THERON

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TWO.

Catalina’s eyes fluttered open. The bright sun reflected off the white snow from her window and forced her to squint in annoyance.

Ugh, Snow.

It came, It saw and It left her with an unwanted parting gift. And the more she thought about it, the angrier she became. How long would it take this time before she saw the glorious green of the wilderness outside once more? And why? Why, every year, did Snow do this? Why did It torment her so? Torturing her? Bullying her?! With flushed and poofy cheeks she raised her little fist in the air and glared out the window, growling, “Big, stupid bully!” Unfortunately, name calling would not sway Snow to return Its present. It never did. She knew there was nothing she could do about it but that didn’t quell her irritation.

She rolled out of bed and approached the window. Her small hands tugged on the seal and she grunted as she tried opening it with all her little might. Her strength was not that of her father’s but she managed, nonetheless, if only halfway. It was enough. She stuck her head out the window, pleasantly surprised by the quiet calmness of the landscape. Its beauty was unmatched as it not only covered the ground but the trees, weeds, and bushes as well. Glittering in the sunlight, it was tantalizingly inviting... Picturesque and serene, it still taunted her and she refused to let the scene before her steal her breath away.

“I hate you!” She yelled at the sky. A few birds flew from their perch on a branch but other than that, the forest ignored her disruption. She huffed as she pulled herself back inside. Lina made sure to slam the window down just in case Snow was in any way confused by her displeasure.

Feeling her mood start to improve, she raised her arms in the air and stretched her little frame. Walking out of her bedroom she lazily rubbed the sleep from her eyes. It was going to be a good day now. She could feel it. She would will it. Snow would soon be but a distant memory to only be dealt with this time next year so she wouldn’t fret anymore. She wouldn’t dwell on her anger and ruin her day. She only lived in the present as the past did nothing for her and the future was always unknown. She handled things as they came and that suited her just fine.

Passing her dad’s room, she paused to listen carefully, a mischievous thought occurring to her. Light snores and a couple of undefined, sleepy mumbles confirmed he was still asleep. Lina had to contain her squeal as she knew he was a light sleeper. Her excitement tried relentlessly to get the best of her but the image in her head reminded her she needed to be quiet as a mouse if she was to pretend to be one. Laser-focused, she knew this was a rare chance she had to take advantage of. She was on a secret mission now and nothing could stop her but her woke father!

Tiptoeing down the stairs, bypassing the living room, she snuck quite stealthily through the kitchen and went straight towards the forbidden cabinet full of unhealthy snacks her father thought she knew nothing of. But she had once caught sight of those delectable powdered donuts and had been waiting for just the right moment to steal a few. He would never know, she was determined to cover her tracks.

Quickly and quietly she shoved three donut holes in her mouth and padded into the living room, her cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk. She would have to chew fast and swallow swiftly if she were not to get caught. But before she could climb onto the couch and before she could swallow her bounty, she caught a glimpse of a furry creature curled up on the opposite side of the room, in the love seat.

A wolf.

Being so young and hard-headed, she knew it wasn’t wise to approach a sleeping animal, but she did anyway

She knew this was a dangerous game she shouldn’t play, but she did anyway.

She also knew, without a doubt, that it did not belong inside their house! Daddy did not allow any creatures inside their cabin so he must not have been aware that one had snuck in. Not that she could blame the poor thing, Snow was a big meanie and not only to her, but all living beings surrounding her.

She stepped lightly and silently towards the sleeping beast. Her eyes ran the length of his body, from head to tail in awe. He was bigger than most wolves she had seen but not large enough to not fit on her love seat. However, if he decided to stretch out his body, it would more than likely hang off the sides of the armrests.

He was mostly all black, but his fur had a deep maroon-colored tint in the light that had strewn through the windows. And while Lina spent a few moments moving and cocking her head to appreciate such a unique coloring, her gaze kept returning to the unusual marking on his forehead. Bright white and a stark contrast to the rest of his color, four lines sat slightly diagonal upon his head, inches above the space between his eyes, reminiscent of claw marks.

She had never seen an animal with such a defined pattern in its hair. She wanted to touch it—to trace it and confirm it was real and not just drawn on with chalk, or a trick of the eye. But to do that meant getting closer... especially to his face, which held, what she assumed, were very large and deadly teeth.

