Chapter 5 WHITE
It's a rogue, I mindlinked to Rosa. I held my ground, feeling my wolf urging me to shift. Get in the truck quickly.
I couldn't hold it back any longer. I let my wolf come forward and I shifted, feeling my face elongate into a snout and my legs shoot backwards, lengthening and widening. My hands and feet became paws, and my whole body sprouted fur. I growled, keeping my eyes on the rogue.
It seemed startled and took a timid step backwards. I immediately filled the space, looking down at it.
It was smaller than me, with mousy brown-grey fur that looked tattered, covered in bite and claw marks. It's eyes seemed to harden, and it howled loudly, the sound being drawn up into the night.
It pounced. Suddenly I felt the lash of its claws against my neck, scraping down towards my chest. I growled in fury, ignoring the pain as I jumped at it.
I latched my jaws around it's leg, and heard a satisfying snap as I incapacitated it. It hobbled back, circling me. I attacked again, swiping out with my claws towards it's eyes.
I scratched through one, and it shut it, the cut weeping. I stalked forwards once more as it began to retreat, and it quickly sunk it's teeth into my leg. I howled miserably.
Suddenly, a creamy coloured wolf leapt from behind me and charged. The rogue backed up and disappeared into the bushes, taken by the darkness once more.
I shifted back, feeling tears pricking at my eyes. My throat, chest, and arm throbbed; I could feel my pulse pounding as blood left my body.
With my eyes half-closed, I felt Rosa shift back and grab me around my waist. She half-carried and half-dragged me to my car, and then yanked her jumper off over her head and pressed it to my arm. I held a feeble hand up to my neck, trying to hold as much of my blood in my body as I could.
She saw what I was doing and quickly pulled my sweatshirt off, spinning it around itself so that it became one long, thick line that she could use as a bandage. She wrapped it around my neck so tight that I felt as though I couldn't breath, and I clawed at it, my eyes struggling to meet hers.
"I'm sorry, Ari," she breathed heavily. "It's got to be tight. You have to stay awake for me, okay? I need you to help me find the way home."
Together we pushed my aching body into the passenger's seat, and she clambered in behind the steering wheel. She turned the key and pulled out onto the track slowly, as though afraid of shaking me.
"You have to tell me the way, Ari." I nodded.
Black spots pulsed behind my eyelids, blocking out large portions of my vision. Each time we came to a turning I struggled to remember the way, but I managed to croak out left, right, or straight each time.
When we got closer to the reserve Rosa seemed to know the way, and I let my eyelids droop. She shook me from time to time to check I was still awake, and I'd peel my eyes open blearily for a second to reassure her. I just wanted to sleep.
After what felt like an eternity we pulled into the reserve. Rosa ran round to my side and opened the door, and dragged me out of the truck. I let my head loll on her shoulder as we walked slowly together.
I assumed she was taking me to the pack hospital, but I wasn't aware enough to watch where we were going.
I stumbled and fell, feeling the cool evening grass press against the bare skin of my arms, legs, and cheek. The black spots surrounded me, and I surrendered myself to them gratefully.
I awoke to the sound of hushed chatter, and the feeling of a warm hand wrapped around mine. I blinked my eyes open slowly, expecting the burst of bright light that assaulted them. I squinted, trying to see who was sat next to me.
"She's awake!" Jacob said. I relaxed, and gave his hand a feeble squeeze. I pulled myself up into a sitting position, letting my body flop against his.
My parents were stood beside him, their faces worried as they checked me over. I felt at my arm and neck, touching thick bandages there.
"Hey, sweetie. You scared us," my mum said, her voice wobbly. She smiled at me though, and I smiled back.
"Sorry," I croaked, shocked by the sound of my own voice. I coughed, and then tried to speak again. "Where's Rosa?"
"She had to leave, sweetheart," my dad cooed softly. "Her family were worried about her. What happened?" He took a seat on the bed, and I frowned.
