by shukyou (主教)
Graham kept one eye on the watch in his hand and the other on the cage. The nautical charts were pinned to the wall behind him, but by this point, he could have recited them by heart. His breath was so shallow it barely moved his chest as he watched the second hand dance its jerky round in a five-step pattern, four ticks and then a number. This was the last step, the one that would prove them fools or gods, but nothing in-between.
The room was flooded in light so bright it burned at Graham’s eyes, meaning that everywhere he looked, little impressions of his previous viewpoint followed behind him like off-colored ghosts. Every time the hand on the watch ticked forward, Graham could see echoes of the past. One hundred and seventy-six seconds to go.
He had paced away most of the night, lingering just beyond the edge of the tall directional lights. They did not know for certain, but they suspected from similar observations that the beast’s vision worked best in the dark, and they did not want to give it such an advantage. Instead, they played to the strengths of the human eye, much like spotlights would let an audience watch a performer, but would blind that same performer to those watching. Graham was watching. He had been watching all night, barely daring to move or breathe.
It had known he was there. He had not spoken to it, nor made any attempts to communicate, but he could tell the beast had an awareness of him. Probably smelled him, in fact, and Graham supposed he reeked especially of stress and insomnia. It had made no indication of hostility, though, nor had it shown any signs of aggression. Was that because it truly felt at peace, or because it was trying to lull Graham into a false sense of security? Graham was far too vigilant for that. He had stayed the whole evening just beyond the sphere of the light, casting himself as a one-man audience. The performance was all.
It was agony to his scientific mind to play into any of this. Matter could neither be created nor destroyed, and certainly not generated from nowhere, only be returned to that nothingness after. Alchemists had tried for millennia to master the art of transmutation, but not one of them had been successful at more than changing funding into nothing. And this was all, of course, to say nothing of how the moon was a satellite that could only reflect light, not generate it. Its greater influence was not its light or presence, but its proximity and pull on things such as the ocean. The world might grow dark and cold when the sun was away, but the moon’s absence from the sky did not make the tides suddenly cease. A month ago, he would have laughed himself into a stupor for entertaining any of these ridiculous notions, and would have laughed at Caleb for proposing them.
A month ago, the world had looked very different. In sixty-two seconds, it would change again, one way or another.
Inside the cage, the beast let out a low, plaintive exhale that sounded almost like a whine. The noise startled Graham so badly he nearly dropped his watch; it was the first real noise the beast had made in several hours. It stood, rising on all fours on its shaggy grey haunches, sniffing at the air. It jerked its head to one side, but staggered as it did, its front legs buckling under it. It had enormous paws, and the claws on the ends made Graham shudder to see even from a safe distance. The curious researcher’s part of his brain would have liked to have a closer look at them, but fortunately, his survival instincts were far louder and more pronounced. He would be content to record this phenomenon from afar.
He had indeed taken notes and a few photographs, all with permission. Those, he would develop in a private darkroom, for study no matter the outcome. Perhaps he could develop some theory of all this, something that could help others. Thirty-nine seconds. Graham felt sweat break out on the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet.
The beast shook a bit, arching its back and shaking its head with discomfort. It knew what was coming. Graham wanted to speak words of comfort to it, to tell it everything was going to be all right, but he did not want to agitate it with the sudden noise, and of course, he could not promise everything would be all right. Just because everything had gone well so far promised nothing for the future. No man of science should ever be foolish enough to think otherwise.
Despite himself, Graham stepped a bit closer — and there, it did notice him, jerking its long, toothy snout in his direction. Its eyes were a soft brown, sharp and intelligent. It looked right at him as he walked into the light, regarding him with singular focus. Even with yards of distance and several iron bars between them, Graham felt exposed. But he couldn’t stand by for this, the crux. Eighteen seconds. Almost over.
The beast jerked and drew its lip back, revealing its teeth in a snarl. It did not growl, though, and after a moment, it did not seem to see Graham at all. It began to shake violently, then threw itself against the bars, making the whole cage shake. No, no, that wasn’t good. Had the dose not been enough? He had more in syringes against the wall, but there was no way he was stabbing a needle into a beast having a fit like this one. Even if he could, he didn’t dare tempt a fatal overdose. If only he could have taken some of the beast’s blood, to run an analysis for sedative levels–
No, there was no time. There were only five seconds left. It was all out of Graham’s hands.
With a plaintive cry, the beast threw itself twice more against the bars, shaking them more violently each time. Its construction was sturdy, though, and it held. The beast was panting heavily, whimpering with each exhale. It didn’t like what was coming either.
Graham’s own heart seemed to stop as the second hand on the watch ticked over the large IX: 7:18 AM and forty-five seconds. Moonset.
