THREE | COMPROMISE

I groaned as I made my way downstairs for breakfast. My alarm had gone off at 5:30am as usual, and I’d immediately regretted my decision to attend training despite having been given the Alpha’s permission to skip it.

I’d dragged myself out of bed and over to the mirror. I never bothered with makeup until after our morning workout, so I pulled a brush through my hair and scraped it up into a high ponytail.

The brush made my beachy waves wispy, so I raked some coconut oil through my long brown lengths using my fingers. I rubbed the remnants of it into my forearms, the deep caramel of my skin soaking it up, before pulling on some gym shorts and a boxy, cropped tee.

           

It was a brisk morning, the air sharp with a bitter chill, but the sort that promised a sweltering heat later in the day. I waited in the pack kitchen for Jacob and The Twins, anxiously bouncing on the balls of my feet.

I’d spent most of the night tossing and turning, finding that every time I shut my eyes all I could hear was Jake saying, “I would reject my mate for you, Arienne.” As such, I hadn’t slept much, and the prospect of running the perimeter of the grounds in a few minutes was less than appealing.

The Twins came downstairs first, and it was the first time I’d ever been relieved to see them before Jacob. They stepped in sync, and came to a stop in front of me. “Happy Birthday, Ari,” they said together.

Save for their different genders, they were identical. Ayon was the female version of Aron, and Aron was the male version of Ayon. They both had pin-straight blonde hair, cropped short around their faces: Ayon’s in a neat pixie cut, and Aron’s a short back and sides.

They had pale eyebrows and eyes, too, both a glassy shade of ice blue. Sometimes, Ayon would wear dark mascara and fill in her eyebrows, and the difference was astounding. She looked beautiful either way, but I personally liked how striking she was naturally, with her pale skin and pale hair.

As Gammas, they were both muscular and lean. Ayon’s figure was more boyish than mine, something I often envied. Nobody ever belittled her for being short or feminine, but I knew there was strength in my womanhood, and I was proud of my physique, too, as much as I sometimes looked wistfully at hers.

Aron too was masculine, his body a mass of slim, toned muscles. They were matched in appearance down to their high cheekbones. I often thought they looked elfish rather than wolfish, but they were both fierce, determined fighters – clearly, they were wolves in their blood.

“Thanks,” I smiled, stifling a yawn.

“Have you seen Jacob yet?” Ayon asked, her eyes flittering across the room and up towards the stairwell. I nodded, feeling my heart drop at her implication.

“We aren’t mates,” I said quietly, trying to be discreet. Their reactions were identical: small, shocked gasps and widening eyes, so identical, in fact, that they would have been laughable had the situation been different.

“But – you’re meant to be,” she said, her gaze roving over my face sympathetically. I shrugged.

“The Moon Goddess must have other plans for us,” I said, just as I heard Jacob’s loud footsteps clunking down the hallway. He smiled at me when we made eye contact, and then let his eyes drop to the ground. We walked to the training grounds in near silence, broken only by Ayon’s small talk about my birthday plans. We were immediately split into different groups when we arrived, which I was grateful for.

Training had been less difficult than I’d expected. I think Jacob’s dad took pity on us, suggesting that we skip the perimeter run for today. I sent him a grateful smile, and he shot me a quick wink. Most of the warrior wolves stayed behind with the Lead Warrior to run after the session, though, which Kele seemed pleased about.

My exhaustion seemed to really hit me when I was in the shower, lulled by the hot water and warm steam. I stood in there for longer than usual, just enjoying the heat, turning occasionally to let it warm my back. I stepped out eventually, wrapping myself in a thick towel before flopping down on my bed and lying there for a while.

I let my thoughts flick by lazily, dismissing them as they came to the surface to try to hold on to the newfound sense of peace the shower had given me. My stomach was starting to rumble, though, so I dragged myself away from the bed for the second time that morning and over to my desk.

I moisturised quickly, deciding to let it soak in as I did my makeup. I didn’t often wear foundation, as I was usually so active throughout the day, but as today was my birthday I decided to put a little bit of extra effort in. I ended up with a natural but glam look, with a deep, chocolate brown eye shadow and a good coating of mascara on my lashes.

I’d put my hair up in a bun when I showered, and decided that it looked fine so I left it there. I did, however, pull a few carefully selected strands out to frame my face.

