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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Paranormal  ➡  Paranormal

The Ironborn Claim

Table of Contents

Prologue

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

XIV

XV

XVI

XVII

About the Authors

The Ironborn Claim

By Dawn Edelen

and David Brumbley

  • *

Also by Dawn Edelen and David Brumbley

The Ironborn Claim

The Heartorn Mate *

[_ The Lightborn Queen _]

  • forthcoming in June 2012

forthcoming in December 2012

  • *

Dedicated to the other half.

You know who you are.

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the authors’ imaginations or used fictitiously.

The Ironborn Claim. Copyright 2011 by Dawn Edelen and David Brumbley. Cover art by Jen Hessler. All rights reserved. Distributed by Kindle Direct Publishing.

Prologue

As Nick made his way down the dirt path between the houses of the compound, he had his hands in the pockets of a long coat and a smile permanently etched on his face. Most everyone else was asleep, but he had known all day he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night. Not with the ceremony waiting tomorrow. It was the day that everything his family believed in really started coming true. Everything their entire community had been built around for centuries.

In most places, the fact that the entire place was built out of corrugated metal huts would’ve made visitors feel like they’d just stepped into some kind of refugee camp, but the place just feel that much more like home to him. As he crossed to the other side of a long row of shoddy-looking buildings, he ran his fingers across the bent and twisted metal walls, caressing them and their coolness in the moonlight. He could almost feel them sigh a hello back to him, and he smiled. He was sure they would be celebrating tomorrow too, in their way.

Once he got to her door, he tapped a few times, letting the sound resonate into her room so she would know he was there to see her. He knew she wasn’t likely to be surprised. He came to see her as often as he could, and it wasn’t the first time they had both been insomniacs together.

There was a long moment of silence as Aura got up and slowly walked to the door from where she had been stretched out in her room. She had been staring up at the ceiling for hours as she thought about what the next day held, her mind tripping and falling over every possibility. Aura was thankful more and more in recent days that she had been allowed to live in her own small hut for the last year. It meant that she had a little more power over her life, or at least it felt that way, and that was all that really mattered. Her stomach twisted in nervousness as she reached out to open the door, but the cool of the metal against her skin made her sigh in contentment. The door that he had just touched seemed to be the intermediary between them, and somehow it was reminding her that Nickel was one of her best friends.

They’d been raised together and raised to understand that the ceremony that they were going to be involved in tomorrow was meant to happen. It was what hundreds of years and generations of their families had worked toward. Aura smiled at Nick when she opened the door and saw him on the other side, and even though her smile wasn’t as bright of as his was, she was happy to see him. “I wondered if you were going to come over. I’m surprised you weren’t stopped on the way here.”

He stepped into the doorway to get closer to her, and his smile only brightened as he did so. “I don’t think anybody is gonna be doing much stopping anymore where we’re concerned. Not here or anywhere else.”

She stepped back a little into her house, inviting him in just by moving further inside. The door closed behind him without either of them touching it, and he moved into the house as well. “No? You really think we’re going to be unstoppable?”

“I really do.” He went up to her and put a hand on her waist, sliding in close to her but not touching her further. They’d been closer at some times than others, and especially with the ceremony tomorrow, he didn’t want to push her too much. “No one’s ever done this before, Aura.”

Just hearing him remind her of the weight of the ceremony made her stomach twist and turn even more, and it even made her throat feel a little constricted, as though her own anxiety was cutting off her ability to breathe. But she did move in closer to him at his touch. Aura liked Nick. A lot. He was fun to be with and he was well-loved and respected by everyone. He didn’t treat her poorly and he was respectful toward her. There were a lot of girls who had always been jealous of the fact that she was the one who was going to end up with him, not only because of his prestige, but because he was very attractive as well. She and Nick had dated other people over the course of their young lives, but both of them knew that it had just been teenage curiosity. Both of them knew that their paths would cross at this point. Permanently. “People of our kind have Mated several times, Nick.” She was trying to make it seem less important that it was, just for her own sanity.

“They might have been our kind, but they weren’t like us.” He kissed her cheek as she got closer to him, his touch still gentle even though she knew better than most just how strong he was. He rested his forehead against hers afterwards and just held her quietly. “Are you nervous?”

Aura nodded against his forehead and she let out a heavy sigh. “Yes. Very. Aren’t you?” Was this really it? Their whole lives just led up to one day that was supposed to be the culmination of everything?

“A little.” He laughed slightly once, and then just held her a little more tightly. “I’m not looking forward to almost dying, of course.”

