Peter cut the thread and carefully removed it from the skin of his patient. “As good as new,” he said with a practised smile.
It was a lie. His patient was not as good as new. Far from it. That the sutures had been in for a week, that the wound was healed and the bruises on his body fading did not mean that he was well. No at all. He had not been sitting still since he came back. He hardly had time to have a cup of tea with Peter. He had been training, helping with the practical tasks all around headquarters, had written reports and all the other things that he did. But his heart hadn’t been in anything, Peter knew.
“Do you want to talk?” Peter asked.
Hector gave him a slow glance. “About what?”
“Hector,” sighed Peter. “Please stop it.”
Peter usually considered himself a peaceful man, at least for the majority of the month, but right now he just wanted to shake the hunter until he had a proper reaction. It was selfish of him to think like that, he knew, but how could Hector shut him out now? Weren’t they close enough to talk about the important things? He was the hunter’s doctor and his friend, and if one of those two things weren’t enough, the combination ought to be. He had opened up to Hector innumerable times. He was indebted to the man with his life. Had been since he saved the doctor years ago, but Peter also owed him for every month, whenever Hector was home, for being there to turn the key. Peter recalled very little of his days as a wolf, but he remembered Hector. He remembered seeing the hunter standing there with all his confidence, waiting for inhumanity to take over. And he recalled seeing him when he returned and was lying naked and exhausted on the floor. And even though it wasn’t Hector every time, he remembered most clearly of all how Hector unlocked the cage and handed him his clothes. How he smiled and said, “Welcome back, Peter,” in a way that somehow managed to make him feel welcome although a few hours earlier, he would undoubtedly have torn the hunter apart and the hunter would undoubtedly have aimed his rifle at him if they had met under different circumstances.
But now … Now Hector was just sitting there. He looked like a grey and exhausted shadow. “How much do you drink these days?” Peter tried.
Hector smiled. “Enough,” he said.
He wasn’t even going to deny it. Wasn’t going to hide it. Peter wanted to either embrace him and comfort him or slap his face as hard as he could. He knew the hunter was mourning. They had all cared about Tomas, and the two of them, Hector and Tomas, had been like brothers. Perhaps even closer. Fate would have been kinder if they had been killed at the same time, but that was not how it had happened, and Hector did not want to stop working, stop to think, even for a moment. “Hector …”
“What do you want me to do? Huh, Peter? You’re the doctor!” The words were hissed at him.
Peter looked down for a moment. Then he went to his desk, put his hand on the teapot to make sure it was still hot and poured two cups. He went back and handed one to Hector. “No doctor can make Tomas come back. And no medicine can make your grief vanish. It takes time before …”
“Thanks, I’ve heard that,” Hector interrupted him. But the anger was gone from his voice now. “And it’s fine. It’s the risk involved in my job. I have known that all along. It hasn’t changed. Yes, I miss Tomas, but he would not have wanted me to sit here and do nothing and cry all day, would he? Tomas would have held his head high and …”
“No,” Peter almost whispered. “If it had been the other way around, I would have been here with Tomas, trying to make him realise that it is expected and completely understandable to mourn.”
“I wish …” Hector stopped himself.
Peter felt an icy dagger turn in his stomach. He knew perfectly well where that sentence was headed. The hunter put down the teacup and hid his face in his hands. The muscles in his shoulders and back grew tense. His breathing changed.
When the hunter looked up again, his expression was calm, but he was crying.
Peter put down his cup too. His professional opinion was that Hector needed a friend more than a doctor right now. He put his hands on Hector’s shoulders. When he was not pushed away, he stepped closer and embraced the hunter.
Hector put his arms around Peter. They had never done this before. Peter knew that Hector and Tomas had, that many of the hunters embraced. They went out there and faced danger, and they needed that sort of thing. Reassurance, support, camaraderie. They knew that every single time there was a risk. Every single time, one of them may not come back again.
It was ugly, Peter felt, so horribly selfish of him to feel the way he did, but what made them think that he didn’t need it? He wasn’t a hunter, would never be able to live the life they did, but it was, after all, him they left behind. Every time Hector and Tomas or anyone else left Frankfurt, there was a risk. Yes, he was doing this to comfort his friend. But that was not the only reason. A horrible feeling welled up inside him. He hugged Hector closer.
Roan stopped when Hector touched his reins. Something had just moved somewhere close. Hector listened hard. “Royer!” he called out. It may not be wise. If Royer couldn’t control himself, after all … But he wasn’t going to sneak up on Royer and shoot him, was he? He would do it if he was forced to, but he didn’t expect to be. And certainly didn’t want to be. “It’s me. Hector,” he continued when there was no answer. “You don’t need to hide. I won’t hurt you. You know I have given you my word that I will protect you.”