I dressed in a similar outfit to before: another clean pair of tight gym shorts, a cropped t-shirt, gym socks and a pair of converse. My wardrobe was pretty basic, and consisted of mostly gym clothes, oversized sweatshirts, and a few pairs of jeans. For functions my mum would take me shopping, and I usually donated the dresses to other girls in the pack or thrift stores after I’d worn them.

Remembering the chill from earlier, I pulled a large olive-green sweatshirt from my wardrobe. It was a little faded – it was my favourite, and I’d worn it too many times for it to retain its original colour. I tied it round my waist, as I was still warm from the shower, and began my descent down the staircase.

I was met by a loud chorus of Happy Birthdays as I rounded the corner and stepped foot in the kitchen. Most of the pack were there, smiling broadly, some waving their hands in the air, some clapping, others wolf whistling and cheering. I curtsied jokingly, bowing my head to the pack members as though they were my royal subjects.

“Happy Birthday, darling,” my dad beamed, making his way through the crowd.

My mum was right behind him, standing on her toes to wave at me over his shoulder. They scurried over to me, and enveloped me in a warm hug.

My parents both looked a lot like me. My mum’s hair was a lighter honey brown, and my dad’s was the same chocolate tone as mine. They both had darker tanned skin, and my mum had a smattering of freckles across her face. She also had a small nose, which I’d inherited, whereas my dad had a strong, straight one, not unlike Jacob’s.

We all shared dark eyebrows and lashes, and large, pouty lips. I often wondered if they’d grown to look more alike over time when I was younger, but photos of them as from when they were younger suggested otherwise. I used to flip through their photos in awe, yearning for a love like that.

It hurt to think I’d found one, but not the right one. I shook the thought away, pressing my face into my dad’s shoulder. They smelt stronger than usual, like fresh hay bales and cut grass. I inhaled deeper.

As I moved closer to my mum there was something else, another scent, lighter and sweeter. She smelt like berries, ripe in the autumn, plump and juicy in the hands that had picked them from a bushy green hedgerow. Their scents swirled together in the air, like dust particles dancing in the sunlight. I felt comforted as we moved to take our seats next to one another, close to the head of the table.

Jacob was sat opposite my dad, with his parents both sat at the head of the table, as our pack’s Alpha and Luna. When fewer wolves were in attendance, the seating policy didn’t have to be adhered to so strictly, but it was just easier for everyone to have an allocated place around the giant table. Jacob smiled at me, keeping his eyes low. I ducked my head to catch his gaze, bringing his eye level up from my chin.

I wanted him to know that things were okay between us. It had been a bit too fresh this morning, and the workout and shower had helped me to clear my head. There was no rush for me to make my decision. I wanted to mate, of course, but I’d gone eighteen years without doing so. I could go a little longer.

The Omegas began to bring out our food. The air was thick with delicious scents: fresh strawberries and jam, scones, waffles, and pancakes. They laid the table in front of us, and I smiled gratefully up at them, mouthing “Thank you” over and over as they placed plate after plate of incredible breakfast foods in front of us.

I felt a squeeze on my shoulder. I turned. Stood behind me was my favourite of the Omegas, John, and he bent quickly to whisper in my ear. His scent was stronger, too; it was light but comforting, orange zest and cinnamon buns. It perfectly matched his kind face, with his wide hazel eyes and gentle smile. I’d been able to smell it before, but my sense of smell had improved drastically. Even if I hadn’t found my mate in Jacob, being eighteen was turning out to be fun so far.

“Happy Birthday, Ari. I’ve got something special cooked up for you this morning. It’s a bit of an experiment, so forgive me if it’s not as nice as I’d hoped. Here,” he said, and placed what looked like a small pile down in front of me.

I cocked my head. There was a single candle protruding from its middle, and the top layer looked like a large waffle. I prodded at it with my fork, and unveiled multiple layers inside: one a waffle, one a thick, American-style pancake, one a croissant, and one –

“John!” I chirped. “Is that a cake?”

He laughed, a low, kindly rumble. He was a dad to five young pups, and his demeanour radiated fatherhood. He rubbed my shoulder and gave it one last squeeze, whispering “Enjoy” in my ear before he stood from his half-crouch to serve the others.

“Thank you!” I called out after him.

He turned and smiled, bowing his head slightly, before moving away. I turned my attention to the mountain of food on my plate. I cut down the middle, pulling out a slice that had every layer intact.