She shivered a little at the thought of everything that they would have to go through just to be together. It seemed so extreme, even for someone who had lived their entire life knowing that it would come to this. Aura moved up her hands to hold tightly to him in return and then instead of answering his statement, she just kissed him. She needed to feel closer to him. She needed to feel more confident about what was going to happen. It was the only way she could think of to dispel her worries and fears.

Nick picked her up in the midst of the kiss, as he had dozens of times before, until the embrace between them was as familiar as anything else in their lives. He kissed her neck afterwards, sighing against her skin as he held her. “I trust you, Aura. Completely.”

Aura held tightly to him as he held her up, since she just wanted to forget that there even was a tomorrow. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him, it was just a huge commitment. They were still incredibly young, just barely beginning their lives. “I trust you too, Nick. But…are you sure about this? There’s no going back from this.”

“I don’t want to go back. I want this. I want you.” He smiled against her lips as he kissed her.

She kissed him several times, but she stopped after a couple to talk again. “Even though you could pick anyone you wanted?” Aura wasn’t the prettiest girl around, but she certainly wasn’t the worst-looking, either. She was a little more than plain, with sun-kissed light brown hair that fell in waves and light freckles along her nose and cheeks. Most of the really beautiful girls of their home had dainty little features and only simple earrings in their ears. They wore thin metal pieces of jewelry on their fingers and around their wrists and ankles. They were prim and proper.

Aura, however, had earrings all the way up her ears and a stud through her nose and tongue, as well as piercings in a few other unmentionable places. A lot of the girls she had grown up with looked down on her because she was a little on the extreme side that way, but then again, none of them had been there when she got them to know just how extreme she really was. It had been a lot of fun to be a little too rebellious, and her troublemaker reputation was at least half deserved.

“Don’t start up with that again. Come on.” He said with a laugh as he kissed her again. Nick’s appearance nearly matched hers, with multiple piercings in his left ear and three distinctive bars through one eyebrow making up his visible piercings. “You know me, Aura. Better than anybody else does. You really think there’s any way I could ever want anybody but you?”

“Well, yeah. There are a lot of other girls around that would be quiet and submissive. The perfect trophy bitch for the next Alpha.”

That erased his smile completely, and he gave her a confused look. “Why would I want quiet and submissive? And as bitchy as you can be, when did you become a trophy?”

“I’m not. That’s exactly the point. I’m a challenge. Even your father kind of cringes at the fact that I’m the one you’re supposed to be with.” Aura said with a sigh. She wanted him to be fully aware of what he was getting when it came to a life with her. It wouldn’t be easy.

“Yeah, well, my father already has a Mate. You’re going to be mine, not his. So let him cringe about whatever he wants. I don’t care.”

Aura sighed again, but then she kissed him, since she didn’t want to think about all her doubts. Wolf communities were complicated most of the time when they were as exclusive as theirs was. They weren’t like humans who could pick someone to marry and then ditch the next day if they wanted to. With them, it was permanent. Up to three or four hundred years of permanent, if they survived that long. “Will you stay here with me tonight?” They would obviously be separated in the morning to prepare for the ceremony, but tonight was still theirs if they wanted it.

“I shouldn’t.” Nick kissed her neck again as he set her down and then he leaned her back against the cold metal walls of her simple home. He ran his fingers along the walls, knowing she would also be able to feel it as he did. “We’ll see each other tomorrow. And every night after.”

She held tightly to his shirt with one hand and then caressed the side of his neck with the other. The rings along her fingers hummed against his skin and the metal responded to him as it did with her. “Come on.” She pulled him in closer to her by his shirt. “Stay.”

“We need to rest, baby.” He kissed along the palm of her hand, then back to her lips again with a mischievous grin. “And that wouldn’t happen if I stayed.”

Aura sighed and then nodded slowly as she reluctantly agreed with him, looking more defeated than she probably should have. When she kissed him again, it was long and lingering and full of passion. The power and energy she gained from the metal they surrounded themselves with jumped from her lips into his, making the kiss even more enticing and exciting.

Nick actually moaned in the midst of the kiss, and returned it with equal passion and power of his own, though in all honesty, she had always been the more powerful of the two of them. “I’ll see you soon.”

She reluctantly let go of him and then walked with him to the door. Once he was outside again, she stood there in the doorway to watch him go. “Bye, Nick.” She said before he got too far away to hear. It was important to her to say it.