"We drove to a nice spot, just up the hill from the res. I wanted to show her my truck," I smiled weakly. "We were just chatting when we heard something. It was a rogue. I went to investigate, and, well." I gestured at my bandages.
I shut my eyes briefly, wanting to enjoy the comforting warmth of Jacob's side against mine. He brought his hand up to my cheek, and I leant into it, soothed.
"A rogue? So close to the res?" My dad asked, his eyes flashing angrily.
"We were quite far up," I admitted quietly. My dad sighed. "I mean – I wasn't expecting to see any rogues there. It wasn't that far."
"Too close for comfort," my mum said, the usual melodic softness gone from her voice. Her eyes were steely. "We must keep an eye on this. It isn't the first time a rogue has been sighted near the pack lands."
I nodded. There were no patterns to the sightings, but I knew Alpha Kele was becoming concerned. "I can tell you exactly where it was, or take you there, if it helps."
My dad nodded slowly, deep in thought. "If you can show us on a map we can plot it alongside the others. I'll talk to Kele." He stood abruptly, but then looked down at me, his eyes soft. "How are you feeling?"
"Better. I'll be fine, dad. Go." I smiled. He nodded, leaning down to press a quick kiss to the top of my head. My mum took his place on the bed after he'd left.
"Rosa isn't hurt, is she?" I asked, my voice quivering. I knew she'd leapt at the rogue, and I didn't think she'd been hurt, but I'd been debilitated and couldn't be sure. I felt Jacob shift beside me, and he moved his hand back down to meet mine, rubbing circles across my knuckles with delicate fingers.
"She's completely fine, honey," my mum said tenderly. "Thanks to you, it seems. She said you told her to stay in the truck."
"I just thought that if there were more, maybe, she'd have a chance to get away."
"You'd make a fine Luna," Jacob said, his voice sounding impressed even as he stopped tracing circles into my hand, opting instead to grab it with both of his and squeeze tightly.
"I'm glad she didn't listen to you," my mum said, the beginnings of a smile breaking out across her face, though her eyes betrayed her concern.
"As if she ever would," I laughed. "I do feel a lot better. I don't have to stay in here, do I?"
"I'll fetch the doctor," my mum said. Her eyes met mine, and she flicked them towards Jacob. One of her eyebrows raised slightly, and then she pursed her lips and turned away.
"How are you feeling? Like, actually feeling. Don't downplay it." Jacob tried to look serious, but his plump lips quirked at the edges and almost broke into a smile.
"I really do feel loads better now. Promise."
"Yeah, but loads better than death is still pretty bad."
I rolled my eyes. "I was never going to die, Jake." I decided to quickly change the subject. My arm and neck throbbed still, but it was bearable, and I no longer felt as though I was about to pass out. "What happened to my sweater?"
"Oh," he said, pulling away from me. He felt around under his chair, and pulled out both mine and Rosa's jumpers.
"You might want to wash it before you wear it. There's a lot of… blood." He paused, looking though he was about to cry. "I've been so worried about you, Ari. You wouldn't wake up." He gulped.
"I'm fine now," I murmured, pulling him back towards me. "See? Talking and everything."
He laughed quietly; his eyes still brimming with unshed tears. I pressed a soft kiss to his cheek, and then leant my forehead against his temple. His skin felt damp, and I brought my fingers up to trace the planes of his cheeks, wiping away the spots of moisture.
His skin pulled as he smiled; I could feel it move beneath my fingertips. I let my hands move down, drawing the tip of my index finger along his lips. His mouth parted, and he kissed my finger delicately.
"You were so white," he whispered. "Under your skin. You looked so pale."
I pulled back to look at him properly, and his eyes were distant; staring at something that I couldn't see.
"You'd collapsed on the ground," he breathed, his voice barely audible. "Rosa mindlinked me, and I ran. I didn't know what to expect, she just said she needed my help, and that you were hurt. I panicked," he said, his voice breaking. Hearing him so sad made tears spring to my own eyes, but he kept talking as though he was in a trance.