I stabbed my fork through it, careful to get every filling, and forced my mouth wide to fit it all in. I heard a snort from in front of me, and looked up just as Jacob took a photo of me with my mouth full.

I laughed around my food, struggling to chew. The flavours were incredible – I didn’t know how they worked together, but they did. The cake tasted like blueberries, and the waffle oozed with syrup. There was definitely cream in there, too, and strawberries, and the combination was divine.

I hope my mate can cook this well, I thought, and then caught myself guiltily. I’d never considered being with anyone other than Jacob before.

He couldn’t cook, and certainly not as well as John could, but he tried. He’d knocked on my door once wearing an apron, and the tips of his hair, the point of his nose, and his chin had been dusted with flour. His entire front was coated in it when I stood from my desk to look at him fully. I’d wanted to giggle, but his eyes beseeched me to withhold my teasing.

He’d taken my hand and pulled me upstairs to the small kitchenette on the top floor. The room, too, was covered in flour, and I looked up at him. He towered over me, but he seemed to shrink in on himself as he’d admitted: “I wanted to bake you a cake. A great big chocolate cake.”

I scanned the room for any sign of the cake itself. There was flour, and when I looked closely, cocoa powder coating every work surface. There was even some on the cheese plant in the corner of the room, in front of the window, and as I squinted against the sunlight I could see the same dusting lining the windowsill.

“Where is it?” I asked, turning in place as I surveyed the room. My eyes came finally to the bin. He shrugged.

“It didn’t exactly go to plan,” he admitted, letting his eyes land on the bin, too. I stepped closer and peeped inside. A large, chocolate-brown mush sat atop the otherwise clean bin liner, and I frowned, peering closer. It seemed burnt at the edges, yet still wet in the middle. I stepped back, and let my eyes meet his.

“You made that for me?” I asked, my tone light and jokey. He nodded.

“Thanks, Jake,” I said. I left it up to him to decide if I was grateful or teasing.

Inside, though, I knew I thought it was sweet, and my heart seemed to swell inside my chest. He’d taken the time to try, and no matter the outcome, that warmed my insides in a way only he could.

The sentiment was lost seconds later when he’d grabbed me and pulled me in for a hug. No matter how strong I was, he was still an Alpha wolf, and much taller than me. I squirmed as I felt the flour rub into my hair, then against my face and clothes.

Eventually he’d released me, and I’d stood back, looking down at my previously clean clothes and body unhappily. The beginnings of regret were blossoming on his face, along with some semblance of an apology in his eyes, when I’d grabbed a handful of flour from the countertop and chucked it at his chest. He’d laughed, then, half amused and seemingly half relieved that I wasn’t really upset. My reprieve didn’t last for long, though, and soon we were both covered head-to-foot in baking ingredients.

I smiled at the memory, finally managing to swallow the enormous mouthful of food. I began to cut a smaller slice when Liliana, our Luna, rose from her chair and began to speak.

“Good morning, Silver Crescent wolves,” she smiled. Everyone was immediately captivated, and we put down our knives and forks out of respect. There was silence when the Luna spoke. Our pack depended on her, so we in turn demonstrated the utmost level of respect when she had something to say.

“First of all, it is of course our Arienne’s birthday today. I hope you will all join me in wishing her well on this special day.”

I blushed at this, but rather than ducking my head as I would have liked to, I met her gaze and grinned sheepishly. She returned my smile as an excited hollering broke out amongst the crowd.

“Thank you, thank you,” she continued, waving her hands to regain their attention. They quietened quickly, and I was glad that the attention was taken away from me.

“I do, however, have another important announcement to make. As most of you know, of course, it is almost time for a long-standing tradition within our pack to take place once more. The annual Mating Ball,” she said, taking a pause to allow this news to sink in. I swallowed heavily.

“Four of our closest allies will be joining us in a week’s time,” she continued. “We come together once a year to allow our new adult wolves the chance to expand their mating pool, as it were. Although we hope that your mates are to be found within this pack, none of us can predict what the Moon Goddess has in store for you. By inviting four other packs to join us in a celebration, the opportunity to mingle with wolves you may not otherwise meet increases your chances of finding your mate. This tradition goes back decades, and also provides the occasion for us to let off some stream and revel in our accomplishments for the year, as well as deepening the bond between us and our neighbouring packs. I hope you are all looking forward to this most exciting event, and if you have any more questions, please direct them to me.” With one final, beaming smile, she took her seat once more.

