raised eyebrow before he saw it. “Zoe did,” he explained. “Nathaniel was—is—was breaking up a fight between some weres. Fighting over him.” Goddamn it, Tim wanted to claw something. “Nathaniel didn’t even have to get physical. He just… was there, you know? A presence.”
Trying to explain Nathaniel had been impossible. Tim had finally just introduced them one day, made Dr. Finch go out into the waiting room to properly experience Nathaniel Neri in all his glory.
“He had to remind them,” Tim continued, a howl locked inside of him. “Nathaniel had to remind these weres about me. They were tourists, but still, I’m barely a real were, and I can tell if someone’s mated.” Now. Tim could tell that now, and it had taken a lot of work. “Which means those weres could tell he was taken, and they didn’t even fucking care. They saw me around town and they—” Tim swallowed, although his pain stayed trapped in his throat. “I can’t complain to him. I can’t just remind him of what a skinny little half-were I am. I can’t say, ‘too bad you’re stuck with me’ because he hates that. He hates when I say that, and I’m tired of him having to reassure me. He shouldn’t have to do that. He has enough to do. Being a leader is—”
“Lonely, you said.”
Tim dropped his head back to his knees. “There’s no one in town at his level. Being at home is his time to not be the king. He gets to relax and be a dork, and not take care of people for once.”
Dr. Finch was so, so quiet. Even his heartbeat seemed muted and far away as long as Tim didn’t look. “What about you?”
Tim shrugged. “He spends enough time taking care of me.”
The pen scratched against the paper. “So, you—his mate—are not at his level?”
“I’m a Dirus!” Tim snarled and jerked his head up. Dr. Finch opened his eyes wide but didn’t say anything. Since staring down the psychiatrist he was paying for was ridiculous, Tim finally went on, with a small huff. “I asked Zoe to drive me. She was off today, so I asked her instead. Nathaniel was—” confused, probably hurt. “But he’ll have me all figured out by the time I get back. He’s going to make a big deal out of letting me know he loves me, and we’re mated, and it’s okay. And I hate it and I can’t tell him that either.”
The gentle prompting was really annoying.
“Because that’s what he does?” Tim waved his arms furiously. “He takes care of me and I like it but fuck! It’s no wonder I—look, it’s fine. He’s not going to leave me. He can’t.” Sometimes, he wished Nathaniel could leave him. If it was a possibility but he stayed, then maybe Tim wouldn’t feel like this sometimes, like he was an obligation, or useless, or a failure of a mate.
Dr. Finch leaned forward. “Do you think he wants to leave you? You’ve never said that before. Did you talk to him about this?”
“Are you not listening?” Tim dropped his feet back to the ground with a thump. “Even human ears should get this. I can’t talk to him about it. It’s a werewolf thing and it’s a Nathaniel thing! All that will happen is he’ll end up reassuring me, which is some bullshit.”
“Bullshit?” Dr. Finch echoed. “You think he’d be lying?”
“No.” Tim scowled at him in all his humanity, because the man didn’t understand. “Nathaniel will mean every word. Because he’s perfect. Because he doesn’t understand flaws, and I am one giant flaw, and as frustrated as I make him sometimes, he fucking believes in stupid romantic movies, where love cures this stuff. I might be new to dealing with my emotions, but I know that’s not true. If it did, there wouldn’t be broken matings, or even broken hearts.”
Broken matings. Oh, shit. Oh, God, Tim had said it. He’d said those words and that was how magic worked—he’d made the possibility real. He stared down at his lap, at his shaking hands, and sucked in a breath.
He waited. He waited for Dr. Finch to call him out for those words, and his real—so fucking obvious now—fears. But there was silence for what felt like hours.
Then Dr. Finch spoke, voice level and calm. “Whose idea was this therapy?”
Caught off guard, Tim glanced over. “His.”
Dr. Finch had closed his notebook. His heart was steady. “Why?”
“Because I’m damaged,” Tim dragged out the stupid word, because duh.
Dr. Finch smiled, still with no teeth. “So, he didn’t think his love could fix that.”
