Vessel

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Five

This has to stop.

Before anyone can notice their intense looks, Joey very stiffly shakes her head at him before loosening up and offering a small smile as if she’s greeting him normally. He doesn’t entirely get the message. At first he looked shocked. Now he looks confused. But no matter the emotion he’s portraying he won’t stop staring at her.

“Hey,” Valerie playfully swats at his arm. “You haven’t seen her all day, say happy birthday.”

Her breathing is shallow and she can feel her face heat up. She needs to take her cardigan off. She needs to get away from the overwhelming scent of Nutella. She needs Andrew to stop staring at her like that.

He clears his throat and his eyes flicker in every direction. “Uh, happy birthday, Jo.”

“Thanks,” she whispers, trying not to fall over at the sound of his voice. That’s new. And then they’re staring at each other again, but this time Valerie is distracted by Joey’s friends.

Valerie.

No, God. Why? Why is this happening? They’re supposed to get married in a year. They waited 10 years to start planning so this wouldn’t happen to one of them. They were convinced they would be mates when they turned 18, but they weren’t. Andrew needed a Luna and they were already so in love, so they decided to wait. He wouldn’t be Alpha until he was 30 and they only needed a year or two to plan the wedding and get married.

They waited 10 years and neither one of them found their fated mate. That whole time, they knew it could end in a moment, but they were in too deep to save themselves the heartbreak. But it never came anyway. So just a few months ago, they finally chose each other and started planning their wedding. Chosen mates. Nothing’s gotten in their way since they were 13. Until now. The reason Joey can’t talk to her sister about mates. She doesn’t have one. Andrew isn’t hers. Andrew is Joey’s. She feels like she’s going to pass out.

My parents should’ve left me in that alley. He’s in love with my sister. He’s 10 years older than me. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong with him. I don’t get to have him. I don’t get a mate. My family’s going to hate me.

The whirlwind of emotions is too much for her. Andrew has always just been Andrew – Valerie’s boyfriend and the future Alpha she can pick on without getting in trouble. Now he’s Andrew – a commanding presence with a protective nature, soulful green eyes, the kindest heart, and the ability to make you feel overwhelmingly safe.

And he’s meant for her, but he belongs to Valerie.

She has to get away from him, from them, from everyone. She quietly excuses herself and gives him one last look. The longing and sadness in his eyes is all her heart needs to crack open and bleed out. It’s settled then. They can’t do this. No one will ever have to know but them. Joey will keep her distance until they get a minute alone, they’ll reject each other, and that’ll be it. He goes on to marry Valerie and she... well she doesn’t know what she’s going to do. Just picturing life without a mate after feeling what it’s like to look into their eyes is more painful than she ever thought it would be.

She finds the strength not to look back as she walks further into the house. She recognizes friends from school, some of whom she already said hi to when she first arrived. They show her where the drinks are as if they know that’s exactly what she needs. They make sure not to offer her the ones that Valerie labelled NOT FOR JOEY.

She chooses a strawberry and lime cooler. One with fresh limes and not processed lime juice, otherwise she’d get sick. More sick than she feels already. Can she still smell Nutella? Yes, and she can feel eyes on her back. She grabs a second cooler and holds them both to her nose to sniff. That’s better.

“Usually alcohol isn’t what you snort but if you want to give it a try, I won’t stop you.”

She doesn’t even jump at the sound of Dina’s voice. She just keeps her eyes closed and inhales deeply.

“What’s going on, you okay?”

“Yeah, totally fine,” she lowers her drinks and offers her friend the best smile she can. “Where are Harper and Priya? I wanna play pool. And if that’s not free then foosball then pool.”

“They’re right behind me just getting some food,” she says slowly. “Joey, are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes, just overwhelmed by everyone. I wasn’t expecting this many people to care. And it was so nice and such a surprise that they care that much and that I got to experience this but, you know, all these people have their own lives and after tonight I may never be a thought in their mind again. They’ll probably forget about tonight and forget about me and I’ll be left behind and it just sucks to think about that when I’ll have tonight to look back on and remember when they cared before it all went to shīt.”

“Okay, come with me,” Dina grabs her arm.

“No, no, really I’m fine,” Joey dodges her and takes her first sip of one of her two drinks. “I just had some expectations that tonight already hasn’t lived up to and I’m dealing with it.”

Dina sighs sadly. “Are you talking about Thomas?”

Suddenly everything about Thomas seems stupid and pointless. “Yeah.”

Dina rubs her arm. “I’m sorry, Jo. But it just means that you’re gonna find someone 10 times better.”

