I fixed my gaze on the trail ahead, feeling itchy. Michael and I had a ways to go, and at this rate, it would take us another hour to get there. Silver shafts of moonlight flitted through the forest canopy. I was drawn to the light like a moth to a flame. It made me want to drop to all fours and chase Her path through the night sky. The need to shift was driving me to distraction. How did Michael stand this all the time?
“Wanna run?” I asked.
“If you think it necessary,” he answered.
“It’s not necessary. It’s fun.” I moved closer to him as we walked, butting my shoulder against his. “You do know what fun is, right?”
He arched a brow at me. “Contrary to popular belief, I do.”
What did someone like Michael do for fun? All I could picture was him in a library with a glass of good scotch and a book open on his lap.
“Let’s go then,” I said.
I broke into a jog. He pulled even with me a moment later, our strides the same, our hearts beating as one. I smiled toothily at him, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was staring down, picking out his path with care. Oh, right. This trail was new to him, and with his senses suppressed, he might not be able to see it as clearly as I could. Thankfully, I knew a way to fix that. I loosened the cage on my power and it swelled to engulf him.
He shuddered, toe catching on an exposed tree root, and nearly faceplanted.
I grabbed his arm. “My bad. I should have warned you.”
“Please do in the future.”
“I will,” I said, letting him go. “I just meant to give you a little boost so you didn’t trip.”
He gave me a very ‘Michael’ look. “And how did that turn out?”
I laughed. “Shots fired.”
“I was merely teasing.”
I bumped my shoulder into his again. “I know.”
We fell quiet for a moment, running together through the night-drenched forest like creatures born beneath its boughs.
“What do you do for fun?” I asked. I couldn’t help myself.
“I practice marshal arts,” he said. “Among other things.”
“What other things?”
“I ski in the winter. I travel when I have the time. Two years ago, I became certified in solo skydiving.”
It was my turn to stumble and Michael’s turn to steady me.
“Caught you off guard with that last one?” he asked, amused.
“Uh…yeah.” In my mind, he sailed through the air in a three-piece suit like something out of a Bond movie.
“What do you do for fun?” he asked. He sounded like he really wanted to know.
“Less expensive things. I hang out with friends. Run with the pack. Normal shifter stuff.”
He glanced at me.
“Not to say that you’re abnormal.”
“That was awfully close to an apology,” he said.
“Honestly, I feel like I should apologize. I keep making assumptions about you.”
“It’s only natural.”
“Doesn’t make it fair.”
He nodded. “True.”
“How long have you trained in marshal arts?”
“Since I was a child.”
He was quiet for a minute, and I glanced over to see him frowning.
“What?” I asked.
“I believe I’ve grown faster.”
The way he said it gave me pause. “You don’t mean since we were bonded, do you?”
“I do,” he said. “And I’ve found that even while suppressing I’m…aware of things in a way I wasn’t before. I assumed that awareness came from my hyper-fixation on you, but even in those brief moments we’ve been apart, my heightened senses have remained.”
He nodded. “Did you not anticipate this? Is sharing power through the bond abnormal?”
I racked my memory, searching for even the slightest hint of something like this, and came up empty. “I honestly don’t know,” I said. “Hang on a second.”
We slowed to a walk and I reached into my pocket for my phone. I dialed Mom. When she didn’t answer, I called Dad. It went to voicemail.
“They must have already shifted,” I said. “Don’t let me forget to ask them about this before we leave.”
“Are you stronger too?”
“I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t had time to test it. Why?”
I sighed and started jogging again, waiting for him to join me before I answered. “I’m a little worried that if you freak out when we shift it might not be as easy to manhandle you into submission as I thought.”
He craned his head around to stare at me. The sheer afront on his face was priceless. “Manhandle me into submission?”
“You’d rather I let you slaughter everything in the forest?”
He sniffed and faced forward again, his scent prickly. “I’m unpredictable, not rabid.”
The fact that he said he was unpredictable and not the wolf was a huge step in the right direction.
