I slapped Michael’s snout down and side-stepped, sending him to the ground. He might be the superior fighter as a human, but thankfully those skills didn’t transfer to a creature with four legs and a tail. It was hard to judo chop someone with your paw. Plus, I doubted he’d ever learned to fight in this form, what with the fact that he spent his limited time as a wolf locked in a cage.
His recent size increase worked against him too. He lumbered back to his paws with ungainly jerks, like a colt still learning to walk. Very little came through the bond, and what did was…foreign. It didn’t feel like Michael. I tried not to panic. I was still bigger than him and hopefully still stronger and faster. I could subdue him if I had to.
He shook himself, flinging dirt from his fur. I took it as a good sign. Michael’s prissiness about his appearance creeping back in. Maybe that was the key to getting him to snap out of it: cover him in mud and force a panic attack.
His amber gaze swiveled to me. He growled. I stood tall on my legs and twitched, sending my fur standing on end, making myself look even larger than I was. The growl that slipped from my lips was lower than his and edged with dominance. I was big and mean and it would be a very bad idea to attack me.
It seemed to give him pause. He kept growling, but instead of lunging again, he backed up a few steps.
That’s right, buddy. No reason to get your ass kicked in the middle of the woods on a beautiful night by the wolf you’re bonded too. I had a feeling that if it came to that, Michael would be beyond embarrassed when he shifted back to human.
He retreated a few more steps. I remained where I was, giving him space to get his bearings and hopefully remember who I was. His eyes cut right, to the trail we’d taken in.
Oh, no. Don’t even think about it.
I took a step toward him.
He turned tail and sprinted away from me, back toward civilization.
I ran after him, catching him quickly because he was having trouble controlling his long legs. Thank the Goddess for small miracles. We rounded a bend and I pulled even. He tried to snap at me, but I dropped back half a step and his jaws clacked shut on empty air. I turned into him and rammed my shoulder against his ribcage, sending him rolling through the underbrush. He got back to his feet faster than before and leapt out of it, tail straight up in the air.
I couldn’t help it. I wheezed out a laugh. He was covered in dirt and leaves, and with his fur fluffed out like that, he looked like a pissed off hedgehog that someone had tried to use as a pin cushion. The glare he shot me would have incinerated a lesser wolf. I laughed harder, the sound a hoarse choking in this form.
Something clicked over the bond, and I felt the faint hint of a familiar presence slide against my own, tinged with amusement.
Michael! There you are!
I padded over and butted my head against his shoulder, hoping that the scent of his mate would further remind him of who he really was. He held himself very still, but didn’t lash out again. I took it as another good sign.
It’s me, Michael, I whined at him and rubbed down his side.
A fine tremor ran through him. I paused, wary. Without warning, that familiar presence fled, and before I could get clear of him, he leaned down and bit my hind leg, just above the joint. His teeth ground against my femur.
Ow, fuck! That’s it, you little shit.
I was no longer concerned about preserving his ego. Now I was angry. I whirled around and clamped my jaws onto the back of his neck like he was a misbehaving pup. I didn’t bite down hard enough to really hurt him, but just enough that I could use my grip to force him toward the ground.
He locked his legs and tried to shake me off. Unlike him, I’d been in plenty of fights in this form and I knew just where his weaknesses were. I dragged him sideways, off balance, and then pinned him to the ground and did exactly what I’d threatened to do. I sat on him. He squirmed and growled, but between my hold on his neck and my weight, he couldn’t get free.
Go ahead, struggle all you want. I got all night.
No way was I going to give up on him. Michael was in there, somewhere. I’d felt a hint of him already. I just had to find a way to coax him back out. The fact that he was covered in filth and just getting dirtier the more he struggled clearly wasn’t enough. My scent wasn’t doing much either. The only other way I could think to help him was by battering him into submission with my power. It had helped him during the shift. Maybe being crushed beneath it now would remind him who wielded it, and what I had come to mean to him over the past few days. Hopefully I meant enough to snap him out of it.
I closed my eyes and focused. The bars that caged my mind expanded further than I’d let them in years. Power pulsed out of me. It rolled over the forest and rebounded, crashing over my psyche, bringing with it every sound and smell in the surrounding woods. I could have mapped out each living thing, told you where every tree was, how many leaves it had, which creatures sat in its branches, what animals made their nests beneath its roots. This was almost full power. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t dare open my eyes. Instead, I struggled to wield it, to narrow its reach and force that beam down onto my mate.
