The Rise

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Chapter Thirty-Seven

“If you could relive any moment in your life, which moment would it be?” I asked.

Valerio sat in front of the fire with me, one leg straight out, the other bent. The flames were reflecting off of his face, making it look warm and inviting. He took a sip from his coffee mug and rested it on his outstretched leg. “As in, if I had the chance to re-do the moment or if I just wanted to be in the moment again - nothing changed?”

“Nothing changed. If you could just soak in the moment one more time and never let it go,” I said. He paused for a moment, then chuckled and shook his head. “What is it?”

“Nothing.” He grinning, showing me his teeth.

I playfully pushed his shoulder. “Come on. You can’t do that to me.”

He waved his hand. “Alright, alright.” He placed the mug down on the floor next to him and faced me. “If I had to choose any moment to relive again, I would choose the moment I met you at the restaurant.”

My lips curled into a smile. “And why is that?”

“Because it was one of my first glimpses into how strong you could be,” he started. “All I had been seeing up until that point was you brushing off your dad’s comments about werewolves even though you lived with one.” He shook his head. “You don’t know how long I had been waiting for you to finally get fed-up with him. And that night at the restaurant, I had a front row seat.”

I giggled and leaned my forehead onto his shoulder.

“’Thank you so much. I will gladly take this whole cake from you if nobody else wants it. This is my favorite! Best day ever!’” Valerio teased.

I pushed his shoulder a bit harder, my cheeks warming. “Oh, god. I was so embarrassing.”

“What was embarrassing was that you had chocolate on the corner of your lip when you were yelling at your dad.”

My eyes widened. “I did not.”

Valerio nodded and clutched his stomach to try to hold in his laughter. “You did.”

I threw my head in my hands, trying to hide my embarrassment. If I had chocolate frosting on my lips when I was talking to Dad that meant I had chocolate frosting on my lips when I met Damon for the first time. I probably looked like an idiot.

“You didn’t look that bad, Mae,” Valerio assured, after he finally stopped laughing. “It was cute. Cute, little, innocent Mae with chocolate frosting on her lips.”

I rolled my eyes. “Embarrass me all you want Valerio.”

He gazed back over at me. “What moment would you relive again?”

I tilted my head. There were a lot of moments that I wanted to relive again and a lot of moments that I wished I had never lived through at all. Some moments I felt both emotions.

“My favorite moment, out of all the moments, would be…” I gazed over at Valerio and smiled. He was gazing at me the way Damon used to or maybe this was the way he always looked at me but I was too blind to see it. And, he was close, closer than I had thought he was. I placed my fingers over his on the ground and brushed them over his knuckles.

There were a lot of moments that held so much memory for me, but at that moment I couldn’t relate to any of them. I was here in this moment.

“...I don’t have a favorite moment…” I whispered. “I love them all.”

My heart leapt in my chest as Valerio gazed at my lips to listen to my words. For the first time, in a long time, I wanted to feel a man’s lips pressed to mine. And those lips didn’t belong to Damon or Luca.

I wanted to feel safe in someone else’s arms. I wanted to trust fully and wholly. Valerio was the only man - ever - that I could always trust. Damon broke my trust, time and time again. And Luca broke my trust when he marked me without my permission.

So, I did what felt right in that moment. I gathered up all the courage I had and lifted my hand until it met his chin. My fingers grazed against it, moving it closer to mine. I didn’t know what would happen once our lips met, and I was terrified to find out. But I wanted it.

He didn’t stop me. Instead I watched his eyes close and felt his pulse quicken. I closed my eyes too, as I felt his warmth coming closer and closer.

Suddenly, the door flew open. Valerio and I pulled away before anything could happen.

“Owh, my fuck!” Aaisha rushed into the room, her chest rising and falling quickly, with sweat rolling down her forehead. She was clutching her stomach. “Mae! I ain’t ready! I ain’t ready!”

I jumped up - startled - and grabbed her hand, bringing her to the couch. “Aaisha, what’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?! There’s a damn baby trying to push herself through my vag, woman! That’s what’s wrong!”

My eyes widened. Valerio’s eyes glazed over, probably linking the pack doctor.

I fetched towels for Aaisha in the kitchen and placed them on her forehead, trying to cool her off. “Why did you come here? You should’ve went straight to your pack doctor.”

She grabbed my hand. “Why do you think? I needed my best friend there with me. Couldn’t be having a child tear me up without a best friend’s suppor-fuck!” She squeezed her eyes closed and dug her nails into my palm, breaking the skin. “Holy mother of-this kid’s head prolly the size of a damn basketball.”

