My mouth went dry as the mood dropped, and the heavy pizza in my stomach didn’t feel as glorious anymore. I gulped. It probably wasn’t the best idea to blurt it out like this. Maybe he was getting tired hearing about George. I wouldn’t hold it against him. It was almost all I was talking about.
Gunnar sighed and laid down next to me, propping his head up with his hand, a soft smile spreading over his face. It was as if the darkness I had seen in his eyes had never happened. “Were you able to talk things through with him?”
All the tension left my body, seeing him unbothered. I wouldn’t have known what to do if this had ended up in an argument. “I told him to leave me alone and blocked him. He called me almost the entire time. I almost lost my mind.”
“I can’t imagine he took that so well.”
I huffed. “He said that he refuses to give up on me and that we belong together.”
Gunnar frowned. “That sounds kinda selfish, don’t you think? He should respect your boundaries and decisions. Besides, he is a bit late for that sentiment. He should have worked harder for you when he had the chance to. There were plenty of chances to act more like a man when you had to fight against his family. I can imagine it must be hard to give up on a woman like you, but he doesn’t deserve you.”
I dropped my gaze, feeling heat crawling up my neck. “You are thinking a bit too highly of me.”
He threw me a pointed look but said nothing. In my mind, they both see me as too good of a person. I’m by far the perfect woman, and I have many flaws. I felt bad for making George seem like the bad guy when I wasn’t the best person, either.
“We both made mistakes in our relationship, and he probably felt as lost as me.”
Gunnar leaned forward and grabbed my hand, carefully caressing it with his thumb. “Mia, stop defending what he did because you feel bad or misplaced guilt.”
I stared at this hand on mine, puffing up my cheeks. “Who said I was feeling bad?”
He chuckled. “It’s written all over your face. You want to speak about him, and what happened, but you also don’t want to put him in a terrible light. But it’s not that you are throwing him into the dirt. You are sharing your feelings and experiences, which isn’t wrong if it’s the truth. Whatever I think after hearing about him is my perception, and you can’t change much about it, anyway. I’ve met enough people like him to know I’m not that fond of him. It also doesn’t change the fact that he hurt you, whether or not you want to admit it.”
I swallowed the lump that formed in my throat and blinked away tears. I didn’t want to cry again. It almost felt like it was the only thing I had been doing since arriving here.
“I won’t push you in any direction, because it’s your life, not mine. It’s all up to you, but I want you to think about your feelings and your relationship with him. I don’t want to be rude, but for an outsider, it all seemed pretty toxic. And not only from his side, but yours, too. You both didn’t seem to bring out the best in each other anymore.”
It hurt to hear it out loud, but I knew he was right. George and I dragged each other down without even realizing it.
“And don’t feel like I’m judging you in any way. Sometimes you don’t even see everything that is wrong when you are in the middle of it. Besides, who wants to admit that a relationship is slowly crumbling when you are still loving your partner? This is the right time to reflect on your decision, so you can hopefully see that you weren’t wrong for leaving, and you also have the right to feel hurt.”
I nodded, peeking up at him. “Thank you.”
He smiled. “You are welcome. And now tell me about the plan with the house.”
Relief washed over me, happy that he changed the topic. “Tomorrow I will receive a dumpster to throw all the old stuff away, and pest-control wants to come over, too. I still hope there is no need for them, though.”
I tried to remember the schedule as best as I could. I probably should have written it down somewhere, but I suck at being organized. As always, it might come back to bite me in the butt.
“I will come up tomorrow to help you,” Gunnar said.
I was about to deny his help when he interrupted me. “Don’t even think about refusing my help. I can understand that you want to be independent and all, but you can’t carry all the furniture alone. Besides, I want to help you, so please don’t push me away.”
I laughed. “Okay, fine.”
He smirked, squeezing my hand. I looked back at our intertwined hands. At some point, I must have turned mine around to hold his hand, too. My face felt impossibly hot, and I pulled my hand away and sat up to pull my hair into a ponytail. I tried to look anywhere but him, but I still could see him grinning from the corner of my eyes.
Gunnar sat up, too. “Tyra and the children are missing you a lot.”
I smiled. “Maybe you can bring them with you at some point. They could play in the garden.”
“Sounds great. I’m sure they will enjoy seeing an unfamiliar territory for a change.”
“That would be nice. By the way, have you heard of ancient mages before?”
He nodded. “I have, but only briefly. It is said that they are the creators of ancient wolves.”
“The story says that the ancient mages are the oldest being roaming the earth, and they were the ones initially creating the ancient wolves because they needed protectors.”
My heart started racing in my chest. “What do you mean with protectors? What was the threat?”
To me, it seemed that we required the protection of mages, with all the fighting we were doing between each other.
He shrugged. “I don’t know the details. We don’t have any contact with ancient mages, because only packs with power places get to be in touch with them.”
“Those power places again?” I muttered.
“Your territory isn’t the only one with a power place. There are several of those all over the world. They are usually ancient and hold special powers. It’s said they keep the balance of the earth and that the ancient mages are responsible for keeping that balance. But at the same time, they aren’t allowed to use violence, so to protect the power places from threats, they needed protectors.”