Andrew’s 10 times better. She closes her eyes and tries to stop thinking about him. “Right. You’re right. Plus, now you and Harper only have to battle each other.”

Dina gives her a small smile but says nothing. “Hungry?”

“No, thirsty,” she takes a bigger gulp of one of her drinks just as Harper and Priya show up each with their own small plate of finger foods. “Pool, let’s go.”

And so they spend the first hour playing pool. Because their game gets so intense and Joey’s become more entertaining thanks to her drinks, some people come and watch them play. Every once in a while, she gets a whiff of Andrew. Whenever she does, she takes a sip of her drink or goes to get another one if she’s out.

Somehow, Joey and Harper win the game. Harper was great. Joey, on the other hand, reacts to alcohol almost as quickly as humans do. It’s a wonder she never dropped her cue stick or hit a ball right off the table. Dina discreetly brings her food and force feeds her, but she takes a sip of her drink after every bite. She’s moved on to gin and tonics.

The next hour is spent at the dartboard. Despite how much her peers seem to love drunk Joey, absolutely no one is letting her near the darts. Luckily Valerie isn’t checking up on her, otherwise she wouldn’t even be allowed on that side of the room. Thomas is playing with them, and despite knowing they’re not mates, he keeps looking over at her and making short and flirty conversation when it’s not his turn. Joey’s polite about it and doesn’t turn him away, but she drinks when he goes to play. She can’t imagine how she would’ve felt if she was still 17 and didn’t know who her mate was yet and Thomas was talking to her. Maybe they can do what Andrew and Valerie are doing. But Thomas is just going to find his mate and up and leave her anyway. What’s the point?

She doesn’t get a mate. Fated or chosen.

She knew life and the Moon Goddess may not have been so kind as to make Thomas her mate, but did they have to be such absolute assholes and take her actual mate away before she even gets the chance to have him at all? She was abandoned as a baby, she has no idea where she came from, she’s barely a real wolf, and now she doesn’t get a mate? What did she ever do?

She gets another whiff of Andrew and goes to get another drink.

She hasn’t seen him all night. He’s probably off with Valerie, planning their wedding, trying to forget all about Joey. She doesn’t blame him. Val’s already learning how to be a Luna. They hired a caterer. They hired Francis, a pack-native who works in Abbotsford, to be their photographer. They figured out their centrepieces. They finalized their seating chart and Joey still couldn’t convince anyone to let her sit beside Mr. Da Silva. If she’s going to sit there and watch her mate be in love with her sister, she at least wants some real entertainment.

She groans in her head, realizing that she really does have to go to their wedding. Joking aside. She has to be there. She has to dress up as a bridesmaid and walk down the aisle toward Andrew but then stand off to the side instead of in front of him like her sister will when she walks down the aisle in a beautiful white dress that she’ll probably get custom made and sent from France or Italy or some other foreign place.

She finishes her new drink in two gulps.

“Eat.”

She turns her head and sees Dina standing there holding a donut up to her mouth. She parts her lips and takes a bite. She can already feel it absorbing some of the alcohol. Not all of it. She’s still seeing in double but she doesn’t feel like she could vomit any second.

“Are you gonna tell me what’s going on?”

“I’m partying, it’s my birthday,” she shrugs, taking another bite of the donut that Dina’s still holding for her.

“You’ve never expressed this sort of interest in alcohol, ever.”

She swallows her bite and downs the shot of gin she was going to pour into her glass to make her next drink. “Well, I woke up this morning hoping I’d feel like a wolf but I didn’t. Still can’t hear her. Don’t know if she’s there. Then I walked around all day making creepy eye contact with any boy I passed hoping he’d be mine. Then I threw up because I couldn’t stop eating Nutella, and then I couldn’t stop smelling Nutella for a reason I couldn’t figure out until I got here and learned that my mate is going to be marrying my sister a year from now.”

She widens her eyes and gasps, covering her mouth and looking around them to make sure no one heard her. Dina freezes. “Andrew’s your m–”

She rushes forward and slaps her hand over her friend’s mouth. Now she feels like she’s going to panic. Nope, she really is panicking. Her breath is coming out choppy and she can’t keep her hand still on Dina’s face. Her mouth opens like she wants to say something but she can’t get anything past the pain in her chest.

Instead, she takes off. She pushes herself through the crowd of people. She needs to be alone in a quiet place with fresh air, so she pushes until she gets to the back door and slides it open. She hops out, weakly closes the door, and side steps with her eyes closed until she can press her back up against the cool brick. Relief.

“Joey? What’s wrong?”

