THERON

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FIFTEEN.

I loath technology.

I’ll never understand this magical contraption and how much people crave advancements in it. I find face-to-face contact more amicable, but this mocks such a concept in the evilest of ways.

Largely because it keeps this fucking piece of shit on the other side of the screen safe from my deadly claws.

“Nathaniel Goe,” I greet through clenched teeth.

His bright white veneers blinded me as a wide smile stretches across his famous face, “Ah, so you do know me! It’s a real pleasure to meet you, Theron.” I wonder exactly how tough veneers are. Do they break just like teeth if punched hard enough? Could I pull them out one by one, easily? Make him swallow them, piece by fucking fake piece? Maybe I should research the details of these aesthetics...

I instantly dismiss the idea. I doubt he’ll last even three minutes under the stress of such torture tactics—he is human, after all. In all honesty, he’s a waste of my time. He might have given money to the enemy, but I doubt he sits as any chair head on their board of directors.

It’s curious to me why this particular meeting is even taking place. I’ve seen this fucking tawt everywhere, his face plastered on Forbes magazine, sitting ironically next to People’s Sexiest Man Alive and Glamour’s spotlight interview of what he thinks his “perfect match” is.

Puke.

He’s nothing but a child, dressed in a rich man’s suit; A typical billionaire with a pretty face.

A face I want nothing more than to rip apart with my teeth.

Aside from my murderous rage, I am quite panicked, though I will never allow him to see that. While I have little knowledge when it comes to electronics, I know enough. If billionaire Nathaniel Goe, Superlunar’s biggest financier, and part-owner, could contact me then it means they zeroed in on our location. Lina, her friends, my brothers... we are no longer safe.

But I will not falter.

He’ll never see the anxious urgency that rolls from my core in waves. None of us sense them nearby physically, but that doesn’t mean they can’t attack remotely. History has shown drones can devastate larger targets than us. While my brothers and I would survive, I’m not entirely convinced Lina is immortal—Created Ancient theory aside. As for her friends, I have no doubt what their fate will be. “The pleasure is all yours I’m sure, you fucking coward.”

Nathaniel’s smile drops like a rock in a lake, “Now, now. No need for name-calling, I only want to chat, old friend.”

I scoff, “I am far from being considered your friend.” The fucking audacity of this guy...

“Are you though? I mean, you did take care of our small employee problem. We couldn’t have any loose ends from your little stunt at our Tennessee facility, now could we? You saved us quite a bit of money and headaches by killing our potential security threats. Only a friend would do that for us,” he tilts his head from side to side, eyes upwards, thinking, “though I will say you needn’t have been so brutal with them. It took an enormous amount of bribing for our clean-up team to enter most of these locations due to the sheer volume of gore left behind.”

Why is he speaking to me like I give a fuck?

Yes, I hunted down each and every one of their scientists, security, and janitorial employees.

Yes, I played with, tortured, and murdered them all graphically and without remorse.

And hell to the fucking yes, I left every ounce of blood, skin, limbs, and vital organs at the scene because I wanted Superlunar to know it was me.

I want to flush them out.

I want Arthur Grime’s head on a silver motherfucking platter.

How this dumb fuck can twist and turn my actions into some warped idea of a friendly gesture is just plain pathetic. You can dress a demon up like an angel but in the end, it’s still a demon. Square pieces do not fit in round holes, after all, “I assure you, I am no friend of yours.”

“Hm, that is quite a disappointment.”

“Excuse me if my heart doesn’t bleed for you.” I sigh, impatient and annoyed by this little game, “What the fuck do you want?”

“A man that gets straight to the point. I like it,” he smirks.

Feigning stupidity and shock, I look around the room, “Did you see that?”

“See what?” A clearly confused Nathaniel searches the screen.

“The fuck I do not have, of course,” I level, dryly. It’s almost as if he’s never read the memo on Things That Interest Theron the Ancient because I swear what Nathaniel Goe “likes” is not on that short fucking list.

“I tire of this banter, Theron.”

“Oh trust me, the feeling is mutual.”

“Fine. I will wrap this up quickly then. Come to Superlunar, give yourself to us and let’s end this charade.”