He smiled back at her with his hands back in his pockets. “Sweet dreams, baby.” He spun one more time and then headed back down the path toward his own home.

Aura watched quietly as he walked away, and once he was completely out of sight, she went back into her house and looked around as her eyes stung with tears. Her house was nothing special, but she was obviously attached to it. Every piece of metal that made up her house knew her and responded to her every touch. She walked around the small house and ran her fingers across every surface that she could, saying her goodbyes before she went and grabbed a cloth bag and stuffed it full of the things that were most important to her, along with some clothes and some food. The bags were longer than a normal backpack and had longer straps so that even in her wolf form she could still wear it on her back. She stripped down and shoved her clothes in her bag as well and then she put the bag on her back. It always felt strange to have it there as she shifted into her wolf form, but it fit much more snugly on her back in her wolf than it did when she was in her human form.

Her metal door swung open at her power’s silent command, and then the sandy colored wolf she turned into walked out of the house slowly. Aura paused on her doorstep as she closed the door behind her, and caught her own reflection in the door, warped as it was by the shape of it. Her own hazel eyes stared back at her, as if her reflection knew something she didn’t, but she didn’t pause to think about what that might be. Without much of a second thought about Nick, her family, or even what was expected of her, she whipped around and took off running.

I

Two years had passed since she had left in the middle of the night, and Aura had gone far away from the home she used to know. She had settled in England, and after only a few nights in the less-than-friendly parts of the place, she had realized that living in the city wasn’t as easy as she had thought it would be once she left her pack. The houses and the flats that she had looked into never seemed good enough, but she realized it was because they didn’t have much readily-accessible metal built into them. Certainly not as much as she would have liked to keep herself at her full potential of power. It wasn’t extremely difficult to stay strong, but it wasn’t easy either. Not as easy as it had been back home.

All the things that she had stuffed in her bag, all the jewelry and precious metals that she had owned since she was a young girl had come in handy when it came time to pay for things in a world outside the pack that she didn’t know was so costly to live in. Most of her personal things from back home were gone, but she enjoyed her new life as a tattoo artist in a parlor not far from her flat. She hoped that as her fame grew, she would be able to gain more customers and in turn start her own place, but that was still a dream that was a long way from reality.

In the meantime, she worked with three other artists, including an older married couple and a younger man who was so covered with ink that it was hard to believe he had any skin underneath it all. A married couple, Artie and Jane, owned the place, and though they had been hesitant to give her a job as a fledgling artist, her ever-increasing popularity was actually making their business take off. Aura was in early every morning, and she was one of the last to leave, and that was how she liked it. Her life was her job, and for the last two years it had made her happy enough.

Artie was in early one particular morning working on a few sketches for one of his clients, and he decided to help her with the finishing touches on one of her own. “This is gonna be James’ what, sixth tattoo with you?”

Aura chuckled and then nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. I really like this one, too.” She looked down at the sketch of a skull that was made to look like it was wrapped in barbed wire. The barbs were actually tipped with blood, and the whole effect made the sketch look rather gruesome, but it was still fantastic. The red would be the only color in the entire tattoo, and it was a large one that was going to go on her client’s upper arm. She was already in love with it, and it was just in the sketch stage, so she knew it would be incredible when it was completed. James was a bigger guy who liked to put off a bad attitude to the world, but she was the only one who knew that he had his sister’s and mother’s names inked on the back of his shoulders underneath two roses. He was a softie at heart.

“You know, most of the time if we have a woman artist working for us, it’s to do florals and pin-ups. Not more skulls. Those are usually my department.” Artie tapped his own drawing, which was of a series of crossed swords and exceptionally angry-looking animal skulls.

“I’m not trying to steal your business, Artie.” She said as she looked up at him again with a smile. “James just likes me. I think maybe he thinks if he comes back often enough that I’ll fall in love with him or something.”

“There you go mixing business with pleasure again.”

“Well, that certainly makes business more pleasurable, doesn’t it?” Aura quipped as she continued to grin.

“You go do your thing, I’m gonna do mine. And one of these days, maybe I’ll get you to do one of your roses for me, I’m just not exactly sure if I’ve got any room left.” Artie had been in the business all his life, and his skin showed it, though he was a patchwork canvas instead of a single cohesive work of art. Every bit of ink was a memory, he’d explained, and he had the unique advantage of not actually regretting any of them. The bell rang for the front door, and he nodded over his shoulder. “There’s your boyfriend.”