Michael, it’s me, Layla. Your mate. The woman you find incorrigible. Remember a few hours ago when you caught me eyeballing your nether regions?
He froze beneath me, falling silent. The prickly smell of anger was replaced by the reek of fear, tinged with confusion. I’d take it. Anything was better than his rage.
Remember when we snuck out of your parents’ house? I’ve never met a wolf who can move as quietly as you over pavement. You’ll have to show me how you do it when we get back to the city.
A small hint of warmth came through the bond. That’s right, he liked it when I said nice things about him. Wait a second. How did he know I just complimented him? Maybe he sensed it somehow over the bond? Hell, if compliments worked, I would shower him in them.
The way you were able to stay so outwardly calm at dinner with your family was amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The smell of his fear dissipated. I kept going.
And it might make me a terrible person for thinking this, but I like that I’m the exception for you. I love watching you interact with people when only I know your true feelings. Also, your ass looks amazing in jeans. Please wear them more.
His confusion lessened and familiarity came back through the bond. I felt steadfastness, calm, careful consideration – a presence that I had come to learn as his alone.
There was a gentle pressure over the bond, and then, so soft I almost missed it, Layla?
I leapt off of him, landing five feet away. In my confusion, my power returned to the default mode I’d kept it at for years and the connection between us disappeared. I braced myself, ready for him to lunge at me or run again, but he stayed on the ground. Our gazes locked. His amber eyes showed signs of intelligent life.
Okay. Everything’s fine here. He didn’t really say my name over the bond. That couldn’t have happened. I must have imagined it. I must have wanted him to come back to himself so much that I hallucinated his voice in my head.
Michael got to his paws on shaky legs. I tensed. He dropped his gaze from mine and lowered his head in a clear demonstration of submission. The whine that slipped from his muzzle sounded apologetic. I felt a well of deep regret rise up from him through the bond, embarrassment and shame floating on the surface.
It was him. Really him this time. I moved forward and butted my head into his shoulder before rubbing my side down his. If he bit me again, I swear to the Goddess…
But he didn’t. Instead, he leaned into me and whined louder. I rubbed my way back up his body and stopped when we were shoulder to shoulder. He had some lingering pain in his neck from where I’d pinned him. I leaned down and licked it, telling him that I was sorry too.
Pressure came across the bond. I felt his presence slide against mine, almost in greeting, and then, You have nothing to be sorry for, Layla.
WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?!
I leapt away again.
He winced. Care to lower your mental voice? I think you may have just shattered a few of my synapses with your shouting.
I stared at him. No. There was no way that he was talking to me right now.
Tentatively, I forced myself to focus and pushed my power against his. Can you hear me?
In my head, he said, in that perfectly clear, slow, rolling cadence of his, Of course I can. Why? Did you not anticipate this?
I nearly passed out from shock.
Ah, he said. I see from your surprise that you did not.
Of course I fucking didn’t.
Is this not a common form of communication between mates when in wolf form?
No, Michael. No one can do this.
Are you certain?
I nodded. The closest thing I’ve heard of is mates calling out to each other over the bond. Mom and Dad can do it, but from the way Mom described it, they don’t exchange words. It’s more of a sending. Like mentally paging someone.
And you’ve never communicated with anyone else this way? he asked.
Have you ever tried?
No. I stared at him. Why?
He turned contemplative. Because I’m curious if this is one of the unknown MacKenzie abilities. They would have wanted some way to communicate with one another over distances when planning to attack vampires.
His words hit me like a sucker punch. Yes, they would have wanted that.
We can’t tell anyone. No one, Michael, I mean it.
In my head, I saw her, the vampire who had killed my birth pack, closing in on me and my mate. She didn’t want word of what we could do to get out, and the Goddess only knew what she would do to a wolf who talked.
It was Michael’s turn to come comfort me, rubbing his forehead against my shoulder. We’ll keep it to ourselves, he said. And then, I truly am sorry for attacking you.
It’s okay. You didn’t mean it. Do you still want to see the forest?
Good, because I think we need to get as far into it as possible.
He hesitated. Why?
Because it’s not only your size, strength, and speed that got a boost from our bond. Your power is growing.
Even now it lapped against my skin like a tide rolling up a coastline, gaining ground the longer we stood here.
The smell of his surprise filled my nose. So, when I mentioned earlier that my senses seemed heightened…
You were noticing the increase. I need to teach you how to cage it before someone else notices too. And we need to stay the hell away from other wolves until you learn to do so.