Oh what big teeth you have, grandma!

But this was not a fairy tale and she was not Little Red Riding Hood. The animal in front of her was a living thing, the rise and fall of his massive chest established that. She wondered if he would allow her a ride on his back...

No.

Wolves are not pets, Catalina,′ her father’s voice reminded her.

But why then, was this wolf domesticating himself inside her home? He had to know this was a place where humans dwelled! He would have smelled it.

Oh, what a big nose you have, grandma!

Catalina stared, her eyes darting from the animal’s unique pelt to the gauzed tape wrapped around its side and again, around its neck. A small patch of fur on his hind leg was covered in a white bandage and taped to the hair to hold in place. Was he sick? Was he hurt? She felt slightly guilty for accusing the poor wolf of sneaking into their home. Her dad had obviously brought the injured beast inside to heal and she could not be more grateful. A swelling sense of pride wafted through her little body, filling her to the brim and causing her love to flow outwards, like an overfilled cup. Her dad was the best dad in the whole wide world!

Just then, the wolf’s nose twitched and he whimpered in his sleep. His front paws padded back and forth across the leather crouch as if he were swimming.

But he wasn’t.

He was dreaming.

Now she could only wonder what he was dreaming. Do animals even dream? Surely, all beings did! And this one appeared to be no exception. As his whimpers became louder and more restless, she knew it was not a pleasant dream of sunlight and flowered fields and fluttering butterflies like she often had. Lina couldn’t help but feel like he needed comfort.

Without thinking, without second guessing, she reached slowly for the wolf’s head. Lightly and ever so softly, she touched his silken fur. Petting the top of his head gently, careful not to touch the white markings. His hair was silken between her fingers, glossy as if he had never run through the forest once in his entire life. She again marveled at the coloring of this animal. She could see now that it was layered, pitch-black underneath, and tipped in various colors of deep red, pinks, and maroons. How unique.

“There, there, Wolfie,” she whispered, “it’s just a dream. You’re safe here.”

“LINA! NO!” A baritone voice shook the walls to her left, creating a hefty feeling upon her chest.

Catalina jumped back, startled. Her head snapped to the staircase, surprised by her father’s voice and shocked by his presence. When had he woken up?

His pajamas were wrinkled from a restless night’s sleep. His hair was a wild nest of light brown, sticking up every which way and his hazel eyes were wide, his face full of panic as he stood frozen on the stairs, staring at her.

But when a menacing growl erupted from beside her, both she and her father’s gaze slowly turned towards the now fully alert wolf, lounging upon their couch.

“Back away slowly, sweetheart,” Lucan said calmly, although inside, he was anything but. What he could be grateful for, however, was that currently, Theron’s eyes were fixed on him and not his daughter.

It was the small blessings in life that seemed to matter the most.

Lina understood her father’s fear. She knew animals were dangerous and unpredictable and right now, she stood a foot away from that very thing that terrified Lucan to his core. Under the wolf’s curled lip, she could now clearly see his huge canines protruding from their dominant state and it scared her.

It truly scared her.

Feeling like a small fish in a vast and empty ocean, Lina couldn’t help the gasp that escaped her lips... a sound that quickly caught the beast’s attention. His head turned towards her small frame. When she had managed to separate the distance between them, she didn’t know. Somehow, her body had had enough sense to acknowledge that putting space between her and the wolf was her best option, even if it had done so out of its own accord. Should he lunge, he would now have to move off the couch, thus giving her enough time to react. Thank Heavens for instincts!

But when his eyes connected with hers, there was a sudden shift in his features. His lip unfurled, covering his deadly teeth. His eyes softened, pupils dilated and his breathing stopped. He no longer appeared to be as menacing as before and Lina had the immediate urge to hug him.

Oh! What big eyes you have, grandma!

“Catalina?” She heard her father call for her. But she couldn’t stop the need to search the wolf’s eyes. There was something entrancing about the color... the way the red, yellow, brown, blue, and green swirled within his irises, like the wind through the trees or the flames from the fireplace. The colors seemed to dance and move as one, like the pattern of their marbled countertop in the kitchen.