He wasn’t asking, but Tim still answered, slowly. “No. No, I suppose not. But—but he didn’t mean it for this stuff. He meant it for the other stuff.” The silence from Dr. Finch was incredibly annoying. Pointed silence meant Tim was supposed to draw his own conclusions. Like how Dr. Finch always said that this stuff and the other stuff were related. That what happened with his uncle, and Luca, and Tim’s years on his own, had made him into this person. That the past was present, and all that shit.
“Timothy,” Dr. Finch prompted quietly. Tim pulled his lower lip between his teeth just to bite something, but looked over. Dr. Finch smiled, a real one, with a hint of canines. “Since someone sat in silence for the first twenty minutes of his session, our time is up for today. But I have no one else this afternoon, if you’d like to sit a while longer.”
“Zoe’s waiting.” Tim stopped biting his lip in order to speak. “I shouldn’t have made her drive me out here. I shouldn’t make her stand around.” But he didn’t move. “The weres,” he said.
Tim cleared his throat. “Those weres fighting over him, over Nathaniel, I mean. They were annoying. He was really pissed about them, actually. They, um, you know, even a were can get out of their senses if they take enough of something, and I guess they were on vacation and being entitled dicks like any other tourists. I know he didn’t like them. It’s not about that. In fact, he really doesn’t like—he doesn’t like it when people look at him and think he’s perfect. He was probably considering murder when one of them dismissed the idea of him having a mate.”
That had happened right as Tim had walked out into the street and seen the fight being broken up. “These idiots apparently thought that just because they fought over him, he was going to fuck the winner. Like he wanted the strongest or the biggest badass or something. They shouldn’t think that about him, or anyone, and by the way, even if that were actually a thing, Nathaniel could take both of them in a fight, easily. So what makes them good enough for him? Nothing. Nathaniel’s not their goddamn prize. He’s difficult, and irritating sometimes, and sensitive but he’s better than them. He’s so good. He’s so… he’s not perfect but he’s amazing, and he’s mine, but, of course, no one thinks he belongs with me, because I’m scared and weak and selfish and fucked up. Ugh. Fuck.” The look in Nathaniel’s eyes when Tim had turned and left without speaking to him. “He’s going to be upset that I left like that, but he won’t talk about it if I don’t want to.”
“That seems reasonable. But you’re angry.” That one felt like a question.
“I’m not!” Tim clenched his hands, then forcibly unclenched them. “I’m not. I’m not, I’m—you said anger was usually a secondary emotion, anyway.”
“So, you are scared about it?” Dr. Finch went right to fear, of course he did.
“I’m scared all the time.” Tim was quiet. “He knows that. Everyone probably knows that. I don’t know why I care.” Except he did know, and the reason was named Silas Dirus.
“Well.” Dr. Finch sat up. “If you are asking, in your unique way, what you should do, I can make a suggestion—aside from the obvious, which is for you to talk to Nathaniel about this. In here, if you’d like. We can arrange that.”
Tim’s mouth was suddenly so dry. “I don’t want to hurt him. He’s mine to protect. But I… I’m hurting him anyway, aren’t I? Running away like I did. What, um, what’s your other suggestion?”
“Talk to someone else about it.” Dr. Finch lifted a hand to forestall any arguments. “Not everything. But some of these issues… are there no mated weres who could answer questions for you? Mated weres who are not your mate? Because I will venture a guess that the nature of matings means a lot of werewolves have similar worries and doubts.”
“There is only one Nathaniel Neri,” Tim told him seriously, eyes narrowed.
“Yes, thankfully.” Dr. Finch made a pained face. “No offense, but my secretary almost fainted.”
Tim showed him his teeth. “I don’t think he noticed her.”
“No. He was far too concerned about you, Timothy.” Dr. Finch sat back again, and steepled his fingers. “You don’t want him to be concerned?”
Tim grimaced. “I’m tired of… some days are harder than others. That’s all. Some days I’m Littlewolf the loser, and being around him…. Look, aw, fuck.” He growled. “What do I say to him?” He hated having to ask that.