The beast collapsed as though a puppeteer had dropped its strings. It shook, whimpering, and as Graham watched, it began to — well, there seemed no other way to describe it than to say it began to recede. Its long grey tail moved first, shrinking as though it had been made of ice, then exposed to a furnace. The rest of its frame shrunk along with it, reabsorbed somehow into the frame beneath it.
And there was a frame beneath it, the same one Graham had seen expand with malignant growth almost fifteen hours previous. The horrors he had witnessed then, he now saw in reverse, as flesh warped and changed to hide what it had spewed forth. The process looked agonizing, but that it happened at all was miraculous, and that it happened so quickly was beyond even Graham’s best expectations. The beast made no sound, until the beast was no more, and nothing was left on the floor of the cage except Caleb.
This, most of all, had been where Caleb had urged caution, calm, forbearance. So of course Graham, in his excited state, ran straight for the cage’s door and spun the wheel until the tumblers fell into place and the lock disengaged. “Caleb!” he shouted, dropping to the floor and grabbing for Caleb’s neck, searching frantically for a pulse. “Caleb, are you–“
Oh, thank every god he didn’t believe in, he could feel a heartbeat. He put his hand on Caleb’s chest and felt his breathing, ragged and uneasy but still deep and steady. His eyes were closed as though in sleep, though his brow furrowed like that of a dreamer caught in a nightmare. But he was alive! That was the most important part. He was alive, and he appeared whole and essentially unharmed — certainly nothing like he had the month previous, when Graham had been called to his side in the hospital, or even the months before that, when Caleb had starting showing up wounded with near-perfect four-week regularity. Of course Graham had noticed his dear friend’s injuries, but had calculated no pattern to them. Caleb had laughed it off as the clumsiness of a man in his mid-twenties realizing age was beginning to stalk him, and Graham had laughed along with him, because what man of science would suspect his best friend since boyhood of a sudden onset of lycanthropy?
It’s getting worse, Caleb had said, finally confessing as Graham sat frozen with horror by his friend’s hospital bedside on that December afternoon. And worse the longer the nights are. I fear for the time I turn and don’t come back at all.
The night of that previous full moon had been the last full night Graham had slept since. He had thrown himself fully into the impossible, discounting no theory and dismissing no text, no matter how fanciful. He had read about everything from animal sedatives to welding. He had let his work at the university fall so far behind that his supervisors had suggested he take some time off to clear his head, which Graham had accepted gratefully. But had it all been enough? Or had it all been in vain?
“Caleb,” Graham said again, his voice softer now. He brushed Caleb’s brown, wavy hair back from his forehead, which was damp with sweat despite the room’s chill. “Caleb, are you all right? You’re safe. You made it through to the morning. Everything is going to be all–“
But before he could make that promise, a hand was on his windpipe, cutting off any further speech.
Gasping, Graham fell back to the floor of the cage as Caleb snapped to life and climbed right on top of him. Caleb was breathing heavily, so deeply his shoulders heaved with the effort. He had always been the taller and broader of the two, but Graham had never quite realized just how much larger that worked out to be until he found his much smaller frame pinned beneath it. A surge of terror spiked through him, burning adrenaline reserves he hadn’t known he’d had left. “Caleb!” he managed, despite the pressure on his throat. “Caleb, it’s me! It’s Graham!”
Did he imagine it, or was there indeed hesitation there? No, it was real — the force pressing down on his neck relented, though did not pull away completely. Caleb’s large hand remained wrapped around Graham’s bare throat, beneath the opened collar of his shirt. Caleb’s hand burned like coals against Graham’s chilled skin, even though Graham was still fully dressed, and Caleb–
That was right, Caleb was naked. He had kept on a robe the previous afternoon for modesty, but the beast had torn it apart during the transformation, and it was nowhere to be found now. He was as naked as though from birth, his body sprawled out over Graham’s in the manner of a predator considering what to do with its prey. He did not speak, but his wide eyes searched Graham’s face, seeing and not seeing him all at once. He sniffed the air the same way the beast had, in the same way that had let Graham know it had Graham’s scent.
“Caleb,” Graham tried again, his voice as soft and soothing as he could push through his terror to make it. “Caleb, it’s Graham. Your friend. You don’t want to hurt me.”
Caleb drew back fractionally, cocking his head with a frown. Graham had his attention; he was listening.
“You don’t want to hurt me,” Graham said, hoping like hell it was true. “You’ve been sick. Do you remember? We sedated you, we put you in this cage. We did it together. You and me.” Was the sedative still clouding Caleb’s mind? Or had they brought him back physically, but not mentally? Why, oh why, had Graham not thought to check this a thousand times over before unlocking the stupid cage door? “Try to remember, Caleb. You don’t want to hurt me. Try to remember what it is you really want to do.”