I knelt beside her and gently stroked her forehead. “Deep breaths, Aaisha. Deep breaths.”

“We should get her to the hospital,” Valerio said, his fingers brushing against my shoulder.

“Nah-uh. I ain’t moving from this couch. She’s comin’, right now.”

I gazed up at Valerio. “I can teleport-”

“What y’all don’t understand about nah-uh? I ain’t leavin’ this spot.”

Valerio’s eyes glazed over again, then he looked down at us. “The doctor is on her way.”

Her face relaxed for a moment and her grasp on me softened. “Whew, that was a tough one,” she said about her contraction. “Well, now that we have a couple minutes before the next deathly contraction, we gon talk about this.”

“Talk about what?” I asked.

She gazed at Valerio’s hand that was still on my shoulder, and he pulled it away. “Don’t think I haven’t been noticin’. Y’all can’t hide that shit from me. I was spyin’ on you two before I came in. Had to make sure erryone had their clothes on.” She laughed. “Don’t want to accidentally see Valerio’s little guy.” She exaggerates a wink. “I’m sure it’s fine as fuck, anyway.”

I rubbed my hand over my face. “Oh, my goodness, Aaisha.”

“Don’t you, ‘Oh, my goodness, Aaisha’ me. We gon talk abou-Goddamn!” Her fingers grasped mine again, tighter this time.

There were a few knocks on the door. “Come in,” Valerio called. A swarm of doctors and nurses came in, followed by Ayodele and Samuel a few minutes later. The doctors moved the furniture around and laid Aaisha down in a more comfortable position.

“Are you sure that we can’t move you to a hospital?” a nurse asked.

Aaisha’s nostrils flared. “I swear, if one of you ask me that question again you’ll gonna get it.”

Ayodele crouched by Aaisha’s side. He brushed his hand over her forehead. “You’re going to do so good,” he said. “So good.”

“I know,” Aaisha said, a confident yet hurting expression on her face.

I smiled at the exchange. Samuel walked up next to Valerio and me. “Her baby is going to act exactly like her,” he said. “You know that right?”

My smile widened. “I know. It’s going to be great.” Two sassy people running a pack. I couldn’t wait.

“I can’t wait to babysit,” Samuel said.

“Mae!” Aaisha screamed. “Get your ass over here before my vag explodes.” I jogged over to Aaisha’s side and knelt next to her, giving her my hand for support. She gazed at me with tears in her eyes. “Goddamn why this kid gotta be so big.”

A female doctor came over and gazed at Aaisha. “Alright, you ready?”

“To stop hurtin’? Hell yeah,” Aaisha said.

The woman gently rubbed Aaisha’s knee. “Okay, we’re going to have you push.” She knelt between Aaisha’s legs, her voice soft. “Three, two, push.” Aaisha grasped my hand tightly and screamed as she pushed. “A couple more seconds.” Aaisha continued to push. “Okay, take a few deep breaths.”

I gazed around the room to see Valerio’s expression change from a soft, smiling one to a serious one in a matter of seconds. His eyes glazed over and he stood up taller. He rushed over to me and knelt by my side.

“She’s here,” Valerio said. “The Hunter is here.”

My eyes widened, and Aaisha looked at me. “What the hell is-”

“Let’s give it another push,” the doctor interrupted.

“Mae, what-”

I shook my head at Valerio. “Aaisha, she-she needs me.”

He shut his eyes for a brief moment. “Everyone needs you Mae. We have to go.”

Ayodele looked up. “What’s wrong?”

“She’s here,” Valerio stated.

I could feel Aaisha’s breaths quicken. She grabbed my arm tightly. “Mae, you have to go.”

I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be here for this moment - this happy moment. One of the happiest moments of my life and I couldn’t. I nodded to her. I didn’t want to do this, but I had to. We had to stop her before she found us. Our goal - protect Aaisha and the rest of the pups.

We were down Nakida and I needed someone to aid me, someone both strong and smart. I couldn’t risk it. I needed to protect Aaisha. “Ayodele, I need you with me,” I said, standing up.

He gazed between Aaisha and me for a few moments, then rested his head against hers. “You’re going to do great. I can’t wait to see your beautiful baby and hold it in my arms. She will be as strong as you. I already know it.”

She nodded, a stray tear falling from her eye. With one last kiss on her forehead, he departed with me.

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