The animal slowly slid off the couch and made his way to her but she never broke their eye contact. As long as he was willing to let her look at those hypnotic things, she would, though she knew it was wrong. Dangerous. Looking into a wild animal’s eyes was taken as nothing short of a challenge, especially among canines. Lina was treading perilous waters here and yet, she couldn’t force herself to stop.

“Lina!” Lucan cried, “Do. Not. Move!” Terror gripped him as he was helpless to watch the scene unfolding in front of his very eyes. It would be nothing for Theron to rip out his child’s throat, thinking little of it. She was the hen and he was the fox, stalking his prey, assessing it before the pounce. And Lucan knew one sudden movement would be akin to a backfiring car in a Mexican standoff.

Goddess forbid, she tries to run, only to spark the urge for Theron to hunt.

The tension in the air was so thick, Lucan could almost smell it. His jaw clenched and his hands gripped tightly to the stair railing, cracking and splintering under his immense strength.

But in a blink of an eye, the most unexpected thing happened, leaving Lucan breathless. Gravity seemed to weigh heavily on the poor man as he fell to his knees, bewildered.

***

Theron was standing in a field, tall wheatgrass tickled and caressed his hips. The moon may have been the only source of light for miles around but he knew who he was looking at... he knew who stood a few yards away from him, even with her back turned to him.

He would recognize her anywhere.

“Cera?” He whispered.

She looked over her shoulder, flashing him the most beautiful of smiles.

Goddess, how he loved her.

His chest felt heavy, despairing and longing overtaking his body. He moved his feet to run to her but once more, like every time before, they did not do as commanded.

So he stood, cemented in place with his arms open, waiting for her.

Always waiting for her.

And, as always, that gorgeous smile faded slowly into a frown. Her eyes widened in fear and Theron knew what would happen next.

It always happened next.

“Monster!” She screamed.

“Cera, no... please,” he fell to his knees, begging her to finally end his torture. Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked.

That was never how it worked.

“Monster!” She pointed, accusingly.

Theron clenched his eyes closed, as tight as he could, his heartbreaking in two as it did every night.

Every time he closed his eyes.

That horrible word echoed around him like a broken record. He couldn’t escape it, no matter how hard he tried.

No longer able to stand the sound, he scrambled away from her, on his hands and knees. He could never go forward to meet her but he could always move backward to retreat.

His heart thumped rapidly within his chest. His breathing picked up, panic seizing him.

He had to get away.

Just once.

And just this once, he prayed for it to end. He didn’t care who listened, he just needed someone to heed his call. He had tolerated this for centuries and the thought of having to bear it for centuries more left him desperate, yet defeated.

Clawing at the ground, he whimpered. He couldn’t seem to send enough air into his lungs. He felt as if he were drowning, miserably searching for sweet oxygen.

“Monster,” the voice sang, over and over again, taunting him.

Falling face-first into the ground, he no longer fought the fire within his chest. Death seemed like a sweet release to his pain and for the first time in his nightmares, he welcomed it.

Giving up.

Done.

He was too exhausted to fight anymore.

Maybe he was a monster.

Maybe he deserved this curse.

Maybe it would not follow him into the afterlife.

Maybe...

His small gasps for air became slower and less frequent. His heartbeat decelerated and he fought the urge to survive. He didn’t want this life anymore. His decision had been made.

But then, something new happened.

Something strange.

A fire exploded within his soul, a surge of oxygen rushed through his chest, filling his lungs and bringing him back from the brink.

“There, there, Wolfie,” a melodious, childlike voice echoed around him.

Instantly confused and slightly baffled by the soft sound, he lifted his head, searching for the source. “It’s just a dream,” she reassured him as the thick darkness surrounding him gave way to light like the sun was rising for the first time to envelope the world in its glorious splendor, “You’re safe here.”

Thoughts of death immediately disappeared, wiped away with the sound of one small, whimsical voice.

For the first time, in a long time, Theron felt lighter, the weight of his dream forgotten. His desire to live crashing into him like a large wave breaking the coastline.

Looking up to face the light, he closed his eyes, relishing in its warmth.

Was he dead now?

Was this what death felt like?

If so, he was more than happy to embrace it.

"LINA! NO!” A husky, far-off voice cut through Theron’s euphoria.