Breakfast was teeming with excited chatter about the upcoming Mating Ball. I’d attended the last few, once I’d been deemed old enough, but until you turned eighteen it wasn’t a matter of great interest. It was good fun, of course, and interacting with other young wolves was exciting, but it didn’t hold the same weight that it did once a wolf matured.

I knew it would be coming up soon, but I hadn’t realised it would be within the next week! This meant that I had to make a decision about Jacob, and much quicker than I would have liked.

I felt a mindlink coming through. Meet me outside after breakfast. Nice waffle, by the way. I looked up, and caught Jacob looking straight at me. He dipped his eyes to my plate, and then raised his eyebrows. I smirked back at him, and nodded.

I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get away from my parents, as I didn’t know what they had planned for the rest of the day, but they were understanding when I said I wanted to talk to Jacob. “Of course, honey,” my mum smiled, and pulled me in for a tight hug.

“We’ll see you later,” my dad added. “Alpha Kele wants to discuss extra border patrols surrounding the Mating Ball, and I’m sure your mother has a lot of planning to do.” He winked at me, and I grinned.

“Thank you,” I said, giving them both a quick hug before I scurried outside to meet Jacob.

“Hey,” he said, patting the spot next to him. He was sat on an overturned log at the edge of the gardens. Some of the warrior wolves had filed down the top so that it was flatter, and more comfortable so that it could be used as a seat. There was a small, howling wolf engraved on the right hand side. I jogged over and took a seat next to him.

“Happy Birthday,” he said as I settled myself down.

The morning’s chill had started to ebb away, the sun rising above the line of the trees behind us and casting a long shadow back towards the pack house. The air was less cool, but the shadow still carried a cold bite with it. We didn’t feel the cold as much as a human would, but I pulled my green sweatshirt from around my waist and yanked it over my head before I got too comfortable.

“Thanks,” I grinned once I’d managed to get my head and (now messy) bun through the head hole in my sweater. “Exciting news at breakfast, wasn’t it?”

He hummed in agreement, seeming distracted.

I continued speaking, feeling nervous even though I wasn’t sure why. “I wonder which other wolves will have turned eighteen this year. If any of our old friends will be coming back. Do they get to come when they’ve found their mates? I know Sharone did last time. He met that pretty she-wolf from the Silver Shore pack, do you remember? The one with long black hair and a scar across her eyebrow. She was so cool,” I said dreamily.

“Yeah,” he mumbled, half-listening. I frowned.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. There was no point beating around the bush with Jacob; you had to get straight to the point. Otherwise, he could mope all day if left to his own devices. He sighed, his whole body heaving.

“It’s just – what if you find your mate there?” His voice quietened the more he spoke, as though the wind was leaving his lungs.

“You could find your mate there, too, Jake,” I said, shifting in my seat so that I was facing him. “We always knew this could happen. That’s why we never-“ I ducked my head, embarrassed. “You know – we never mated.”

“I know.”

He took my hand in his much larger one. It was calloused in places, and radiated heat.

“I just thought this wouldn’t happen. I was happy to wait. I always thought it would be better if we had sex once we were proper mates, anyway, and I was happy to wait for you. I’ve been waiting for you for eighteen years, and now you’ve been taken away from me.”

He pulled his hand away and turned his head. I gently pried it back round to face me, and saw that there were tears brimming, his eyelids struggling to hold them back. I took his face very carefully between my hands; he blinked, and as the tears fell I caught them with my fingertips, gently wiping them away.

“I’ve not been taken away,” I murmured, my lips brushing the tip of his nose. He shivered. I leant my forehead onto his, feeling his warmth against my skin. “I know this puts a little more pressure on things, but nothing has to change between us.”

“But I want it to change,” he said defiantly, bringing his hand up to clasp my chin. “I want to be yours, and I want you to be mine.”

He grazed his fingers along my jawline, slowly dragging them back towards my earlobe. I imagined they were his lips, pressing soft, fluttering kisses along my jaw and down my neck, brushing over my marking spot, his canines lengthening and biting down, hard. I trembled at the thought.

“Give me a week,” I said, the words springing from my mouth without forethought. “If we don’t find our mates at the ball, then we’ll commit to each other. Fully, in every way.”

“You mean that?” He asked warily. I nodded, though I myself was unsure about my decision.

Oh Goddess, I thought. What have I done?   

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Kara
Party time. Who will find their mate?
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