I can’t restrain the laugh that bellows from deep within my chest, “And why in the hell would I do that?” Surely this dude is joking... am I on Hidden Camera?

I’m on Hidden Camera, aren’t I?

“We don’t want a war, Theron, and I’m quite sure that you don’t either. I am authorized to make this deal with you: give yourself to us and we will end any and all plans of decimating your species.”

What the... Well, that doesn’t make one lick of fucking sense. “So, you’re telling me, you would throw away years of research and scheming for me? You honestly think I’m ignorant enough to fall for that shit?”

Nate shrugs, “I’m only relaying the boss’s wishes. If you don’t, we’ll slaughter every wolf and lycan that walk this earth. I can also assure you that we’ll start with the little blonde girl you adore so much. Nothing would please the boss more than to see her choking on her own blood.”

I snarl at his threat, my beast not the least bit concerned with staying cool, calm, and collected. Promising to kill the whole population of shifters does not concern me. We are not a natural species and should never have been created in the first place, better yet bred and spread, populating beyond what one would deem as normal for any animal genus. Where he went terribly wrong was classifying Lina as a normal, every day animal within that bracket.

She is so much more.

But the fact remains that everything I’ve done to protect Lina will be all for naught if she ends up dead because I cannot swallow my pride and grant these shitheads the most simple of requests, regardless of how suspiciously effortless it sounds. While a part of me wants to fight, to argue that there were other options, I know now that this will be the easiest, least deadly, way to protect her.

I’m going to surrender, my mind just hasn’t yet caught up to the decision my heart has already made for us.

“Why are you doing this?” Kai breaks his silence, not ashamed one bit by the begging tone that laces his voice, “you can stop this! It isn’t necessary!”

Nathaniel’s gaze finds Kai, all attention now directed at him, “Me? Oh, silly wolves... haven’t you figured it out yet? I don’t control what happens here.”

“What do you mean? You financed this! You gave Arthur all he needed to pursue this sick obsession! You can close your checkbook at any time!” Kai asserts, not willing to give up as quickly as me. As admirable as his resistance is, I know it’s futile. Years and years of memories push forth, front and center into my vision. How I had fought so hard... only to give up so unceremoniously?

The truth does hurt...

I am tired.

I am desperate.

And I am so in love that logic and reason mean nothing now, only an exhausting effort that I no longer have the energy to exert.

“What you see in front of you is merely the face of Superlunar. Plucked from obscurity and homelessness and paid to play a part. I am not a billionaire, I am an actor. An illusion to throw off anyone who investigates exactly who funds this corporation—a made-up backstory, if you will,” he waves his hand casually, his voice nonchalantly unconcerned by the lack of importance his role entails.

I seem to be the only one not surprised by this information. I have known for quite some time that he has no pull within Superlunar.

Call it intuition.

DeLoren raises an eyebrow, “You’re saying you’re not a billionaire but a hired employee?”

“Yes. I thought after all these years, you would have figured out who the real boss is. Shame really, I expected at least one of you to be smarter than... well, this.” Nathaniel’s demeanor darkens suddenly. His fists slam the desktop he’s sitting at. “Think,” he yells, “Who is the one person you have never been able to find information on? Who is the ghost amongst us?”

Silence engulfs the room as I assume each one of us is flipping through over a decade of mentally filed information. It had once occurred to us that Arthur is possibly not the one pulling the strings here so we vetted everyone. Every donor, every associate, every board member, every employee (or what was left of them, at least) right down to the fucking lunch lady—all cleared. As far as family, he had none, only Alex and a wife that was never pictured nor named but we—

The instant revelation both thrills and disheartens me, simultaneously.

Arthur’s wife.

A woman we have never seen.

An entity without a name, only a title.

I’m ashamed to admit that our sexism had quickly dismissed the curious lack of information on her. We had stupidly assumed she was nothing more than a doting wife, soaking up her husband’s cash, only to now be hit with the realization that she is, in fact, the money tree. So if no one is putting two and two together aloud, then I’ll do the dirty deed myself, “Arthur’s wife.”