Nope. When she opens her eyes she sees Valerie sitting a few feet away on a brown muskoka chair, leaning forward, and hands tangled with Andrew’s, who’s also leaning forward in his own muskoka chair.

Great.

“Sorry,” she almost whimpers. “I just needed some air. I’ll leave you two alone.”

“No, it’s fine,” Valerie stands, stopping her before she can go back inside. “Reception playlist ideas can wait. You stay out here, I’ll go make sure everyone’s still having fun.”

She can only nod as her sister walks to the sliding door on her left, bringing Andrew’s scent with her. Her eyes flutter closed and her broken heart tries to beat. When Valerie’s inside and the two of them are left alone, Joey’s about ready to finally cry. She tells herself to hold it together for just a few more minutes. If she can get through what’s about to happen then she can just go home and cry all she wants.

She refuses to be a child about this despite feeling her resolve crack, so she pushes herself off the wall and makes her way to the seat Valerie left. When she sees his eyes close while he takes a deep breath in, she looks away. She pushes the chair a few inches back before sitting down at the edge and facing him. She’s already looking at him when he opens his eyes again, and then they’re just staring at each other like a few hours ago. But this time, they’re alone.

Joey feels her chin start to tremble and her eyebrows begin to furrow. This is pain. She’s never felt pain like this. She wonders if what everyone else feels when they touch silver is worse than this feeling. She doubts it. She knows what they have to do, what they’re going to do, but she needs to know what it feels like.

With no warning, she reaches forward and takes his hand in hers. Electricity bubbles from the tips of her fingers all the way up to her shoulder and she feels so alive. It’s like an adrenaline rush, and her mind telling her to hold him tighter and never let go and love him forever. And when she feels him squeeze her hand, she just melts. It’s one thing to feel how much you want someone, but to feel how much they want you back? It makes this harder.

She basks in the feeling for a few more seconds, wishing she could feel his other hand in hers, on her cheek, in her hair, on her waist, his lips on hers, on her forehead, on her neck. Before she gets too carried away, she drops his hand. The less she knows of what she’s giving up, the better. She won’t be able to do it otherwise.

“Okay,” she clears her throat and tucks her hair behind both ears. “I’m ready.”

She doesn’t have the courage to keep looking at him for this, so she drops her eyes and waits. And waits. And waits. When she looks back up he’s still staring at her. They have to do this now or she’ll change her mind.

“Andrew,” her chin starts trembling again. “You know we have to do this.”

Still, he doesn’t move or speak. She finds herself getting lost in his eyes. Eyes she never paid much attention to until now. She finds it crazy how just this morning and every previous day she saw Andrew as an older brother. Now she can’t remember what that feels like. She shakes herself out of her trance and feels a tear fall down her cheek. She clasps her hands together and lets herself sulk in desperation.

“Please, please, Andrew do it now or I won’t be able to go through with it. Please, it’s hurting me more the longer it takes.”

He doesn’t even open his mouth. He just keeps staring. She’s falling apart while he looks like he’s made of stone. She sobs and resists the overwhelming urge to crawl into his arms for comfort. She even sees them flex like he wants to move them. No, no, no, they have to reject each other. If she has to, she’ll start. But even before she tries opening her mouth she knows she’ll never get the words out. Not if Andrew doesn’t say them first.

Instead of continuing to beg him, she holds her head in her hands as she cries and tries to catch her breath at the same time. It’s not easy. It’s loud and sad and tiring and she’ll keep going until this is over.

“I...” she inhales sharply at the sound of his voice and looks back up, ready for it but still not wanting it. Her chest can’t stop jumping, her hands can’t stop shaking. Just one more minute. “I can’t.”

Her chest deflates and she sputters, shaking her head in confusion. “What?”

“I can’t,” he grits.

She sniffles and adjusts her posture. “We have to. You’re marrying Valerie–”

“You’re mine, and I’ve waited 10 years for you.”

“Andrew,” she panics. “I cannot do this to my sister. She will hate me and it’ll tear my family apart.”

“Then you do it,” he says. “Say the words to me.”

She stares at him desperately because he’s right. She can’t speak. She can’t reject him.

“I know this isn’t what either of us were expecting and I know it sucks and it’ll make life hard right now, but I am not letting you go after I’ve waited this long. Joey, I’m not letting you go.”

Pieces of her heart come back together. It’s not just about having waited so long for his mate, it’s about being mated to her. He wants her. She can’t speak. She can’t even move properly when he drags his chair closer and grabs both of her hands. She shudders in bliss, but then he presses his forehead against hers and oh. It’s even better.