A movement caught his attention. The hunter managed not to draw his revolver or his rifle, but just to turn his head in the direction where he thought someone was hiding between the trees. “Royer?” he repeated.
A big wolf emerged from the darkness. It was walking slowly, timidly, towards him. It didn’t look feral. Its tail was between its legs, and its ears were flat against its head, but it looked very familiar. The blue eyes, the thick, grey fur …
Hector smiled, felt his shoulders relax. It was only now that he realised just how anxious he had been. How scared he had been that he had lost another one. That he had lost Royer. He took a deep breath. Where did he go from here? “Royer. Good to see you,” he said. He slid off the Friesian’s back to approach the wolf. It put him temporarily in a risky position with his side to the animal and no easy way to aim. But he wouldn’t need that. He wouldn’t.
The wolf stopped. He held his head low and watched the hunter carefully.
Hector took a couple of steps, then crouched on the ground. “Do you understand me?”
The wolf didn’t answer. But he came a little closer before he stopped once more. Then a feeling that yes, the wolf did understand him, wiggled its way into Hector’s head.
He smiled again. “Good. So you are you … only as a wolf?”
The wolf let him feel that it was indeed the case.
“You aren’t hurt, are you?” Hector asked and reached out a hand.
Royer padded up to the hand and touched it with the side of his head. He felt unharmed. Yes, he was unharmed.
“Good. I am truly sorry for what happened. I did not think anyone would break into our room,” Hector said and experimentally let his hand slide around Royer’s ear to scratch him.
The tail came out from between the wolf’s legs. He wagged it once, almost tentatively.
“I finished my work back there.” Hector stroked the soft fur while he was speaking. It was a strange feeling to be so close to the wolf. But why? They had eaten together, slept in the same room, even the same bed, and bathed together. It only felt different now because it was full moon and Royer couldn’t turn back into a man whenever he wanted to. They couldn’t speak, not really. He could talk, and Royer clearly understood him and could make his thoughts or feelings known to Hector, but it was quite different from two human beings having a conversation. “I’m tired … Let’s find a place to sleep.”
Royer wagged his tail once more and turned around. He wanted Hector to follow.
Hector stood up and took hold of Roan’s reins to lead him along. It was still warm although it was in the middle of the night, so sleeping outside was not a problem. He had hoped for a good night’s sleep in a soft bed and for being able to wake up to a mug of strong tea and a good breakfast, but that was not an option now. It was fine, though. Hector had found Royer, and Royer was not hurt, so at least he had kept his part of his promise. And now he was convinced that whether the wolf man was a kind of werewolf or something entirely different, his travelling companion clearly was not a threat even during full moon. Having experienced that firsthand would give him an edge when he introduced Royer to his colleagues and Peter and the board when they finally reached Frankfurt.
Finally. Frankfurt seemed so ridiculously far away. He could not just enter the villages on the way with a wolf. And he especially couldn’t saunter into the city back home with a wolf. They would have to stay out here until Royer could turn back into his human form.
Royer led him to a clearing in the woods where the moonlight made the undergrowth silvery and the shadows deep. It was cosy, but there was plenty of room for a horse, a wolf and a man. Royer sat down and studied Hector while he unrolled his blanket. The one he still had after carrying the werewolf’s head in the other one.
“Is something wrong?” Hector asked.
Naturally Royer did not reply, but Hector could feel a wave of loneliness wash over him.
“Come here,” he said and patted the blanket. “You can sleep here.”
Royer’s ears were now standing upright again and he stepped closer, walked around in circles a few times and then lay down rolled up so close to Hector that they were almost touching. Hector reached out his hand and stroked the wolf’s back. Strange. Everything felt very different with Royer. Different from what? Other people. Normal people. When Royer was a wolf, he behaved very much like a big and kind dog. Apparently that didn’t even change at full moon. At first Hector was not sure that Royer wanted him to pet him or stroke his fur, but it felt like the wolf enjoyed it.
Hector turned around so that they were lying back to back after a while. Despite the warmth of the summer night, it was nice to feel Royer there. Perhaps, Hector mused, it was not that Royer was dog-like when he was a wolf. Perhaps he was like this all the time and Hector merely didn’t think about it when Royer was a man because as a rule, people didn’t scratch each other behind the ears. He smiled at the thought and closed his eyes.