Caleb’s pale brow furrowed in consideration. He was still warm enough that Graham could feel the heat rolling off his skin even through the layers of his own rumpled clothing. He didn’t want to die, period, but if he had to, he’d rather it not be at the hands of his best friend and he’d rather it not be in clothes he’d last changed … three, four days ago? He’d wholly lost count and now wasn’t sure he wanted to spend his last moments on earth trying to recall.
Then Caleb bared his teeth and went straight for Graham’s throat.
Graham drew his breath to scream — though no one knew they were down there in the basement, nor could have heard them even if someone had been waiting in the house above — but the air slipped noiselessly from his lungs as what connected with the tender flesh of his neck was not the tearing bite of fangs, but the gentle warmth of soft lips. There were teeth behind them, though; there was no mistaking that. Graham felt the edges of Caleb’s canines skim just over the veins in his throat, followed by the wet, hot drag of Caleb’s tongue.
That was it, Graham knew. He was going to die, right here on the floor of the cage, unwashed, exhausted — and extremely hard. Even had he tried to ignore his erection, the press of Caleb’s bare knee between his thighs would have doing so impossible. Caleb’s body pushed down on his, causing a reaction that, more than anything else thus far, made Graham want to sink into the floor.
Of course he knew he had a crush on Caleb. He’d known it since they’d been boys flicking notes at each other when the teacher’s back was turned. Graham had simply resigned himself to putting himself through the most excruciating physical and emotional contortions possible to make sure that his friend never caught so much as a hint of his desires. He would have wagered what little wealth he had that he had done his job well, making sure that his urges never threatened Caleb or turned him away. He had even managed to be happy for all of Caleb’s short-lived relationships with various lovely, charming young women, even as Graham himself had insisted time and again that he was simply too busy with his education for all the effort a romance would take.
No, Graham had resolved years ago that it would be enough just to be Caleb’s friend. Wanting more was the way to madness and misery, and since he did not wish either of those states on himself, he decided to stop wanting.
None of that, however, was doing much toward telling Graham’s cock not to get its hopes up. In fact, as Caleb’s teeth grazed the skin of Graham’s neck, Graham grew so hard he was afraid he might tear his trousers. “Caleb,” he managed, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
Caleb pressed their mouths together roughly, his teeth cutting Graham’s lower lip as they kissed, or fought, since there was as much gentleness in the contact as there was bite. Graham whimpered and reached for Caleb, but Caleb grabbed Graham’s wrists and slammed them to the floor above his head. With Caleb’s larger body, he only needed a single hand to pin both Graham’s wrists together, all without breaking the kiss.
Pinning him was almost unnecessary; Graham could have hardly moved, he was so aroused by the situation. He was more than just near Caleb’s body — he was at Caleb’s mercy, and the sensation made his head spin. He chastised his body for having such an absurd reaction to obviously mortal danger. His body was unrepentant.
Then Caleb pressed into Graham’s body with even more ferocity, and Graham realized that the jabbing sensation against his hip was in fact Caleb’s own cock, as steely and insistent as the beast’s claws had been, even at rest. Caleb rutted up against him, exhaling hot air against Graham’s lips.
When he pulled back to look at Graham, there was light and comprehension in Caleb’s eyes, and far more intelligence than the beast had ever shown. Yet at the same time, there was something else animal around the edges, something that had not yet made the transition all the way back from its feral state. The sedative, Graham figured, was likely at the root of it — he’d done rounds in the hospital before, where he’d seen people returning from surgery, pulling themselves up through fogs of incomprehension and panic they could not remember later. Perhaps this was the same as that, rendering Caleb at the mercy of instincts he’d be ashamed of later.
Graham’s own need, however, had no such excuse. He gasped as Caleb moved his cock against the fabric of Graham’s trousers, feeling there for friction. He’d seen Caleb naked before, of course, but never naked and erect. Even just by touch, he could tell the difference in size was substantial. And even if it hadn’t been, it was Caleb, and no size, large or small, could have made Graham want him any less.
The feeling of Caleb’s knee between his thighs made Graham whimper and arch his back. With a sharp grunt, Caleb tightened his grip around Graham’s wrists, as though mistaking Graham’s movement for a struggle. The pressure meant only one thing: Graham was his quarry, and he wasn’t getting away. Not, at least, until Caleb was finished.