Dr. Finch was an irritating, smug bastard. “According to you, he knows everything anyway, so why not the truth?” To his credit, he gave no sign that Tim’s lowkey growling was bothering him. “Maybe try to tell him that you have a hard time during moments like those, and it’s not his fault, and you know he loves you, but it’s still hard for you, especially when you’re learning, and he’s so… um—”
“Nathaniel Neri?” Tim filled in for him.
Dr. Finch cleared his throat. “Yes. That. You’re only just learning to navigate the werewolf world, and a relationship. You’re allowed to struggle. To have bad days.”
Tim paused and considered. He heaved a breath. “He’ll want to help.”
“He sounds strong enough to know that there are times when he can’t.” Dr. Finch stood up and put his notepad on his desk. “He did send you here, after all.”
“He didn’t send me!” Tim rose to his feet, although to be honest, Nathaniel had nearly begged Tim to consider therapy after one night of especially bad nightmares. Tim wobbled, abruptly aware that his legs were shaky, his muscles sore as though they had been locked and tense for hours. He held onto the arm of the chair and tried to seem as though he didn’t need it to stand. “You know,” he offered, somewhat quieter, “if I could fight those weres to show him I’m good enough, I would. Which is stupid. He’d hate that too. And anyway, I could just find out their names and destroy them financially.” He paused when Dr. Finch’s heartrate suddenly doubled. “I’m kidding.”
He wasn’t kidding, which was why Nathaniel and all the deputies would hide all that information from him.
“Mmm hmm.” There was a bit of tension in Dr. Finch’s tone now.
“I’m gonna go,” Tim told him, unnecessarily, but he thought it might help him actually start to move. He swayed with the first step, lightheaded, but turned quickly toward the door and didn’t look back.
“See you next week?” Dr. Finch called after him.
Tim just waved. “Yeah yeah.”
The waiting room was empty, because Nathaniel wasn’t there, of course. Even if he had driven Tim today, he wouldn’t be there. He could hear through the walls, and had voluntarily decided to wait for Tim outside every time, rain or snow or shine.
Dr. Finch’s fainting secretary was nowhere to be found, either, which was fine. Tim wasn’t in the mood to scare her off right now. He took the stairs and not the elevator to give himself time to feel less shaky, but it didn’t matter, since one step outside into the sunlight and Zoe was suddenly at his side.
She frowned, considering him, and then tossed her head. “Bad one?” She didn’t pull Tim in, but a second later he had his face on her shoulder.
“Not really.” Tim swallowed and wondered if he could close his eyes. They were in public, but Zoe smelled safe, and she rubbed his back in cute, tentative circles. He was so tired and he liked her familiar heartbeat. He probably stank of nerves and exhaustion, but she petted him anyway. “On a scale of therapy sessions, this was okay, I guess.” He might take a nap in the truck. Or throw up. “Is he mad at me?”
“Don’t be dumb.” She flicked Tim’s ear, then dropped her head to nuzzle his hair.
Tim’s throat tightened like he was going to cry, and he grasped her arm in warning or some sort of stupid plea not to stop, and after a small moment of shock that he could feel, Zoe kept scentmarking him.
“Zoe.” His voice was trembling and he hid his face. “Zoe, can I talk to you sometime? About Cleo? About mates?”
Zoe made a funny little sound, startled maybe. Tim didn’t usually ask her for advice. But she nodded, then resumed rubbing her scent all over him. It was reassuring and easy and were. She wasn’t Nathaniel, but she was pack, his pack.
Tim burrowed in closer to her. “You won’t laugh?”
Zoe did not hold back her growl. “If it’s serious enough to scare you, Little Wolf, then no one should be laughing at it.”
Tim raised his head to look her in the eye. She was blushing and scowling, and she smelled like home and Nathaniel a little bit, even though she spent more time at Cleo’s than at the cabin. She smelled mated and settled, but she didn’t live with Cleo yet, and that was probably important. Tim exhaled deeply, but didn’t let her go. “Zoe,” he pronounced, very, very carefully, even though they were on the sidewalk, with humans all around them. “I want to tell you something.”