"I tried to get you to sit up, to move, anything." He clutched at me, clambering clumsily onto the bed and holding me in both arms, pulling me gently against his chest.
"I had to pick you up from the ground, Ari," he choked. "I carried you here. Rosa could've done it, but she was too upset. I've never seen her like that. I had to be the one to do it. I told your parents. And you still wouldn't wake up."
I felt a tear drop onto my head, and I wrapped my arms around him as tightly as I could. My bandaged arm stung, and I hissed through my teeth. He moved as if to break free, but I used my good arm to cling on tighter.
He settled against me, then, and I used the fingertips of my good hand to scrape lightly against his back, drawing indecipherable tribal patterns of the sun and moon. He relaxed against me eventually, and we sat in silence for an indeterminable amount of time before my mum returned with the doctor.
"How are you feeling?" She asked kindly. Our pack doctor was a young woman, said to have been descended from the great Spirit Warrior's healer. She had natural, darker blonde hair pulled loosely back in a low ponytail, and bright pink lips that always seemed to be smiling. She had blue-grey eyes, which looked old and wise beyond their years.
I hadn't had the chance to speak to her much, as she also worked stints at a local human hospital; but I was desperate to, to find out if her rumoured heritage was true. She had a captivating pull about her, which drew you in and made her immediately likeable and trustworthy. I smiled.
"Loads better," I said, drawing away from Jacob slightly.
"That's good," she said, returning my grin. Her expression sobered before she spoke again.
"You suffered massive blood loss through extensive cuts on your neck, chest, and left arm. However," she added, peering at me over her notes, "I have transfused a small amount, but any more was not necessary. Your body started to regenerate itself even as I was working. It may take a couple of days for the cuts themselves to heal, but you should be fine to leave. I hear you're rather eager to." She winked.
I felt bad, and scrambled for an excuse. "I'm not eager-" I started, but stopped when I saw her and my mum chortling together.
"It's okay," she said, grinning. "You're a strong wolf. Your bandages will need changing once a day until you're fully healed, though."
I nodded, standing up from the bed. "Thanks, doc," I beamed.
I walked back to the pack house with my mum and Jacob, one either side of me, watching me carefully as though I might break. Jacob didn't let go of my hand once, and he hovered as close to me as he could.
"I have to grab something," he said when we reached my floor. He looked tense, as though he didn't want to leave me for even a second. "But – if you want to rest that's fine, of course – but if you still want to, I have something for you. It's just upstairs."
"That's fine," I grinned. "I'd like to. You could stay, if you want."
His eyes widened minutely. We'd had thousands of sleepovers, and even shared a bed on occasion, but since last night things had felt different between us. The last vestiges of friendship seemed to have slithered away with his confession that he'd reject his true mate for me, and it had only intensified with my injuries. He nodded, then, and gripped my hand tighter before letting go and jogging up the stairs.
I looked over at my mum, who was stood beside me with her hands on her hips. She smiled at me, though, before pulling me in for a hug.
"Don't you ever scare me like that again," she whispered in my ear. "Now," she said, straightening up. "I know Jacob will look after you. Be careful," she added with a knowing look, before giving me a quick peck on the cheek and saying one last "Happy Birthday." She then turned and walked towards the master bedroom on our floor, and I slunk into my bedroom.
I desperately wanted to collapse on my bed, but I felt grimy and I knew there was still dried blood on me. I sighed and picked up my towel from where I'd dumped it on the floor on my way into my small en-suite.
I showered carefully, wary of getting my bandages wet. I took the showerhead from the wall and washed away all of the dirt, sweat, and blood. I moisturised quickly, and slipped into a clean, baggy old t-shirt and the pair of shorts that I often wore as pyjamas.
I sat by my desk and unravelled my hair from its bun. I looked tired, the pallor of my face evident even with the foundation still covering parts of it. Most of it had been sweated off by this point, and I gladly removed the rest. I'd been too fearful of wetting the wraps around my arm, neck, and chest to wash my face in the shower. As I carefully wiped away my mascara I tried to mindlink Rosa, wanting to see if she was okay, but I was met with the blockade that meant she was sleeping.