“Where exactly are we going?” he asked.
“Getting tired? I can slow down for you.”
He gave me a long-suffering look. Teasing him was way too much fun.
“We’re headed deep into packland,” I said. “There’s a ridgeline that looks out over a valley. It’s one of my favorite places to howl, and it’s so far away that we shouldn’t run into anyone else out there.”
“If we do,” he said, hesitating a moment before continuing, “please don’t let me hurt anyone.”
“Don’t worry, I got you.”
A small flush of warmth came through the bond in response, paired with relief.
We fell silent and settled into the long loping stride that our kind could maintain for hours. In wolf form, we ran down prey, overcoming them after their exhaustion took hold. That endurance extended to our human forms. Our breaths were deep and even. Our pulses thrummed. Around us the forest came alive with the sounds of its nocturnal residents.
I grabbed Michael’s shoulder and slowed him, pointing up. A soft sigh, almost like velvet, came from overhead, and an owl appeared out of the gloom, gliding past us as it searched for prey among the underbrush. Michael stared up at it with intense focus, moonlight sheering across eyes that had visibly lightened.
We ran on. A few minutes later he turned his head to the right and took a deep pull through his nose. “Deer,” he said.
The further into the wilderness we ran, the more relaxed I became. It was hard to think about megalithic skyscrapers and the stink of sewers when trees towered overhead and the smell of my mate filled my nose. As I relaxed, so did Michael. The tension we’d been carrying around with us eased from our shoulders and limbs. Our movements became lithe. We glided through the trees like ghosts. I could barely hear our footfalls on the path below.
We reached a familiar clearing not long after, and I slowed to a stop. Michael stopped just past me, head turning as he took in our surroundings. His chest rose and fell in an even rhythm, but not a drop of perspiration marked his forehead.
“Is this it?” he asked.
He faced north and breathed deeply. “I smell water.”
“There’s a river in the valley,” I told him. His senses really were heightened. Not even Gia could smell it from here.
“I’d like to see that,” he said.
A shiver ran down my spine, the need to shift taking hold. I pulled my long-sleeved shirt overhead and tossed it to the ground. My skin prickled in goosebumps. The night air was cool without any fur to shield me.
Michael froze at the sight of me shucking off my sneakers and jeans. I faced him in my bra and underwear. His eyes widened a fraction, and I felt a swell of surprise and awareness come through the bond.
Be a damn adult, Layla, I had to remind myself.
“I think I should shift first,” I said. “That way we can see how you respond. Also, I’m big enough in wolf form that if you start to get snippy, I can just sit on you.”
He shook his head, a small smile playing about his lips. “I’m not sure I can stomach the embarrassment of that.”
I grinned back at him. “Then you better behave.”
Not sure why hearing him say that was a turn on, but then again nothing made sense anymore, so who the hell really cared? This close to the shift, I was having trouble suppressing my mounting attraction to him. I needed to get into wolf form, now. Everything was simplified in it. Complex emotions and human thought required focus. Hunt, kill, howl: those were the things that drove me, my instincts coming to the forefront.
I reached behind me and unsnapped my bra. Michael turned his back, giving me privacy. There was a hesitancy to him that froze my teasing comment on my tongue. He was already on edge. From here on out, I needed to work on keeping him calm, not rile him up.
I kicked my underwear off next and set my clothes in a pile. Hopefully they were still here when we came back. I’d had animals take off with them before, and the Goddess knew the last thing we needed tonight was to have to walk back naked.
“How you doing?” I asked.
“Fine,” Michael said.
“Let me know if you need me to stop from here on out.”
I dropped to my knees and started to shift, much slower than I wanted to. I was so keyed up that my wolf form threatened to burst out of me, but Michael might not handle that well. Instead I let fur flow over my body to guard myself from the cold. Claws pushed out through my fingers and toes. Power licked over me, warm and electric, and my muscles swelled with the influx, adding mass to my body. The threat of shivering abated.
