THERON

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FIVE.

“Damn, T,” DeLoren smirks, “who shit in your Wheaties today?”

Lina.

Lina shat in my Wheaties, that’s who.

A snicker from beside me causes my head to automatically snap to the source: Lina. Instantly feeling my eyes on her, her expression sobers and she clears her throat.

She may or may not have also adorably bitten her lip, but I’m choosing to ignore the confusing eroticism I feel for that.

If I don’t acknowledge it, it will just go away.

POOF.

Gone.

Like magic...

I hope.

The sun is just starting to rise when we decide to venture back to the mill. Lina did not seem concerned that her human friends had disappeared sometime in the night, so I don’t push the issue... they will discover our secret soon enough. Exactly when Lina decides to approach that topic with Chocolate bar and the others, I do not bother to guess. I’m going to leave that up to her.

“Aw, did wittle Wina piss you off?” DeLoren coos, feigning sympathy as he leans back in the dining room chair. I make sure to kick the leg of that chair as I pass by it to plop down opposite of him at the table. Kai erupts in laughter, pointing his stupid, skinny finger at me.

I debate whether to break it off or not. I’m not in the mood for his ‘I told you so’s.

As always, Kai’s infectious laughter taints the rest of my brothers and now the whole table is laughing, except me, of course, and Lina, who I know doesn’t understand the punchline.

I want to be angry with Lina. I want to blame her for making me dangerously fucking weak—for awaking these idiotic feelings inside of me that I have never before known. I want to glare at her, to hate her, to run far, far away from whatever the fuck this is. I want nothing more than to make her feel ashamed for the confusingly irritating agony she’s beginning to cause me. But when she gives me a shy, reassuring smile, all thoughts of incorrectly placing the blame on her instantly fly out the window. Her beautiful brown eyes hold a promise of happiness and endearment and though I am less than appreciative of this power she has over me, I know it isn’t her fault. Lina would continue to be Lina, forever doing what Lina naturally does and just being Lina. As much as I desperately want to argue these feelings, I also realize that I and the dumb canine fucker inside of me will eventually submit—trained and tamed—forever leashed to her side.

I can only hope there would be “treats” involved...

I sigh, Fuck me, I got issues.

“If you must know, Lina here,” I casually, although begrudgingly, motioned to the little blonde beastie, “has insisted on joining us to speak with the mythical chair heads.”

I mentally note a new, extremely effective technique on how to immediately halt their laughter.

The room is eerily silent as my brothers’ eyes flicker between me and Lina, processing and accepting what I just said. It’s dangerous enough for an Ancient to visit other supernaturals, better yet a young, inexperienced werewolf. But, by werewolf law, I had lost—maybe not fairly... but definitely squarely. In such a challenge, it is assumed that the loser will follow through with whatever deal had been made before the actual fight. If the loser refuses such a thing post-challenge, the punishment is doted out severely. I, for one, am very fond of my terrifyingly beautiful canines and wish to keep all teeth inside this handsome mouth.

Yes, even the Ancients have to follow the schoolyard rules.

“You cannot be serious,” Marius grumbles.

“The fuck, Theron?!” DeLoren exclaims.

“That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Kai declares.

All three voices ring out concurrently, objecting fervently as if I had not had every single one of those particular thoughts, and more, run through my head as well. Sometimes, I feel as if my intelligence is under-appreciated by these three. I may be a loner but I do have a brain. I know the risks and I had chosen to cautiously heed those threats until a wrench came hurdling in from the right.

I’ll name that wrench Lina.

“And why not?” She jumps up from her chair. Her palms smack the table, holding up her perfect frame.

All three Ancients follow suit... Apparently, I am not the only one she has on a puppet string.

The table erupts in remonstrance, all beings speaking simultaneously and giving me a fucking headache. I wonder if this headache will be a lifelong annoyance from this point forward...