Exhaling heavily, Caleb took his free hand and flipped Graham over onto his belly, his face pressed down against the bare, cold floor of the cage. With Graham still clothed, Caleb all but mounted him, getting his cock right in the cleft of Graham’s ass cheeks. Graham cried out with surprise, his heart pounding in his ears. He raised his hips as much as he could, giving Caleb the friction he obviously wanted. God, if he’d been naked, would Caleb just have penetrated him right there, no preparation or warning? Would Graham have let him? Would he have begged for it?
His own cock, pressed between his body and the hard floor, throbbed, though there was no way for Graham to reach it. His hands frozen above his head, he was indeed at Caleb’s mercy. Caleb could have fucked him there, or killed him, or some combination of the two, and Graham would have taken it all. He felt Caleb’s breath against the back of his neck, as fiery and warm as the rest of him.
After a minute or two of this, rubbing himself off hard against Graham’s ass, Caleb cried out. His body shuddered as he came all over Graham’s back and ass, even though Graham could only feel a hint of dampness through his clothes. He snapped his teeth against Graham’s ear, then collapsed beside him, freeing Graham from his grasp.
Had he been in his right mind, Graham would never have done what he did next. He was exhausted, though, running on adrenaline and desperate with need and certain that he might never get this chance again. So instead of cleaning up and pretending nothing like this had ever transpired between them, as a good gentleman and a good friend should, he turned on his side, facing Caleb. With one hand, he undid his trousers, letting his cock spring free.
With his other, he reached for one of Caleb’s hands, the same strong paws that had held him down. He grabbed Caleb by the wrist and wrapped his fingers around Graham’s own cock, guiding it in a stroking motion. “Touch me,” Graham panted, pressing their foreheads together. “Touch me, please.”
Caleb fumbled for a moment, as though his fine motor skills were still returning to him. Then, as though in a moment of sudden realization, he grasped Graham’s erection tight, making his fingers a snug embrace for Graham’s cock.
“Caleb, please,” Graham whispered, the way he’d only ever done before when he was alone, stroking himself off and dreaming of what it would feel like to be in his friend’s good hands. “Please, please.” It felt better than he had ever imagined, better than he had ever been able to simulate through his own furtive nighttime fumblings. Nothing in the world would ever feel this good again, and he wanted it to last.
Of course, it could not. He had been too keyed up, too filled with emotion and arousal and relief, and it was barely seconds of this before he was coming too, coating Caleb’s hand with seed. He should feel bad. He would feel bad, he knew. But for now, for this moment only, he shut his eyes and let himself feel good. If it was the last moment in his life he would know this kind of contentment, then at least he would not regret it until it was over.
And just like that, everything was indeed over. With all the enthusiasm of a man facing the gallows, Graham opened his eyes.
He expected to find Caleb furious, or perhaps betrayed, or even a weeping mess. What he did not expect to see was a bright little smile lifting the corners of Caleb’s mouth. “I, ah…” Caleb swallowed and exhaled long and hard, shaking his head as though rousing himself from a deep sleep. “I think we did it.”
“Did…?” asked Graham, frowning.
“I feel–” Caleb looked himself up and down, seeming less concerned with his half-flaccid, jism-smeared state, and more with the rest of his general physical being. “I feel amazing. You don’t understand, I–” He reached for Graham, grabbing for his friend’s shoulder — and in the process making a mess of his vest that Graham supposed he could worry about later. “For months, ever since the bite, I’ve awakened battered and bruised, praying someone would find me in time to get me to a hospital before I bled out in the street. And now — well, look at me!”
Graham could look at nothing but. There was a bit of reddish bruising starting to color Caleb’s right shoulder, presumably from where he’d tossed himself against the bars shortly before moonrise, and the bite in question still made a puckered ring around the back of his left calf. But otherwise, he looked in as fine health as he had the day before — better, even, given that his previous cloud of impending doom seemed to have lifted from him.
“We did it,” Caleb said again, squeezing Graham’s shoulder. “No, you did it. You saved me.”
“I…” Graham pressed his lips together and looked down at his lap, then panicked and hastily fastened up his pants. “Maybe I should get you some clothes.”
Caleb’s eyes widened — and then widened, slapped with the force of sudden situational awareness. “Oh,” he said, bringing a hand to his mouth. The joy of surviving the full moon near-painlessly had been replaced with dawning horror.
Graham felt his stomach turn. He had known Caleb would be disgusted and furious — he had known, and yet Graham had given into his urges anyway! Stupid! Where was his resolve now, his swearing up and down that his friend would never know his shameful desires? What was wrong with him, that he couldn’t do anything right without doing everything else wrong at the same time?
“Dear God,” Caleb muttered from behind his fingers. “God, Graham, I — I am so sorry.”