“Theron,” he gasps, “Impressive! It seems you are smarter than anyone gives you credit for! Yes, the boss lady has become increasingly impatient over the years and is done waiting. Come willingly and your friends shall live.”

“Why Theron? What does she want with him?” Lina’s narrowed stare indicates a growing fury that sparks even more admiration from me. Why had I not thought to ask the reasoning behind me, specifically, being the only one desired? I was one of four Ancients. And even though I won’t allow my brothers to sacrifice themselves, I’ve too willingly accepted my destiny as if I somehow knew it was the only way.

No questions asked.

What Lina fails to understand is the distance I am prepared to go to assure her safety. I will gladly place myself in the line of fire if it spares her life. Without me, she will be able to move on and find someone to spend the rest of her life with. Even though the thought pains me, I’m done being selfish. She would be happy, healthy, and most importantly, alive. If I am being honest, that’s all I ever wanted for her. I had assumed I would be present somewhere in that mix but if my absence is what’s required for such a life to take on fruition, then so be it.

Nathaniel chuckles, as if this was all sickeningly amusing to him, “Theron and the boss have some unfinished business.” He shooes Lina like she’s nothing more than a fly buzzing around his head, “Let the big boys talk, sweetie.”

Four Ancients and, humorously enough, three humans, all growl their displeasure of such a disrespectful gesture to our treasured she-wolf. She, however, seems unbothered and unaware of the natural reaction her protective soldiers displayed. “You. Can’t. Have. Him,” she seethes.

The tone of her voice, the determination on her face, and the clenching of her fists tells me she’s a murderous time bomb awaiting detonation. She is not as inclined to let me go as I am, and while it warms my heart and strains my pants to see her so protective of me, it doesn’t abolish my resolve.

She is not meant to protect me.

My life has revolved around Lina since the very second I laid eyes upon her. I know my purpose. I understand the consequences of being her guardian even if I have only now just accepted it. Her safety is my number one priority.

It always has been.

“What assurances do I have?” I inquire, ignoring the hateful glare Lina is burning into the side of my face. The only way I will do this is if it means Lina is safe.

I have to hear it.

Nathaniel’s eyes focus on me, Lina’s declaration falling upon deaf ears, “The deal is as it stands: we won’t hurt your girl, all wolves and lycans will live and our human trial subjects will be euthanized. It is our word. That’s all I can give you. You have twenty-four hours, Theron. I hope you make the right decision.” The screen goes black, his face gone with the pleasant bloop that resounds throughout the room.

I turn the chair, studying the only face that means the most to me.

Lina points her finger, her eyes swirling in a multitude of majestic colors. Emotion erupts from her like a volcano, intent on driving her point home, like she somehow knows exactly what I’m about to do, “Don’t you fucking think about it.”

I glance at my brothers, nodding that they should vacate the premises but they have already started motioning the three humans out the door. Apparently, they also expect this argument to turn full nuclear, as neither Lina nor myself have any intention of caving to the other.

“No, Theron,” Lina snaps, a raging fire behind her eyes, “I forbid it.”

I laugh at the mad little kitten, her demand seeming preposterous in such a small and adorable frame. “You forbid it? Oh, Lina,” I continue to chuckle, quite amused with this little act, “I do not take orders from you, deity.”

It’s a cheap shot.

A passive-aggressive punch to her gut and I know it but I can’t stop it, still not believing she was anything more than myself: cursed.

It’s also a lie.

That woman could demand I jump off the highest building in the most populous of cities and I will do it gladly but this is where I draw the line. It’s a thick and bold red line where the title Lina’s Life is written on the other side and I will not cross it.

I will never cross it.

Hurt flickers momentarily within her warm brown eyes, but it’s quickly replaced by a resolve I have neither the time nor the patience for right now. Walking away, I climb the stairs two at a time, an angry she-wolf hot on my tail. Anyone would take my words as a dismissal, the end of the current conversation final, but not Lina. “We’re not finished here!” She cries, determined to have her every wish granted.

Unfortunately for her, I am not a fucking genie in a bottle.

