Kota lay curled up in the dark, his arms over his head to block out the sounds coming from downstairs. Getting past Erin and the other guests had been simple enough; they were all too busy talking about the wolf to notice him as he slipped in through the kitchen and fled up the stairs to his room.
He replayed the incident at the edge of the forest over and over again in his head, but every time he remembered that moment when Lani started playing her flute he curled in further on himself to try and escape the shame.
How did it happen? Surely it couldn’t have just been the music, but no other answer presented itself except for one he did not want to consider. Everything had become a red haze of anger and rage, and even now he wasn’t entirely sure what he meant to do when he stepped out from beneath those trees.
Something small and fluffy maneuvered its way through his arms to look in at his face and squeak.
“Hey, Voi,” he whispered, and rubbed the top of the dust bunny’s head. He paused when he noticed the little creature was shaking.
With his head so close to the floor, he easily heard the light footstep in the hall before someone opened the door to his room without knocking.
“Kota?” Lani called softly. “Are you in here?”
Kota stiffened, suddenly aware that the closet felt fuller than it had a minute ago. Although he could see very little with just the light coming in from under the door, he had a feeling that various unseen…things were crowding in around him in the small space, and under his hand Voi trembled more than ever.
“Come out, come out,” the tamer said as she paced around the room. Judging by the sound of her steps and the way her voice changed in pitch, Kota thought she was looking under the bed as she added, “What did you think, of our little show in the woods? Should we give the guests a little encore?”
She was walking toward the closet now. Kota silently reached up and grabbed the handle of the door just as the tamer tried to open it. He held it as tight as he could, and felt the unseen things move behind him, all of their attention riveted on his attempt to delay the inevitable.
“What are you doing in here?”
Kota had never been so happy to hear Erin’s voice before.
Lani let go of the doorknob and said, “I was just worried about Kota. You haven’t seen him around, have you?”
“So you went rummaging in his room?” Erin scoffed. “Look around, he’s not in here. Now get out.”
Lani took a long time to answer, but when she did her voice sounded different, less chirrupy sweet and more serious. “How well do you know Kota, Erin?”
“What? He’s my partner, so I think I know him well enough.” Erin paused and said, less certain now, “Are you…do you, you know…”
“Am I interested in him?” Lani asked, and chuckled. “Yes, you could say that. He’s not taken, is he?”
“Huh? No, I…No, don’t think so.” Erin cleared her throat and said, “Still, you shouldn’t be in here. I’m sure Kota’s cleaning out the attic or doing the laundry or something. He can’t stay still for anything.”
“Oh, I’m sure I can teach him how to stay,” Lani said before she walked out the door.
After a moment to give Lani time to get down the stairs, Kota fell out of the closet and almost landed on Erin’s feet.
“Kota!” Erin clapped a hand over her mouth and checked to make sure Lani had not heard. “You were here the whole time?”
“Well, not the whole time,” Kota said, turning over to stare back into the closet. The empty space looked back at him, as did Voi who sat nestled in one of the inn’s blankets at the bottom of the closet. “I did take a little detour outside, but I guess you already knew that?”
“Were you…” Erin looked from the blanket on the floor of the closet and back to the immaculately made bed. “Do you sleep in there?”
“Less chance of an accident,” Kota said, inclining his head toward the window whose curtains were closed so as not to let in even the merest hint of sunlight. He stood up and added, “Thank you for covering for me, Lani almost had the door open.”
Erin looked at the blanket again, thinking that this looked like more than just trying to avoid the sun, but she said, “Why were you hiding from her? Just to avoid explaining that?”
That got Erin’s full attention. She knew Kota wasn’t talking about the closet. “Are you sure?”
“She called me by name, out there, but I think she knew before then.” Kota ran a hand over his face and sighed. “Lani told me she had something planned for today; no doubt she hoped I would be curious enough to follow, and then…”
“Kota, what happened out there?” Erin studied his face closely for any sign of that wolf she had seen coming out of the trees.
“I don’t know.” Kota whispered the words as he stared at nothing in particular, his eyes like those of a lost child more than anything. “I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t think at all, I was just so…so angry. I’ve never felt like that, not s-sure how it happened.”
He recovered from the slip without even blinking, but Erin’s mind went ahead and filled in the words that he meant to say: “not since.”
“Has this happened before?” she asked.
“No, I’ve never run into a tamer before,” he answered, turning to shut the closet door. Voi scurried out before it closed and disappeared down the hall, to wherever it was he went the rest of the time.
“That’s not what I’m asking.” Erin stepped closer to Kota and he backed up, the handle of the closet door pressing into the small of his back. “Have you ever lost control like that before?”
Kota stared down at her, both eyes and his mark clearly visible this close. He closed them so that he could not see her reaction when he said, “Yes, but not as the wolf.”