Rubbing my temples and trying to block everything else out, I consider my options. DeLoren and I had just assumed Kai and Marius would go with us—stand as a united front, and all that smoke screen bullshit, but now, I’m reconsidering the idea. Obviously, it would be more efficient to split up. I’ll take the vampire Queen, since she’s the most unpredictable. Also, it isn’t as far away from Tennessee as the others. Kai will be assigned the witches, as they are easily offended. His charming, boyish ways would hopefully prevent them from cursing us further, out of anger. Marius can see to our Council. Though we were not asking for permission to follow through with this plan, it’s still respectful to announce our intentions or some stupid shit like that, I don’t know and, honestly, I don’t care either way. That left DeLoren with the only remaining mythicals—the humanoids.

Humanoids consisted of those that were not creatures of the night specifically and could not shift forms, stuck in human-like bodies yet, not entirely human: Faeries, Elves, Pixies, Demons, blah, blah, blah, etcetera, etcetera, what-the-fuck-ever. They have a governing body much like ours, so he’ll have to give some sort of prior notice for a convention but his vulgar, smartass mouth will be less grievous to them.

While going separately will cover more ground, it also appears less intimidating. All four Ancients stomping through any foreign territory is sure to cause tension and can be seen as an act of aggression. That’s the last thing we needed right now.

Looking around the room, the differences in how these five wolves approach such a disagreement is astonishing. Marius stood, hands behind his back like the true general he is. His voice is firm but steady. DeLoren is talking with his hands, pointing and waving, and opening his arms wide as if welcoming a challenge. His tone is angry and booming. Kai holds that signature grin, his eyes twinkling with mischief as he has quickly switched sides and is agreeing with Lina now. I suspect that is more for my punishing benefit than her safety. Obviously, he still holds some pent-up frustrations for the last fourteen years of his inconvenienced life.

And then, there is Lina...

She speaks passionately, her voice confident, never faltering. She doesn’t need to raise that melodious sound for it has already captured the respect of everyone in the room. She never interrupts any of them but is always able to counter their concerns. I’ve no choice but to feel proud of the woman she’s become.

Here, in this room, are the only souls that matter to me—even Kai, that cheeky bastard, has a place somewhere within my cold, dead heart. This is my family, three by circumstance and one by an odd twist of fate... I have to make the most of the time I have with them because who knows what the future will bring. I can try to protect them all the best I could, but in the end, I have no control over what would inevitably happen—except for this moment. This moment that is being wasted by arguing over something that has already been set in stone once that she-wolf got the best of me.

There is no debate, no second option, and no turning back.

Lina will be shit deep in everything we do, whether we want her there or not. It’s best to save this battle of willfulness for something more important.

Now if they would just shut the hell up...

“ENOUGH,” I roar, my voice deep and raspy, the beast inside me too hard to tame right now... We share the same perpetual headache.

Kai, Marius, and DeLoren immediately shut their traps and quietly sit back down in their chairs. Only Lina remains standing, eyeing me warily, probably considering how far to push me. While I’d probably let most everything slide because it’s her, this is not something I’m willing to give in to. She is going. There’s no need to continue quarreling about it.

I’m not sure what look I’m projecting but it must have been a no-nonsense kind as she eventually sits back down as well, though the pout on her face assures me it was not done happily.

I chose to ignore that look and the way my heart flutters every time her eyes fall on me.

I fold my arms over my chest and lean back in the chair. With my beast now in repose, I try to speak as un-sardonically as possible, “As delightful as that was listen to, I’m going to need all of you to shut the fuck up now and listen to what I’m about to propose.”

***

Two days...

Two days we’ve been running northeast up the Appalachian Mountains...

In human form.

Fortunately for us, our human form was just as fast as our wolf. Until we are far from Tennessee and Superlunar, I refuse to risk shifting—there’s no way in hell I am ever going back to that lab. I can’t even express the emotions I feel when I imagine Lina ending up there.

I refuse to dwell on it.

So, trailing the mountains in human form would bring less attention, but now, two days have passed and it’s time to shift.