I was cleaning my teeth when I heard a timid knock on my bedroom door. I gargled out "Come in!" assuming that it was Jacob. Sure enough, he called out as I heard the door shut.
"It's me," he said, and I spat and rinsed my mouth quickly. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand I hurried back into my bedroom.
He was cowering in the doorway, shrinking in on himself nervously. His eyebrows were knitted together; instinctively, I walked to him and brushed my fingertips across his brow, trying to soothe the tension there.
I took his hand and pulled him gently to my bed, and I collapsed onto it, snuggling myself into the duvet. I rolled so that I was effectively cuddling it, my left arm and leg slung on top of it. My neck pulsated, so I blindly felt for a pillow and tugged it towards me so that I could let my head flop down onto it.
Jacob saw what I was doing, and pried the pillow from my grip. He settled himself cross-legged by my side, and gently lifted my head onto his thigh. I relaxed into him, letting my weight rest fully on his leg. He began toying with my hair, and I felt my eyes drifting shut.
"How are you feeling?" He asked, breaking the silence for the first time since he'd entered.
"Drowsy," I answered honestly. "But… I'm glad you're here, Jake. I feel better when you're around." The words tumbled from my sleepy lips, and I chose not to linger on their meaning. I hummed contentedly, rubbing my head against his bare thigh as I got settled. Then I stilled. Bare thigh?
I pulled back. He grumbled about it, and tried to keep my head where it was; his own was leant back against the wall, and his eyes were lidded. He was wearing a raggedy old t-shirt, which was worn and soft to the touch. It was one I'd seen him wear a number of times before – once it had been a dark grey, but it was faded and patchy now.
He usually wore sweatpants in the evenings, but he was just in a pair of boxers. Normally, he'd keep the trousers on until he got into bed. Maybe he was planning on going straight to sleep. That was okay with me. I was exhausted.
"I want to give you your present," he said, breaking me out of my reprieve. I peeled my eyelids back, squinting at him. Even the dim light in my bedroom was making my eyes ache.
My cuts were hurting more, too, and I wanted nothing more than to slip into oblivion. But I did like presents. Jacob always got me something wonderful, too. Never too big or too flashy, but you could tell he'd put a lot of thought into it.
"I'm listening," I said, drawing the duvet away from me. I sat up so that I too was cross-legged and facing him. He got up and walked towards the door. I immediately missed his presence. I watched, intrigued, as he quietly opened the door and slipped outside, returning almost instantly.
His hands held two scruffily wrapped parcels, both of which seemed to consist more of tape than the brown paper they were covered in. My tiredness dissolved immediately, and I felt a warm burst of joy in my chest. Despite all of the change surrounding us, this was something familiar. Jacob's wrapping was always terrible, but he wanted to do it himself. Even though he did his own every time he never seemed to improve. Something about it made my heart clench fondly, but I couldn't put my finger on why.
He took his seat in front of me again, and grinned at me, one present in each hand. One was larger and flat, and looked soft – as though it would meld between my fingers. Not quite squishy, but definitely pliant. The other was small, and so covered in tape that I had no idea how hard or soft the thing inside was.
"Okay," he said, wiggling in place. He held the larger present out to me. "This one isn't your real present, this was sort of a last minute addition. You don't have to keep it if you don't like it, I can take it back-" he said, and then caught himself, as though worried he'd reveal what was inside. He mimed zipping his lips, still grinning, and nodded at me to open it.
I gently peeled back the tape, working my way around the parcel. Jacob rolled his eyes at me. He always tore his presents apart during the unwrapping. I preferred to take my time, letting the excitement fizzle in my chest at the mystery of what was inside.