I fling the bedroom door open, intent on getting some shut-eye and fresh clothes. A shower sounds nice since I’m not sure what this boss bitch has planned and how long it’ll be until I get another but seeing as I already had one before the interrogation of Xavier Thomas, I cannot justify two showers in two hours. I also have no intentions of waiting the full twenty-four hours they have given me. I want this done and over and I want it now.

“Let me tell you how this will go, Lina,” I spin around, facing her as I tear my shirt off over my head, “You will say, ‘No Theron! I forbid it!’ And I will say, ′Aw, that’s precious’ but disregard your demand anyway. We will argue our points and yet neither one of us will really listen to the other. In the morning, I will be gone, your heart will hurt and I will feel guilty as fuck but in the end, you’ll be alive so yes, we are finished! This whole debate was done before it ever started!”

I did not intend to raise my voice.

I never desired to yell at Lina.

She frustrates me to no fucking end but the love and respect I feel overshadow any anger she may incite within me. I am not bothered by everyone around me being fully aware of my wrath but both me and the beast inside have a deeply ingrained need to protect her, even if it means shielding her from ourself.

Her bottom lip trembles and her eyes begin to puddle. Her voice cracks, taking my crumbling heart with it, “When do I get to decide, Theron? When will you and everyone else stop making decisions for me and trust that I know what’s best for me and my life?”

“Lina,” I say softly, my body instantly deflated by her words. She’s right, after all. It began with her father, thinking he knew the only way to keep her safe was to hover over her every thought and action. Then me, leaving for years, thinking I could keep the monsters at bay. Kai is guilty too, if only because I commanded it. She’s able to do and speak solely to what and whom he allowed or deemed worthy. DeLoren, Marius, Rhys, Anthony, and Keeley... all play parts as well, though maybe significantly less conspicuously so yes, she is right.

Her life has never been her own.

We have all done what we thought best with little regard to how she felt or what she thought. And though I’ve tried, in what small time we’ve had together, to give her the freedom of making her own choices, I still kept her on a short leash—staying just close enough in the shadows to burst forth when need be. She doesn’t know struggle, she doesn’t know loneliness, she isn’t entirely permitted to think for herself... she’s never been given the chance.

“We don’t give up. We never give up. We keep fighting. You, most of all, know this.” A single tear slides down her cheek, emotional pain escaping in the most delicate of ways, “I can’t lose you again. My heart won’t survive a second time.”

All resolve I had now lay broken at her feet, shattered beyond repair by the agony in her voice. No one and nothing quite affects me like this woman, her words melting my heart like the sun to the iciest of winters. I want nothing more than to comfort her, to whisper sweet promises in her ear I know I can never follow through on.

She is my light in the dark.

She is the gasoline to my fire.

And here I stand at the stake, ready to burn.

Closing the distance between us, I cup her face in my hands, desperate to wipe away the evidence of pain I caused her by the tears that stream down her beautiful face. “Lina, please,” I beg her as her back meets the wall. The last thing I ever want to do is break her heart as I know what that feels like. Although this is a different scenario from the one I had experienced long ago, it’s a means to an end nonetheless. I cannot make her see, better yet understand, that I am not doing what I plan on doing because I wish her any harm—quite the opposite. But all Lina knows from me is abandonment and now it appears as if I’m about to do it for a second time.

“Don’t leave me,” she whispers.

The turmoil inside me dances and twirls, a destructive tornado ripping through my insides. I wish for nothing more than to obey her every command but this is something I know I cannot do for her. If she does not grasp the scope of my love for her by now, she never will. I have only one option left, one other way to prove myself... something I had only ever done to one other person in my entire existence. If this is the last time I will touch her, I want it to be memorable, something I can hold onto when the coldness becomes too much to bear.

So, my eyes land on her lips.

They pull me in like a magnet, lush and perfectly pink. They are my lifeline, the only thing I know will fill my lungs and allow me to feel alive once again.

A debate wars within me—the possible consequences of my actions and whether or not Lina will even welcome such an intimate action. “Tell me to stop Lina,” I plead, knowing I am far beyond the point of any return, “make me stop.”

But Lina does not stop me.

It’s her lips that captured mine, sparks exploding upon our union. A heat roars through my body, an all-consuming wildfire I have never experienced before.

But again, I am prepared to burn.

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