“You still with me?” I asked.
He nodded, but I could feel a battle raging beneath the surface. He felt close to panic.
“Continue, please,” he ground out. “You were right. We need to do this. It would be unfair for you not to assume wolf form just because of my discomfort.”
I slowed my shift to a trickle so I could track his responses. My shoulder blades contracted and then rolled forward, positioning my arms straight beneath me. He shrugged his own shoulders like he was shaking off an itch. I dug my claws into the ground. My hands morphed into paws. Michael curled his hands into fists. With a loud pop, my knees dislocated from their sockets and bent backwards. He jerked in response.
“I’m okay,” I told him. It sounded like it hurt, but it didn’t. All I felt was relief, like I’d eased a cramp in a stiff muscle. “I won’t be able to talk from here on out.”
I ran my tongue over my teeth as they pushed out of my gums, elongating and gaining a razor-sharp edge. My jaw cracked and grew outward, nose sliding down my face until it landed on the tip of my muzzle. I’d won the Lon Chaney award two years ago by stopping the shift around this point, only with half the fur. I’d looked like I had mange. My face was half-melted. I’d let my ears grow long and pointy but stopped them before they moved to the top of my head, so they stuck out from the sides like Yoda from Star Wars.
I paused my shift where I was, not to compete in a monster off, but because I needed to check in on my own wellbeing. I felt…fine. Like me. In total control of myself like always. Michael’s lunacy must not be infectious. Either that, or my own mastery was so great that it didn’t impact me.
With a thought, I finished the shift. Pressure came from the base of my spine as my tail grew. My ears realigned themselves on top of my head. In a final shake, I landed on four large paws.
I glanced around. The night forest was a stark world of shadows and moonlight, but with my enhanced eyesight I could see deep into its depths. Ah, yes, this was so much better. And look! My mate!
I padded around in front of him, tongue lolling out. He had his arms wrapped around his waist and his eyes screwed shut, like he was holding himself together through sheer willpower.
In wolf form, my head came to his chest. I leaned forward and bit the sleeve of his sweater, trying to loosen his grip on himself. His eyes cracked open and then flashed wide. He dropped his arms to his sides and stared at me. The threat of panic disappeared from the bond, replaced by outright shock. My mate was surprised and impressed by my size. It made me want to preen. I took a few dance steps in front of him, showing off.
“You are…enormous,” he said.
I pulled myself up to my full height and grinned at him.
He blinked at me several times in quick succession.
I headbutted him in the chest.
He took a staggering step backward. “What was that for?”
I whined at him. Shift, you goober.
When he just stared at me, I whined again and moved forward. He put his hands up to hold me off, but I was faster. I snuck beneath his guard and rubbed my entire length over his hip. Why was my mate still in human form? He should be down on all fours with me. The forest beckoned and I wanted to run through it with him. Howl with him. Show him all of my favorite places. Maybe we could spook a rabbit or catch a trout in the river. I turned and rubbed over his other hip. He smelled too much like a human, too much like himself. Where was my scent?
“You are leaving an untenable amount of hair on my clothes,” he said.
I whined louder and leaned my forehead into his ribs.
He let out a shaky breath. The subtle sound of movement came from overhead, and then his fingers were in the thick band of fur on my neck. My mate was touching me back! I yipped and pushed into him, forgetting my strength. He landed on his ass in the dirt. Happy that he was now at my level, I lunged forward, nearly tackling him.
“Okay. Yes. I know this is all very exciting.” Michael tried to pat and subdue me at the same time, but I rolled roughshod over him, coating him in my hair and my scent. “Layla, you are being slightly absurd right now.”
He sounded stern, but my mate couldn’t lie to me. I felt his amusement. He thought I was funny! I yip-growled and took him all the way to the ground, landing flat on top of him, demonstrating my superior strength and skill, all the reasons I made a good mate.
He laughed. “I believe you now. You can keep me from hurting anyone.”