She added her signature to the sketch and then hopped up from her stool when she saw James walk closer to her station. Aura went up to him with a bright smile, since she was eager to get started. “Well, I just finished the sketch.” She held out the drawing for James to examine. He towered over her and was about three times her size, but she wasn’t afraid of him like most people with sufficient common sense might have been.

“That is awesome!” James looked it over and pushed up his sleeve so she could lay the stencil out on his arm next to the last one she had done for him of flames coming up his forearms. Those had only been done a few weeks before, but they were already almost completely healed over.

Aura grinned and then laid the stencil in place, since the sketch of the skull went really well with the flames she’d previously drawn. “So? Still want it right here?”

“Wherever you think it looks best. You’re the tattoo goddess here, after all.” He generally liked to get her talking, just for her Spanish accent, and this was no exception. He’d obviously come prepared since he was just wearing a tank top underneath his shirt. He took his shirt off with a little more flair than absolutely necessary so that he could look at the stencil in the mirror to make sure it was where he wanted it.

She laughed softly and then looked back at their reflection as she held the stencil. “I’m not a goddess. Trust me. But if you’re happy with it, let’s get this thing going.”

With most tattoos that he’d gotten before Aura had come into town, at least some recovery time had been necessary, and there had always been some pain involved. He’d even gotten his entire back stenciled a long time before, but had run into hard times and hadn’t been able to afford the session time to get it filled in. By the time he’d gotten back on his feet, Artie had fired the former artist who had done his stencil work and had hired Aura in the meantime. James had known she was a novice artist, but he figured she could do the fill-in work at least as practice. And he had no problems letting a girl that gorgeous and obviously a little on the freak side get her hands on him for hours at a time. The experience, though, had been anything but the painful torture he’d been expecting. Under Aura’s hands, the tattoo actually felt…kind of good. Beyond the hands-on hot girl effect, even.

Aura had to get the chair James sat in down as low as it could go before she could feel comfortable, and then she transferred the stencil from the paper to his skin. After that, she ran around and got everything ready and then grabbed her gun, smiling as soon she had the hunk of metal in her hands. As soon as the needles touched James’ skin, there was a wave of pleasure that rippled through him that she knew he certainly couldn’t explain, and it made her smile.

After the five previous tattoos Aura had done for him, James had convinced himself that he just enjoyed being around her so much that his brain made up the feeling, but in reality, it was all from her. The metal of the gun and the needles loved her just as much as she loved it, and the power and energy she gained from touching the metal jumped into James’ skin like tiny jolts of lightning. “So,” she said with grin, “catch me up on your life.”

“You just saw me a month ago. You miss me that much already?” He grinned at her and relaxed into the chair under the influence of her work, again not knowing how she did what she did, but he didn’t care as long as she kept doing it. “More of the same, I’m afraid. Life at the Corona is never boring, that’s for certain.” He worked part time as a bouncer at a club, but his regular job was actually doing computer repair, though he never told anybody that. James was in the shop early enough that there wasn’t anyone else around just yet. Artie was off somewhere with Jane, and Trevor hadn’t even come in yet for the day, so she wasn’t worried about asking questions that were a little more personal. “How’s your mom doing?”

“She’s alright, thanks for asking.” He had played the sick mom card on her at one of their first sessions, even though it was completely untrue. “She’s been doing better the last few days, so she should be headed home sometime soon.”

Aura continued to smile. “That’s good. I bet you’re relieved.”

“Yeah, I think she’ll be okay from here. What about you? How are things in the ink life?”

She just shrugged. “Just working my way up. I’ve got a pretty big client on Friday, some guy from a pretty popular rock band, I guess. They’re from the U.S., but they’re on tour here. He’s one of the guitarists for Breakout Force or something like that.”

“Oh that’s brilliant. What’s he getting?”

“It’s gonna be a piece of the sheet music from one of the songs he wrote wrapped along his right arm. It’s going to be so fantastic.” Aura grinned and then wiped some more at his tattoo with her rag to get rid of the excess ink. “This one, though, is going to look awesome. Yours is turning out so great. The flames really bring it all together. This is a great idea of yours, I’m glad to admit.”

“Half mine, half yours.” He grinned at her and looked down over what she was doing. “One of these days you’re gonna have to show me some of yours, you know.” She had always told him she had tattoos, just none that he could see.