Graham felt his whole face pucker into a frown of incomprehension. “Pardon?”
“I — hell’s bells, I thought it was a dream.” Caleb pulled his long legs up to his body, drawing in on himself. “It’s sometimes like that, the transition. I can’t tell what’s real and what I’ve just imagined. I give in to need without thinking. Before this it’s mostly been me hurting myself, but now I … I didn’t dare believe I’d actually gone so far as to ravish you.”
“Ravished me?” No matter what came of it, Graham could hardly let his friend feel the blame for something that, so far as Graham was concerned, was entirely his own fault. “I took advantage of you!”
“Oh, really?” Caleb folded his arms across his chest. “So what, you just pinned yourself to the floor, then?”
“Well, no, I–” Graham shook his head. “You were a wolf! Or, rather, recently un-wolved. You said yourself, you have little conscious control over what happens when you’re in your transformed state.”
“Yes! When I’m in my transformed state! Which I was not!” Caleb smacked his thigh with a fist.
“And I have no transformed state at all,” Graham pointed out, “which gives me no excuse one way or another!”
“For–” Caleb quirked his mouth to one side. “I’m sorry, what do you believe that you did?”
Graham felt the flush rise in his pale cheeks. “I … I selfishly took advantage of your helpless condition,” he muttered at last.
“And I yours!” Shaking his head, Caleb sighed. “So perhaps, can we both agree that we violated each other mutually?”
“That’s worse!” exclaimed Graham, who startled himself with those words to realize that he was laughing. What on earth was happening here? They had spent so many hours of their friendship in heated philosophical disagreement over one thing or another — were they now actually fighting to be the one who had more culpably taken the other’s virtue? “That says nothing good about either of us!”
The corner of Caleb’s mouth turned in a hopeful smile. “Or perhaps it says something good about both of us, together?”
“I don’t follow.”
After a moment’s pause, Caleb reached for Graham’s hand, and Graham responded by taking it, letting his fingers twine with Caleb’s. “I think,” Caleb said, his voice soft as he looked at the place where they made contact, “that perhaps you and I have been friends so long that we each know the other better than we know ourselves.”
Caleb’s skin was still warm, but not the fireplace-warm it had been before, raging inside him like a fever. That fever had passed, burning through and out the other side, leaving nothing but what they could not avoid. Somewhere above them, the sky was shading blues and pinks, waiting for the few rays of sunlight it would get on this short January day. The next full moon’s time in the sky would be shorter by almost a full hour, and then another hour after that, all the way to high summer. The days would get short again, but by then the two of them would be practiced at this. Graham might never be able to make it pleasant, but he could surely at least manage making it comfortable, which was several steps up from the base goal of not shortening Caleb’s life. And as for what else might come out of that, well, they’d just have to see, wouldn’t they?
Graham cleared his throat, squaring his shoulders like the upright man of science he was. “At any rate, I have some ideas for improvement for next time.”
“Do you, now?” asked Caleb, smiling.
“I do.” Graham nodded. After all, what was the point of an experiment if not to analyze the results and make recommendations for further study? “Though I’d of course be open to any feedback you have about the experience.”
Caleb squeezed Graham’s hand. “About your … performance?”
Graham narrowed his eyes at Caleb, almost managing to screw his face into a look of stern indignation that masked a bashful smile. “Or any other aspects of the evening you believe could use improvement. I’m ready to listen.”
“Mm. I have a better idea.”
“Oh?” Graham frowned.
Caleb nodded and started pulling himself to his feet; Graham held his arm and helped Caleb stand, though he was feeling less than steady himself. Upright, Caleb was almost a full head taller than Graham, which made Graham think of what that size difference had been like on top of him, then blush again. Caleb smiled and touched his hand to Graham’s cheek. “I think,” he said, steadying no small part of his weight against Graham, “that we both are hungry, filthy, and exhausted, and that we will need to take care of those issues long before we have to deal with the next full moon, and that upstairs we can find a bath, some breakfast, and a bed with our names on it.”
Graham’s eyebrows arched sharply at the mention of the house’s accommodations. “One bath?”
“And one bed,” Caleb said with a playful smirk, starting for the cell’s door and the cellar stairs beyond. “And then, after a good night’s rest, I think we’ll both be ready to discuss which parts of this past evening we feel should continue even after morning comes.”
Graham found himself uncharacteristically at a loss for words as he allowed himself to be led from the cellar. They would be back again soon enough, but a great deal could change between now and then. He reached for the switch on the wall and shut off the floodlights, leaving as their only guide the promise of early sunshine from the top of the stairs. Exhausted and hopeful, he followed his best friend up into their shared new day.