That night I barely slept. Once the plan was about to come to fruition tomorrow, I became a bundle of taut nerves. Still, eventually I managed to fall asleep, and this time I dreamed.
But, for my surprise, the dreams weren’t bad. No, they were blurry memories of the past three months, but instead of making me feel vulnerable and agonized, they showed it to me like a movie. Detached. It was like it hadn’t happened to me... yet I knew it had, and it didn’t bother me in the dreams. It didn’t have the feeling of a nightmare at least.
I wondered if it meant I was actually healing like I should.
The next morning, Shade and I were dressed to go out, him in jeans and tee, and me in tights and tank. We walked through a path in the fields under the warm sun and talked about nothing. We didn’t touch each other. It seemed Shade was as stuck in his own head as I was in mine.
When we reached town, I found myself almost launched into historical pages, because it looked like a town straight out of some nineteenth century movie, with bricked ground, wooden townhouses, and tall lanterns that were currently turned off. There were other werewolves here and there, and each and every who saw Shade, bowed their head in utter respect. Others, more bald, came straight out and shook his hand in gratitude.
I sent him a look. “I didn’t know you were their savior or something.”
He sighed. “I’m not their savior. It’s an exaggeration. But I am their official mayor, and even though I only come to visit once or twice a year, they really appreciate the work I do from afar, keeping the economy high, getting the adults jobs, and having the kids study in good schools. For them, they think I’m a saint.” He gave me a crooked smile, which I began to understand was his way of apologizing for something. “But I’m not. Having these people be taken care of only helped me stabilize myself when I was about to go insane.”
I could see how it helped him. Shade was a dominant, one who was supposed to be the Alpha of the Millennium. His need to take care of a pack was deeply ingrained in him, in a way that was more different than Raphael’s, because Rafe was already used to be on his own, and could only allow place in his life for Eve and the Millennium Wolves. Shade, however, never had a pack, and the pack he did have, hurt him beyond recovery.
So Shade made his own pack in this community, and taking care of them soothed his dominant, protective side.
“You’ve done good,” I told him as I watched some kids chasing each other, smiling in pure joy, “you’ve done real good.”
He said nothing. When I glanced at him, he was looking ahead, face stoic. But he grabbed my hand and squeezed, letting me know that my words reached him, and that it was exactly what he needed to hear.
The convenient store was, thankfully, empty when Shade and I marched inside. The cashier almost tumbled to the floor when she saw Shade there, and I could see her completely wolfish curious nature trying to discern who I was and what I was doing there, holding Shade’s hand.
Leaning closer so I could hear him, Shade murmured, “Soon enough you’ll be the talk of the town.”
“And here I thought you brought girls here every time you popped to visit,” I murmured back, the sarcasm surprising both of us. It’d been a while since I managed to crack a joke like that.
Shade grinned, and I found myself feeling an odd tugging at my own lips. They wanted to grin too. But I was still not there just yet. “Come on,” he said, “let’s get this errand over with.”
I nodded and followed him. I didn’t want to make him worry, but seeing so many unfamiliar faces, being around so many people... It was hard. Harder than I thought it would be. I hadn’t been like that before; I usually liked company and meeting new people. Now, however, that trait of mine was distorted, shaped into something much worse.
Because I understood something crucial I hadn’t understood before; People, especially strangers, could hurt you. I wasn’t as naive to think that I was invincible. Now I knew I wasn’t. And I was extra cautious with these werewolves in this town I didn’t know.
Shade stopped before the pills section and snatched some werewolf-meant Viagra pills. He then looked at me. “You need to choose the lube,” he murmured lowly.
Jolting, I went to the fitting aisle and found a few brands of lube. I swiftly picked one – a dark red bottle of Durex – and padded back to Shade, feeling almost ashamed.
But from the look on his face, I could see that he was uncomfortable as well.
“Or,” I said, trying for the stronger, mature approach, “we can just own us being a wacko and get out of here with our head held high and Viagra and lube in our hands.”
We stared at each other, and I knew what we both decided before he even put it into words. “Let’s stick to another plan.”
“Agreed,” I said, feeling sick just thinking about people giving us shocked looks because we actually needed Viagra and lube at such a young age.