Why are you suddenly so afraid? he asked.
Because I don’t want to give the old-world vamp that killed my birth parents a reason to murder us.
His spine stiffened. Yes, let’s please avoid that.
Grab your clothes and let’s go, I told him. I know a cave we can spend the night in.
Together we headed deeper into the wilderness, toward the rugged mountains and deep gorges that the rivers had carved between them over the past million years. This was inhospitable terrain that not even the most seasoned hikers would attempt. The hills were steep and rocky. One false step sent loose scree tumbling down. Even with our wide, padded feet we had to be careful.
We traveled for over an hour, loping along when the deer paths we followed allowed us to, slowing to a near crawl as we picked our way through the trickier spots. Eventually we made it to a familiar jagged outcropping of granite. With my clothes clutched in my mouth, I leapt from one boulder to another, leading Michael up the cliff face until I caught sight of the gaping maw of a mountain cave just large enough for us to squeeze through. I paused outside and scented the entrance. A mountain lion had passed by the day before, but nothing called this place home now.
We need to shift, I told Michael when we were inside. It’ll be easier to teach you in human form.
He took his clothes and retreated further into the cave, seeking privacy. I let him go without comment. Hopefully his shift to human hurt less than the one to wolf had.
My eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness of the cave. I padded over to the fire pit in its center, dropped my clothes and slipped form between heartbeats. The prickly sensation that ran through me told me Michael was doing the same, this time without any accompanying pain. So going from human from wolf was a struggle, but wolf to human was fine. Why? Because he spent so much time as a human that assuming this form felt more natural to him? If so, we needed to work on that.
I pulled my clothes on and set about making a fire. The last time I’d been here I brought in plenty of kindling and logs. I’d even thought to carry a lighter out with me, smart wolf that I was. At this elevation, the temperature could plummet to well below freezing without warning, even in the middle of the summer. These peaks had been capped with snow up until a few weeks ago, and the dirt beneath my feet held a lingering chill that made me think it hadn’t fully defrosted yet.
When the fire was set, I touched the lighter to the tinder and gently blew, coaxing the first sparks to catch. The air had been cool in the forest. It was damn near arctic here, and since I had a feeling we would be stuck in this cave for a while, the least we could be was warm.
“Here,” Michael said.
I turned to see him holding out his sweater. I took it from him and pulled it on, enveloped in his scent. “Thanks.”
He dropped down next to me and sat close, sharing heat with me while the fire slowly came to life in front of us. A soft orange glow flitted over the walls of the cave. Smoke began to rise up, disappearing through an overhead crack in the rocks.
“Where are we?” Michael asked.
“Just a place that some of our pack members come to when they need to get away from it all.”
“I can’t imagine a better place to do that in. I feel downright…primitive.”
He looked downright primitive, what with the fact that he’d accidentally bitten several holes through his threadbare t-shirt and was smeared with dirt, but I didn’t think pointing that out would go over too well right now. Nor would fixating on it. Because he was looking mighty attainable again.
“I’m sorry I hurt you,” I told him.
He sighed. “I know. I’m sorry you had to.”
“How we doing with the whole cessation of apologies thing?”
He shook his head. “About how we’ve handled everything else that’s come with the bond.”
“Hey now. Be nice to us. We’re still alive. And we haven’t turned on each other yet.”
He gave me a look. Oh, right. He’d literally just turned on me.
“You know what I mean,” I said. “For all the shit we’ve already been through, I think we’re doing okay. Especially compared to others who were bonded to wolves they didn’t expect.”
“I’ll take your word on it then, as I have nothing to gauge this against.”
I grinned. “I bet after a well-organized political engagement our being mated has thrown you for a loop.”
“Understatement,” he said.
“You’re handling it well,” I told him. He tried to wave me off, but I didn’t let him. “Seriously, Michael. I am so thankful for how patient and kind you’ve been throughout this ordeal. And especially for the fact that you’re already making concessions for me.”
Warmth flowed over the bond. He looked down and picked a pine needle from his jeans. “Yes, well, you do like being the exception, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.”
I blinked at him. “You, uh, heard that over the bond earlier?”
“Anything else?” I squeaked.
He turned to look at me beneath his lashes. A kind of goading amusement rose in the back of my mind. “Your preference in my clothing also came through.”
I buried my face in my hands.
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.