The smell of roses and cherry blossom unfurled as I finally pulled apart the brown paper. I recognised the fabric beneath the wrapping as one of Jacob's sweatshirts, one that I'd mentioned liking a few months ago. It was a faded brown colour, with a white symbol stitched into the left side of the chest. It depicted two mountains stood either side of the sea, with a large full moon behind them. It would definitely be too big for me, but I loved it. I carefully pushed the paper off of it fully, and pulled it over my head, beaming at Jacob all the while.
"Thank you," I said, my voice a little choked up.
"Well," he said, blushing, "I thought you might need one while your green one is in the wash. I know it's your favourite, and this can't replace it, but I remember you saying you liked it and-"
I cut him off with a large hug, forcing the air from his lungs. He wheezed out a laugh.
"I take it you like it then?"
"I love it. I mean it, Jake. Thank you so much."
He chuckled. "That's not even your actual present, Ari." He wiggled his eyebrows at me. I laughed and held out my hands. The sleeves of the sweatshirt hung down, and I shimmied my hands in the air so that my hands were exposed.
He placed the smaller present in my outstretched hands. I used my nails to pick at the tape, and after a frustrating minute of scraping around looking for an edge to peel up, I relaxed my mind and let my wolf come forward. Not much – just enough for my canines and claws to extend. Using my wicked-sharp claw I tore a straight line down the centre of the parcel; I opened it from this seam as though it was a cocoon.
Inside was an intricately carved wolf, made out of white wood with a turquoise inlay on its back. There were colourful arrows pointing down its sides, too.
"It's beautiful," I breathed, turning it over in my fingertips.
"It's a Zuni wolf fetish," he said, his voice low as I admired it. "One of the warrior wolves is descended from the Zuni tribe, and he carved it for me. It was strange, actually." He paused.
"He said I did not need to tell him who it was for, or what I wanted it to look like. He said that he would know. Something about the sacred dreamtime?" He shrugged, and then continued.
"The white wolf is guardian of the East. He said it was imbued with the true spirit of the wolf. Here," he said, his fingers tracing the arrows, "these are for protection. You need to find a home for it. Traditionally they would be kept in open-fronted ceramic pots, but anything that lets the wolf come and go will work. It should feel safe and at home, and you should bond it with, Ari. Speak with it daily. It should take you on a journey, deep into the past and forwards into the future. It is a pathfinder, and will take you along with it, offering new ideas and wisdom. It is also said to represent loyalty and dedication, but this is balanced with independence. It reminded me of mating," he said.
I absentmindedly stroked along the wolf's back, feeling the smooth turquoise beneath the pads of my fingers as I listened. "That's what mates are, to me. Someone you can rely on. You're a team, a partnership. It's not about two halves becoming whole. It's about two individuals joining forces, helping one another. That's-" his voice cracked, and I looked up at him; he turned his face away.
"That's what I want with you, Ari. I don't understand why we aren't mates."
I didn't know what to say. I very carefully set the wolf fetish on my bedside table, making sure that it was upright and had a good view of my bedroom. Then, I shuffled closer to Jacob, taking his hands in mine. We sat opposite each other, and eventually he brought his eyes down to meet mine.
I suddenly felt very small, his sweatshirt engulfing my frame. A blush rose in my cheeks as he watched me, tracking every minute movement my face made. My eyelashes fluttered against my cheeks as I broke his gaze. My wounds stung beneath his jumper. I buried my face in the crook of his neck, needing comfort that only he could provide. He brought his arms around me, and I spoke into the skin pulled taut over his collarbone.
"I don't either," I whispered. "I just want this all to make sense." I could feel the warmth of my breath stuck in the air between my lips and his skin, hovering there, immobile. It was a damp, unpleasant warmth, so I turned my head away.
"We can make it make sense together," he breathed. He tightened his hold on me, as though afraid I would try to break free.
"I love you, Arienne," he murmured, so quietly that I almost didn't hear it. My heart jumped in my ribcage.
He caught my chin with delicate fingers and tilted my head back slightly. I kept my eyes on his as he brought his lips towards mine.