“Basically, ancient wolves did the dirty work for the ancient mages then.”
I gritted my teeth. My parents died protecting some stupid power place because the useless mages can’t do it themselves. That’s great.
“I wouldn’t say it like that. We all need the power places to stay in balance. It’s for the wolves’ own good to protect them.”
I felt used by those mages. Gunnar might be unbothered by it, but he also didn’t have to guard ruins, which caused my family’s demise. “So I live and fall, protecting the mages and their ruins.”
He frowned. “Don’t think that way. You are protecting your territory. The mages do not own the ruins, they want to protect them. Your ancestors were all proud protectors, too.”
I glared at him. “Yes, and that killed them.”
He sighed. “I know it might feel unfair to you, but this is larger than you and me. Keeping the balance is important for the entire world.”
Balance, balance. That was the thing my grandparents used to talk about all the time as well. I hadn’t realized he knew about it, too. He never mentioned it after I spoke to him about my past.
“What if I don’t want to protect the ruins?”
My wolf roared alive in my head, angry at me for even asking such a thing. It took me by surprise. She never reacted so aggressively to anything I said or thought.
“Why are you here, then? You refused to join my pack because you wanted to go back home. You wanted to take over what your parents left you, and now you want to throw it away? The territory comes with the ruins, and that should have been clear.”
I turned to him, gasping when I saw the same anger in his eyes I had felt from my wolf. My hands started shaking, and I clenched them into fists, trying to hide my reaction. “I read a diary my parents left me. Since then, I feel a bit upset about the situation.”
“I found my mother’s diary when I cleaned up my parent’s bedroom. She wrote about a fateful day when the ancient mages revealed a tragic fate that would befall our pack and would put the ruins into danger. Apparently, I was the one who was supposed to save them. And everyone in my pack knew what was going to happen to them if we would leave for the Vindictoria pack. They knew they would die, and so did the ancient mages. If we are their protectors, shouldn’t they make sure that we stay safe, too?”
Gunnar leaned closer, and I dropped my head onto his shoulder. “I wish I could tell you more about the ancient mages and their relationship with the ancient wolves, but my knowledge is limited. I think it would be best if you don’t think of your pack as victims.”
“But aren’t they exactly that?”
He shook his head and wrapped his arm around me, pulling me closer. “Your parents made that decision, knowing well what would happen to them. They sacrificed themselves knowingly to protect you and the ruins. That doesn’t make them victims, it turns them into heroes.”
I had trouble seeing them as heroes. “I think they would have been heroes if they found a way to change their fate instead of accepting it.”
“Some things are out of our hands. Regardless of what we wish we could do to change something, they are meant to happen. I’m sure your parents tried all they could to come up with a better solution, and they didn’t follow a prophecy or orders blindly. From the few times I met your pack, or whenever I heard the alpha speak about them, I always got the impression they were strong and smart. What they did was their last resort. There was no way out. Honor them, Mia, and don’t victimize them. Honor their death and strive to finish what they sacrificed themselves for.”
For the first time since it all happened, I realized I had never seen it like that. Deep inside me, I always harbored sour feelings towards my parents and pack. I didn’t see it as something honorable or a last resort. I saw it as stupid and cowardly.
I thought my father was blinded by the guilt he felt and that he wanted to bring peace, even when not everyone was on board with that. But running into a trap, well knowing that it meant death, isn’t that anything else but cowardly? Maybe I was the only coward because I kept running away from my past and my roots. Weren’t I the one who went with the flow blindly, accepting everything that was thrown my way, for the convenience it offered?
Were all my decisions even my own, or did I always take the next best option because someone offered it to me? Was I even ready to forever let go of my wolf and forget about my pack, and was I even ready to become a mother and live a human life?
All these questions feared to overwhelm me, while I tried to make sense of it all. I thought I was right about my decision back then, but perhaps I was all wrong.
Tears rolled down my face, even when I didn’t want to cry again. But I couldn’t stop myself from sobbing.
“It’s fine. Everything will be okay,” Gunnar said, holding me close.
“I’m so weak,” I whimpered, hating myself for not being strong right now. Gunnar lost so much and still moved on with such strength. Why was I falling apart because of every little thing?
“No, you are strong. All you need is time to grow into your role. So much has changed in so little time, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. But you aren’t alone. Never forget that.”
“But I am. There is no one left here anymore.”
Gunnar pulled away and wiped the tears away, a smile on his face. He then leaned forward and pressed a kiss on top of my head, stunning me.
“You have me. It’s in times like these that I want to offer you comfort and strength,” he whispered into my hair, and it almost felt like my heart was about to stop.
I tried to sort out what I was feeling, but it was tough when my wolf was bouncing up and down in excitement in the back of my mind. I threw my arms around him and gripped his shirt.
I might not understand what was going on right now, but there was one thing I finally realized. The thing I had been missing all these years, and what George could never fulfill in my heart.
I missed someone I knew would be strong enough to protect me and keep me safe. Someone who would bring me back to reality and face me head-on. Someone who would march into battle with me.
I missed a warrior.