Rage filled his core, angry that his ecstasy had been rudely interrupted. Overflowing and ready to explode, he was swiftly whisked away from his dream and prepared to rip out the throat of whoever had awakened him.

His eyes shot open at the same time he unintentionally raised his head. Narrowing his eyes, his focus went straight to Lucan who stood, frozen at the landing of the stairs. A vicious warning growl left Theron’s throat, his body tense and ready to pounce.

Lucan’s eyes never left Theron’s threatening form. His voice was calm but Theron could easily smell the fear seeping from the rogue’s pores, “Back away slowly, sweetheart.”

A gasp sounded from Theron’s left and he quickly turned, prepared to assess the threat and quite surprised he hadn’t noticed a third being in the room.

A little girl back-peddled cautiously, slow as a turtle’s pace. Theron took in her form, curiously. What was such a young thing doing so close to him?

Dressed in flannel bottoms and a button-up top, she was tiny... five or six years old, possibly. Naturally blonde hair, the color of a ray of light shining through a darkened window, landing just above her collarbone, framing her round face. Thick, pouty lips, surrounded by a mysterious white powder, sat underneath a small button nose. Her brows were dark, almost black, contrasting with her blonde locks. Wide, doey brown eyes connected with his, and had this been any other being, no matter the age, he would have taken her stare as confirmation of a challenge but with this little girl... Well, Theron’s killer instinct did not emerge, not even the slightest urging of ferocity tickled his soul. There was something pure, yet wild about her bright aura and he couldn’t help but submit to its power.

She was not a threat.

For the second time now in a span of only a couple minutes, Theron felt calm and peaceful. Happy, almost. The feeling was so foreign to him, he couldn’t quell the nagging pull to investigate this young thing further. He heard Lucan call the girl’s name but Theron ignored him. Curiosity overtook him and he slinked off the couch, wanting nothing more than to be closer to her. Dull, throbbing pain radiated throughout his body, confirming that his healing powers had slowed. His left side ached the most. He knew he had shattered a few ribs and they had definitely not pieced themselves back together yet. He also assumed by his grogginess that a silver bullet or two, maybe more, had entered his body somehow.

But that was all overshadowed by the scent of cashmere and almond cream and... something familiar that he could barely remember. Like a whisper that wrapped around his soul, blanketing it in the promise of comfort and warmth. If this was the last thing he experienced before he died, he would die happy.

“Lina! Do. Not. Move!” Lucan warned. Theron sent him a quick glare before returning his attention to the wonderment in front of him, her scent reeling him in like a fish on a line.

What was she?

The child did not take her eyes off his and for the first time in his miserably long existence, he didn’t mind. In fact, he relished under her innocent gaze—a gaze that Theron wanted to forever bask in.

As he closed the gap between them, he noticed her short frame made her the perfect height to be nose to nose with him. Eye to eye. She was brave, fearless, and spirited and she did not cower before him. He had never experienced such a thing as every single being he ever met wanted nothing to do with him. But this girl, this girl right here, was not bothered by his presence. She did not shy away from the power and authority that radiated off him. Whether that was because she didn’t know who he was or because she did not feel the need to be scared, he didn’t know. He hoped it was the latter for he realized, without question, that he would never hurt her.

He couldn’t.

It wasn’t an attraction that pulled at his soul because, well—ew. She was only a child but this child tugged at his inner beast, an imaginary force that he could not resist. He had to watch over her.

Had to guard her.

Protect her.

So, Theron, one of the four Ancient wolves—the Originals—fell on all fours, vowing himself to her without thought or question. With a bow of his head, he pushed his face into her belly, with a promise to her that it would last as long as he lived if she accepted.

Theron sighed contently as the need to touch her had now been quenched and he could feel the small, tiny sparks of radiant light wash over his dark being, lighting his way and illuminating his path towards repentance.

And, as if she felt the same, she ran her tiny hands through his mane and kissed him on top of the head, right between his ears. Her little hands cupped the sides of his face and raised his head within inches of hers. Her eyes showed no doubt as she stared lovingly into his and spoke the very first words to him that would ultimately make him nothing more than putty in her hands.

“Can I keep you?” She whispered, the same sweet voice that resounded in his dream.

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