My brothers were the lucky ones—their private jets will take them where they need to go. Kai, for one, was beyond ecstatic to be assigned to the Witches Assembly, which gathered once a month in Barbados. I imagine he’ll be clad in Ray-bans and a stupid Hawaiian shirt, enjoying his short vacation.

Marius, as always, silently accepted a trip to Brazil. The council was where he was most comfortable, most confident. Being the most active of the four of us within the werewolf/lycan society, he had been the most obvious choice. His excellent political demeanor will come in handy as I suspect we are going to have quite an angry council to deal with after he breaks the news of our plan.

DeLoren though is an entirely different story. Multiple expletives were exchanged when he discovered the humanoid council was in Greenland... a very misleading name for such a greenless place.

Either way, all my brothers are safe and far from Superlunar’s grasp.

I only have Lina to worry about.

Slowing to a stop, Lina follows closely behind. “Time to shift?” She asks between breaths. Her chest rises and falls with every inhale and exhale of oxygen... I force myself to avert my eyes.

I will not stare.

I will not wonder what’s underneath that cotton tank top...

Fucking hell.

I have to admit, I am impressed with her endurance. Never once does she ask to brake or slow down. She keeps an even pace with me, no stops for food or sleep, only sipping water from the backpack bottles on the move. But, it’s time now. We will need recharging before the shift and the forest here is dense enough to be hidden from prying eyes.

I pull the pack off my shoulders and toss her a water bottle. Looking up through the tree branches, it must be about three in the afternoon—plenty of time for food and rest. “Tomorrow morning. Right now, let’s get a fire started and eat. We’ll need to be a hundred percent for the next part of our journey... we’re going off-trail soon.”

Lina nods, her gaze fluttering around the woods. As I drink from the same bottle she hands back to me, I watch in awe as she lifts her nose to the air and sniffs. Those perfect little nostrils flare in and out quickly, delicately. Something inside me wakes up, also intrigued by the tiniest, most insignificant movement of that beautiful nose. I become lost in the sound of the short puffs of air moving in and out of her body, jealous that it’s allowed such access.

The world around me stops moving. Time seems to slow as I fall, entranced by the serenity in her face—the way her eyes softly close as she processes every single scent of the nature surrounding her. The shadow of a smile on her face makes her the sole definition of beauty to me.

She is Lina.

She is my friend.

Friend.

Friend.

Friend.

Only friends...

“Theron?” Lina’s voice is soft. Her brows pinch in concern, sparkling brown eyes searching mine. I glance at my right bicep—her hand gently squeezing it as if she has been trying to get my attention for some time. I gulp down the heat that flares within my chest.

How fuck had she gotten so close without me noticing?

Distracted...

Enraptured...

WEAK.

***

I stare at the crackling fire. Nature’s tune only background music to my thoughts.

Lina and I haven’t spoken much during the whole trip and I cannot help but wonder what she’s thinking. I eagerly want to interrupt the deafening silence between us but for some reason, whenever I go to speak, the words do not form.

My confidence has abandoned me without a single goodbye or even ′see ya later, dumb fuck.′ I can’t recall the last time I hadn’t felt that self-assurance.

It’s odd.

It’s frustrating.

And it is ticking me off.

She must think I’m the biggest doofus on the planet.

I hope her expectations of me are not high...

“Theron?” The sweetness of her voice startles me, causing me to turn my eyes to hers. I disregard the swell of my heart, hearing my name resound from those lips. I’m not entirely sure that feeling will ever go away...

“What was your life like—you know, before... this?” Lina inquires, her eyes intensely studying me. Again, she makes me feel as if she sees right through me... her gaze locks on my soul, slowly dissecting it, piece by piece. It makes me slightly uncomfortable, like an itch, deep inside, I can’t alleviate by scratching.

“Before the curse?” Or was it before I was thrown into the middle of some pathetic attempt to rid the world of pests that swarm the night? She should probably be more specific.