“You’re mine and I’m yours. You were brought here for a reason, and that reason is me. Just like my reason is you. I’m just as scared as you are. I do care deeply for Valerie.”

She squeezes her eyes closed and tells herself it’s not fair to feel jealous about that.

“I don’t want to hurt her. But now that this has happened, I... I’ll never be able to go through with it. No matter how long I’ve known her, no matter how committed I was to her, no matter how long I loved her, I could never, ever, leave you now that I have you. I’m gonna figure this out, okay?”

She hiccups a few times but nods against him, squeezing his hands as he squeezes hers. “I’m scared.”

She suddenly feels a calming wave of comfort and tranquility wash over her and she almost sags against him. “I know, but I promise I’ll take care of this. It’s my responsibility. I’ll think of a way to tell Val.”

“We can’t tell anyone else until then,” she says, knowing she’ll either have to knock Dina out and convince her it was a dream or swear her to absolute secrecy.

“No one will know until she does,” he agrees.

“So we... we can’t see each other, I-I can’t sneak around behind her back.”

“You won’t have to, I won’t make you wait long,” he says. “I’m yours, Joey.”

Her chin trembles yet again, but this time because she may just be getting the mate she’s always dreamt of. With just one or two or fifty complications. “You... you don’t think it’s weird–”

“No.”

“Even though I just turned–”

“No.”

“And you’ve known me since–”

“No.”

“And I’m not even a real–”

“You are a real wolf, and don’t let anyone or yourself ever tell you different.”

She sobs. “Andrew... my real family didn’t want me.”

“I want you,” he whispers. “I want you, Joey.”

She squeezes his hands one last time before exhaling deeply and letting go. She nods and keeps herself from continuing to cry. “I can’t... I should go, or else I won’t leave.”

His expression brings pain to her chest, and she realizes that all this time she was feeling his sadness on top of her own. He’s about to respond to her when his head quickly turns to the back door. “Valerie’s coming.”

She quickly wipes her tears and sits all the way back in her chair. What can she tell Valerie? Why is she sad? Why is she crying? She’s still thinking when her sister appears and looks at her worriedly.

“What’s with tears, kid?” She asks softly.

She has no answer, but Andrew does. “She was really hoping Thomas would be her mate.”

Valerie purses her lips and makes her way over to crouch in front of her. She wipes her tears away with her thumbs. “You, are a beautiful, intelligent, funny young woman and when you find your mate he’s just gonna drop to his knees in awe of you. So it’s not Thomas, you’ll forget all about him when you meet the one for you.”

Joey nods and Valerie smiles softly.

“Wanna go home?”

“The party’s not over.”

“Well, food’s pretty much gone and we’ve only got bourbon left. Some people started taking off, everyone else will follow.”

“Don’t we have to clean up?”

“Tyler and I will do it,” Andrew says. “Think some of our friends are still here, too.”

“Let’s go home,” Valerie says. “We can make popcorn and watch a movie if you’re not too tired. Or drunk.”

Joey laughs, almost painfully. Because here’s her amazing sister taking such good care of her, not knowing that her life is about to be uprooted because of the girl she’s taking such good care of. She pushes as much of the guilt away as she can and tells her she’s in. Valerie turns to Andrew.

“I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“I’ll text you,” he says. “Had a lot to talk about in the meeting today, might bleed into some of tomorrow.”

She nods and places her hand on his cheek. Joey tries not to stare at it. “Make sure you sleep.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Come on, sister.”

She helps Joey up and the two girls leave Andrew alone outside. Joey gives him one last glance and catches him nod confidently at her. She leaves it at that. Before they leave the house, they grab the food they want to take home, which is also helping with the cleanup process. Dina comes up to her friend and eyes Valerie standing beside her. She pulls Joey in for a hug and says goodbye.

Is everything alright?

Joey digs her fingertips into her best friend’s back gratefully. It will be. I’ll tell you everything tomorrow, but you can’t say a word to anyone.

Dina steps back and starts walking away like she usually would after saying goodbye. On my life, no one will find out. I swear.

I don’t tell you enough how much I appreciate you being in my life.

Dina’s already halfway up the stairs on her way to her room. Best friends don’t have to say it to feel it.

“You ready to go?” Valerie asks with a couple paper plates of snacks. Joey had grabbed a couple donuts before Dina came to say goodbye.

She nods. “Yeah, let’s go.”

She follows her sister out of the house and closes her eyes when she smells Nutella, this time feeling calm, hopeful, and loved.

.

.

.

xx

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