I should have gone to culinary school, I thought as I carefully slurped a mouthful of hot, homemade beef stew. Perfection. I grinned down at the pot and placed the lid back on, turning the heat down to a simmer. It had been Mam’s recipe to start with, but I’d tweaked it just a little bit over the years. A pinch of this, a pinch of that… not too shabby for a kid living with his old man and just trying to get by.
It had been hard, those first days and weeks and months after Mam passed away. Up until then we’d been country wolves, living in a little cottage up Montana way. I still remembered it fondly. Mam had grown roses all over - climbers up the sides of the house, bushes lining the property line, and a few less hardy varieties safe in her greenhouse.
The greenhouse had been like a secret world when I was a pup. I didn’t even have to shift into my fur in order to feel completely warm, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, even in the dead of winter. Mam had always kept me well stocked in petit fours and beef jerky while I played out dashing scenes of piracy and battles and omega runs.
It was hunters that killed her. She’d gotten away - but only barely - and stumbled into the cottage bloody and shaking. I’d been only twelve years old.
Dad and I had both been completely lost without her. I think that if he hadn’t had me to care for, he would have just wasted away - just shifted into his wolf and run, never looking back.
As it was, we found our own ways of coping, after a time. Mine was cooking. I thought that if I was able to master Mam’s lasagna, and her chocolate chip cookies, and her coq au vin, that she’d be proud of me.
It wasn’t until I graduated high school that I really understood that she would have been proud of me even if all I could ever do was microwave a bowl of that disgusting, canned Dinty Moore beef stew that Dad bought from the store by the truckload before I’d desperately shoved him aside to take the reins in the kitchen.
I placed the tasting spoon into the sink just as the timer went off for the oven. It was the work of a moment to grab the oven mitts from the counter and ease out the casserole - a hearty chicken and mushroom - onto the trivet to cool.
After, I took in a deep breath, leaning back against the countertop and surveying my domain. There were pots and pans and bowls everywhere. It seemed like I dirtied up everything that could be dirtied every time I did a big meal prep. But after living on caffeine and grocery store sandwiches for the last few days, it was worth it. The food looked and smelled amazing - and by the time I was done in here, I’d have everything packaged up for me and dad to last us most of the week. Perfect end to a perfect day.
I’d finished the last of my exams that morning. Once the results came back next week, I’d be a fully fledged university graduate - just in time for Christmas. I was still debating what I’d do after that, though. I’d applied to a couple of grad schools - and had even been accepted - but I wasn’t sure.
We’d been in the city for eight years now. And don’t get me wrong - it had been good to us. The local statutory packs had a pretty laissez-faire attitude to lone wolves and family packs. Being in a new environment had helped Dad and I begin to heal and move forward. I’d made friends, and Dad had coworkers he could count on.
But eight years was a long time.
I sort of thought it might be time to go home.
My dad, Nash, was late getting home that night - but not so late that I started to worry. He stepped in the front door carrying a box of my favorite lemon-berry cookies from McGonagall’s Bakery, and he’d had them put a little card in the top that said, Congratulations graduate!
“Proud of you,” Dad said as he leaned in to nudge my shoulder. We were used to scent marking each other as soon as we came through the door. We were wolves, after all. Some animal instincts never fully went away.
“Dad,” I grinned. “You shouldn’t have.”
“They’re just cookies,” he said, and opened the box with a flourish, grabbing a treat from the top.
I rolled my eyes, but spoke sincerely. “Thank you, Dad.” He hadn’t been thrilled when I’d chosen to pursue a degree in Folklore & Mythology rather than something easier to make a career in - say Accounting, or Forestry. But he’d been behind me every step of the way. It made me feel warm inside, to see the evidence of his pride in me. Which made me wonder if I shouldn’t put off the conversation I’d been planning. I didn’t like to disappoint him. Again.
“Well, I’d better go get washed up,” he said, his mouth full of cookie. “Something smells good.”
“Beef stew,” I said. “I thought I might pop some in a thermos tomorrow and drive out of the city, take a post-exam hike.” I hid the guilty feeling burbling in my stomach behind a small smile.
“Sounds like a plan. Give me a couple minutes and I’ll meet you at the table.”
True to his word, Dad was back quickly, pulling out his chair just as I sat the full bowls down at our places.
“So what’s next?” he asked, bringing a spoonful of stew to his mouth. He paused before he took the bite. “Have you decided about your Master’s, or were you gonna look for work for a while?”
I shoved a bite in my mouth before lowering the spoon I was holding back into my bowl. I wasn’t sure if I’d have much of an appetite once I started talking. “Actually,” I began, but then the words sort of fizzled out. We’d had this conversation before.
“What is it, son?” Dad asked kindly. “It’s okay if you wanted to enroll in that program at Berkeley. I’ve been putting out feelers to see if there are any job leads if you picked that one.”
I forced a half smile and took a deep breath. “It’s not Berkeley, Dad,” I said. “Although their program is pretty tempting. It’s…” I could see his face start to grow impatient. Now or never, I thought to myself
“Ijustwanttogohome,” I blurted out.
“What was that?”
I cleared my throat. “I want to go home, Dad.”
My words hung in the air for a long moment before Dad pushed his bowl away and leaned forward. I winced. “You’re entitled to want to see the place again,” he said evenly.
That’s what he’d done the last time. Even, controlled voice that froze me out before a final, clipped, ‘No’. I’d been younger then, of course. Still in high school. I thought that maybe this time could end differently, but my shoulders still slumped. “But you don’t want to come with me.”
Dad sighed, and I hated that I put the crease back between his eyebrows. “When were you planning to go?” he asked.
“Not ‘til after Christmas,” I said quietly. “Dad - I’m sorry. I just… I miss the roses, and how the air was so clean. I miss shifting for a good long run up in the hills, and just… I miss feeling close to her.”
He let out a breath and collapsed back in his chair. “You know there’s no telling what that garden looks like now.”
“I know,” I said.
“The pack probably didn’t keep it up,” he continued, referencing the larger pack that held sway over that territory. When we left, the alpha was my mam’s Uncle Harold. He hadn’t been pleased to see us go, but he understood why we were leaving, and told us that we’d always be welcome to return.
“Probably not,” I said.
I didn’t want to jinx it. This was farther than I’d gotten before. It had to be more than he’d spoken about the place in years. I kept my mouth shut while he pursed his lips.
“Aw, hell, Jay,” Dad said finally. “I suppose if you want to go home, we’ll go home.” He pulled his bowl closer to himself and picked up his spoon again.
I hid a smile. I hadn’t actually meant to make Dad uproot his life here. Our packbond was strong enough for me to spend a few weeks or even months up there and then come back to figure out the rest of my life. Lots of wolves did leave their birthpack for good - Dad had when he’d joined Mam’s - but we were all we had. We had a close relationship, and neither of us wanted to be truly lone wolves. We’d probably stay in our family pack of two until I found an alpha I liked enough to mate with, and then we’d join with his.
But right now, this was better. Dad had capitulated so easily that he must have been thinking about it himself, even if he’d never admit to it. I thought it would be a good thing. We’d moved to the city to get away from Mam’s ghost. Maybe moving back home would help Dad to move on from it.