Shade let me hold the things and went to the cashier. He told her something too quietly for me to hear – along the lines of “put it on my account” - and then returned with a plastic bag. I dumped the stuff inside and both of us made a hasty retreat from there.
We kept on walking fast, trying not to look too suspicious, until we reached the end of town and started crossing the fields. Then we ran, and Shade was laughing such a melodic kind of laughter of relief and amusement, and I found myself choking, almost laughing myself, but instead my lips stretched into a grin, and tears filled my eyes.
And when in a spontaneous act that was so un-Shade-like he suddenly grabbed my waist and lifted me into the air, the tears spilled out and I was actually laughing in such relief I hadn’t felt in such a long time. Because if I was able to laugh since we sneaked out of a convenient store like teenagers who were about to do it for the first time, then I was going to be okay. I must be on the way to recovery.
And, judging from the happy look Shade got in his jungle eyes, I knew he was going to be okay too.
He lowered me to the ground but kept his hands on my waist. We were both breathing heavily in the middle of the field as the sun was warm above us. He wiped some stray tears from my eyes and then kissed my forehead. My chest tightened at the gesture and I closed my eyes almost in pain. Then I sighed when he let go and tilted my head up.
Slowly, cautiously, his lips found mine. We both tensed, still unused to do this, but I knew what we needed to do. Grabbing the collar of his shirt, my heart thumping half in panic, I accessed the other side of my healing power, the side I used yesterday, and poured it from my lips to his. It took a few moments for it to take effect and relax us, and by then his hands were on my face and he was kissing me softly, exploring, lingering on every inch of my mouth, studying it. And I studied him right back, doing some exploring on my own, tasting him.
We stood there kissing for God knew how long, until I felt like I’d used enough power and retreated the healing mental hands inward, tucking them away. But we still kissed after that, that slow, studious kiss, and while something like panic flared in my mind, it was buried under the overpowering curiosity to learn him, to taste, to mark.
We were off each other at once, as though that last thought appeared in both of us at the same time. We looked at each other, our lips redder than before, and our breathing heavier. My wolf was rubbing at my skin, and I could see in his eyes that his was close to the surface, too. And I knew what our wolves wanted, yet I had no idea if the humans could give it to them.
Shade’s face turned serious. “I’m willing to try if you are.”
I swallowed hard. “I am.”
Closing my eyes, I let him cock my head to the side, exposing the white flesh of my neck. When I felt his breaths against the sensitive skin there, my heart pounded loud in my ears. I felt like I was about to faint, yet I forced myself to hold on strong. It was better we did this sooner rather than later.
His lips touched the soft spot where my shoulder met my neck and I jumped. One of his hands snaked around my waist, tightening me to him, and his other kept my head where it was. Then I felt his tongue flicking out, tasting the skin. A soft, high-pitched sound left my mouth. My eyes were squeezed shut and my body was completely immobile.
“If you want me to stop,” he murmured, his words vibrating against my skin, “tell me.”
I couldn’t speak. I did manage to shake my head no. I needed him to continue. Otherwise I would never overcome this vulnerability.
He complied. His teeth were now at my skin, and I braced myself for what was to come. I’d never been marked before, but I knew the process as well as every female werewolf out there. And I knew that it wasn’t exactly hurt-free.
But it was Shade. And he did nothing to hurt me ever since he brought me here. And I found that I trusted him once again, this time with this. He wouldn’t hurt me. He would simply do what our wolves craved and what the humans would soon crave as well.
Suddenly his teeth were buried in my skin and my back arched, my eyes flashing open, and my mouth letting out a sound of almost a shriek. But the pain was paralyzing, keeping me in place, not breaking the crucial moment, and when his teeth were off and his tongue was licking at the bruise, soothing the pain, only then my body relaxed a little.
Shade’s mouth was off me and he looked at me with concern. “Are you okay?” he asked, searching my eyes.
Dazed, I managed to nod. I could feel my heart pounding at the mark’s place. “I... I’m fine.”
He shuddered in obvious relief. “Good.” Then he smiled. And that smile was full of hope.
And I found myself feeling that hope too. Because if we went through the mating marking without losing our shit, we could do this. We could make it through this nightmare. We could be who we were needing ourselves to be.
“Tonight,” I said softly, “tonight is important.”
“Yes,” he agreed, kissing my forehead again. “It is.”