Lina bobs her head as she slides down the log we’re perched upon. Leaning against the log, she stares at me expectantly, “What was your childhood like?” Looking at her, really looking, it occurs to me, once again, that she doesn’t know me but she’s the only person I have ever met that was sincerely curious enough to ask.

And although my past life is hard to recall (I spent more time running away from it than dwelling upon it) maybe it would be a nice reprieve from the tortuous hormones presently teasing my body and testing my limits. It’s maddening, but I’ll take whatever chance I can in an attempt to quell my obsessive thoughts of Catalina Bakkas. Unconsciously, I smile, feeling a small bit of victory in the ploy to foil my impure fantasies and unwanted desires.

I can easily remember my younger days—pre-curse. They were much happier times, “I was the sole child of Ana and Cicero Valerius.”

Lina chuckles, “Theron Valerius?”

“Theron Sirius Valerius,” I correct. I haven’t used my full name in quite some time. It sounds foreign on my tongue. I suppose to Lina, who grew up in the modern world, such a name might seem awkward, but it was fairly customary then. Maybe not my first name, as I have never come across another. Even actress Charlize Theron pronounces her last name differently than my first. However, I am not French and rather prefer my version.

“My father was a simple farmer,” I continue, “so I grew up knowing my future was bleakly planned. I, too, would inherit the farming trade, as were the ways back then.” I sigh, following the actions of Lina off the log and onto the hard ground. It probably doesn’t welcome my presence as much as her’s.

“There was no need for learning the written word... being raised on a farm, it wasn’t a requirement. But my mother, bless her soul, was insistent upon teaching me more than the perfect planting depth for a seed or the changing weather and what that means for our crops.” Lina gives me a small smile I automatically return. She may not remember her mom, but I can never forget mine. I cherished the woman that brought me into this world. She had been my first and only introduction to real love, and fuck, she loved something fierce. “It caused quite a few disagreements between my parents,” I snicker.

My father, like most, saw no importance in homeschooling... It only took time away from the fields. My mother, however, was a passionate woman and would not cave. Eventually, dad would always give in to mom’s every whim but he put up a good fight nonetheless. I once asked him why he bothered, it seemed like a lot of wasted effort. He replied, ‘Even if you know you will always grant them their every desire, you must still play resistant. A spoiled wife turns into a useless mother, hear me, son?’ At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant, I couldn’t imagine being so weak when it came to a woman.

Of course, I hadn’t yet met Lina...

“It was tough then, but I was content... up until age fifteen when I was forced into the king’s army. I couldn’t complain—farm life made me strong. Resilient. Physically, I could push a tiller with little to no resistance and pull a cart meant for an ox. I was highly desired for a soldier.” Though I had never dreamed I’d be doing anything but tending to crop fields, the wars for land were numerous and too many had spilled their blood in sacrifice of their king’s greed. More bodies were needed to replace each that fell and when volunteers became nonexistent, forced drafts were enacted. Every male, age twelve and up, were taken from their homes and trained in the art of war, per royal decree.

Surprisingly, I found a new talent in such a life. I moved through the ranks quickly and by age twenty-three, I found myself in a small circle of elite knights led by Marius, accompanied by DeLoren and Kai.

“Made you humble, too, I see,” Lina grins. Goddess, I love that mischievous grin. I am powerless not to mirror it. “Well, of course. Surely you read that somewhere in all those werewolf history books?” I tease.

Lina laughs, shaking her head, “No, but you should probably write a strongly worded letter to the editor about their misrepresentation of you.”

Shared smiles turn into longing looks of recognition. Somewhere in this conversation, our bodies have moved unconsciously closer together. Less than a foot stood between her lips and mine.

I want to touch her.

I want to push that pesky strand of blonde hair behind her ear.

I want to trace her bottom lip with my thumb.

I want...

“We should get some sleep,” she whispers. Her eyes trail from my mouth up to my own brown irises, immediately halting the moment and breaking me from my trance.

I nod my head, numbly.

Our conversation was over for now.

I’m not entirely convinced that I am thankful for that interruption.

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