Oh. Yes. That’s what I’d been doing. Demonstrating my ability to contain him. Not losing my mind with giddy abandon because this was the first time I’d turned in almost a week.
With a monumental effort, I reigned in my baser instincts and heaved myself off of him.
He got back to his feet, brushing hair and dirt from his clothes. “Will you stay here?”
I nodded, proving that I was capable of some semblance of rational thought.
He turned and paced away from me. A minute later he disappeared behind a massive white pine that had split near the base early on in its life, so that three trunks punched through the canopy instead of one. I cocked my head sideways and listened to him taking off his clothes. Ferns rustled and leaves crunched. His fear returned, threatening to infect me. In this form it was easier not to let it. Shifting was right, natural. I beat back his fear and projected my own calm toward him. Incredibly, his worry abated some.
A sharp stab of pain suddenly cut down the entire length of my spine. I dropped to the ground, writhing.
Ow! What the hell?
I jerked my head up, snarling, and searched for my assailant. There was no one in sight. Another wallop of pain punched through me, this time in my ribs. It felt like someone was trying to tear them free from my torso.
A low, mournful sound that no human throat could make came from behind the tree.
Just like last night, it wasn’t me being hurt. It was Michael.
I struggled up to my paws and raced forward, skidding to a stop when I caught sight of him. He was halfway through the shift, curled in the fetal position, back to me. Something was wrong. Something was so, so wrong. He still wore his human skin, allowing me a front row view of the bruises that covered it. With a popping sound, his right arm wrenched up and backward, like a malicious ghost had gotten hold of his wrist and was trying to dislocate it. We growled in shared pain. He let out a low moan when it passed.
I stepped up to him, sniffing and whining. Why was he fighting it? If he just gave in to the shift, it would go so much smoother and wouldn’t leave him looking like an assault victim.
“Layla, go!” he yelled.
Over my dead body. Something was hurting my mate. It was my job to protect him. Even if that meant protecting him from himself. Power punched at the cage I kept it in, demanding out. I dropped my shields and let it pour from me, focusing the tidal wave straight down onto Michael.
You are a wolf, I thought. Claiming this form is as natural as breathing. It is power. It is beauty. It is family. Fur and freedom and moonlight. Come out, Michael. I crowded in close, brushing my fur over him, forcing the comforting scent of his mate to fill his nose, projecting a torrent of peace and acceptance across the bond.
His shoulders relaxed. Marginally.
Yes. Come on. You can do it. Come run with me beneath the stars.
He turned his head and looked at me with amber eyes. I barked in joy to see them. As I watched, the shift took hold of him, progressing much quicker than my own did. Fur flowed over him. His muscles contracted and bulged. The sharp smell of wolf musk filled my nose. His spine bowed and then lengthened, his tail breaking free. It was a beautiful sight. Not something to hide. I redoubled my efforts to tell him this through the bond, and his lingering pain vanished.
When it was over, he lay on the ground, panting. I took a step back. He was…not what I expected. Most wolves were half my size. Michael was closer to three quarters of it. Had his forefathers somehow bred with a MacKenzie wolf? If anyone was capable of pulling that off, it was probably the Kolbecks, though if they had, they shouldn’t have reacted like they did when his mother outed me at dinner the other night. And he wouldn’t have been so caught off guard when he saw me in wolf form for the first time.
Michael rose to his paws on shaky legs. Where my fur was uniformly black, his coat was tri-colored. Brown and sable and white. His belly, legs, and nose were the lightest parts of him, while his back was a low contrast mixture of the darker colors. Black tipped his ears and skirted his eyes, like a half mask.
He stared down at himself. Shock came through the bond.
Oh, Goddess. What if his increased size was because of me? Like his speed? He was probably stronger too.
I was really beginning to regret my earlier demand that we shift.
Michael’s shock dissipated and he lifted his muzzle. The amber eyes that bored into mine held no warmth. No recognition. His lips quivered. A snarl split his muzzle.
He lunged at me.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.