“Oh, I am, am I?” She laughed and then looked up into his eyes for a moment. Though hazel wasn’t a rare color among humans, her eyes still looked uniquely strange to someone that didn’t know any better. The mixture of the many shades of green and brown was just fascinating up close, and she was close enough to him at the moment that he could see how intricate her eyes really looked. “Well, maybe. I think after giving you six tattoos I could show you one. But I’m not sure.”

“Alright. I can handle not sure. Maybe after this one’s done, sure will be on the menu.”

“You sound a little too optimistic about that.” Aura teased. “Especially when I’ve got needles pressed up against your skin.”

“Yeah, well, I kinda like your needles. You know they’re magic, right?”

Aura turned the gun so that she could look at her needles a little closer. She examined them slowly and then dipped them back in the black ink before she put the gun against his skin again. His skin was getting red, but she knew he couldn’t feel any pain from it because of her. “Magic? I don’t know about that.”

“Yeah, well, you’ve never tattooed yourself, have you? That would take some pretty serious flexibility.”

She smirked and then was quiet for a moment before she responded. “I am pretty flexible.”

“That’s good to know.” He leaned over to watch what she was doing, as the tat was coming along. “Does flexible extend to dancing too?”

“Of course. I’m Spanish. I have some wicked moves.”

“I could stand to see a few of those too. I do work at a club, you know.”

Aura paused for a moment and wiped at his tattoo again as she admired how nicely it was coming along. She’d always enjoyed sketching and drawing back home, but she’d never really thought that she would make a career out of it. Not that she ever thought she would have a career back home, except to be a wife. No, a Mate. After a few more minutes Aura needed to get up and get some more ink, so she walked past him and looked back at James with a teasing smirk. Aura knew he was interested in her and she dressed in tight-fitting clothes so that nothing would get in the way when she was working, which she knew caught his attention. “Are you asking me out?”

“In, out, whatever direction gets you to say yes, yeah, I am.” James leaned back in the chair and stretched his arm a little to keep it from getting stiff, unintentionally doing a little flexing in the process.

She laughed again and then came back to her stool with her ink and then she sat back down before she started up her gun again. Aura pulled his arm gently toward her and then she started working again. “Okay. I’ll go dancing with you.”

“Alright.” That had been a whole lot easier than he thought it would be, but maybe that was because it was after six tattoos.

Artie came back into the room at that, carrying several tubs of ink to restock his station with a smile. “There you go with the mix again.”

Aura didn’t look up at Artie, but she was smiling again. “Aw, don’t give me a hard time. He’s cute. Look at him. How could I say no?”

“Sorry, he’s not my type.” Artie said as his wife actually came in through the front door of the shop. He and his wife were a match made in some kind of heavily-tattooed heaven, since she was just as crazy-looking as he was, except she had more piercings. Aura had been teased fairly often by both of them that in sixty years, she would be a Jane lookalike. Little did they know that in sixty years, she would still look almost exactly the way she had when they’d hired her. “Now that’s my type.”

Aura laughed loudly since she knew who he was talking about, but she was too focused on her work to look up. “Good thing, too. Since she’s your wife.”

Jane grinned and then came over to look at the work that Aura was doing on James’ arm. “This looks amazing, Aura.” Jane looked up at James with a grin. “You picked a good one, and she came up with quite a design.”

“Pretty soon, I’m just going to come in here and let her do whatever she wants to me, I think. I’ve got plenty of open spaces she can finish off.” James said with a grin over at Jane, but he was looking at Aura out of the corner of his eye.

Jane laughed and then shook her head slowly. “That’s dangerous. You never know what could come out of her hands.”

“I think I’ll take my chances. I trust her.”

Aura looked up and her grin widened. “Aw. That’s cute.” She leaned in a little closer and focused on some of the details of the barbs on the wire. She wasn’t close to finishing, but she was working her way across his arm. “I could almost kiss you for wanting to give me such artistic freedom.”

“Almost? Well, I’ve never been one to settle for almost. Maybe instead of just wanting to give it to you, I should just tell you to start thinking about what you want to put on the other arm.”

“You want to kiss me that badly?” She shook her head as she worked since she was actually surprised by his enthusiasm.

“Like I said, I trust you.” James started looking over his other arm, which was currently bare except for the flames that matched the arm she was working on. “And I can’t just leave the other one undone like that. Any ideas you’ve got, I’m alright with.”

“Well, I’ll think about it.” She shook her head again and then she got a little quieter as she refocused on her work. The more he told her that he trusted her, the more she remembered things that she really didn’t want to think about.

Her work went on that way for a few more hours with plenty of random conversation, and then, after four and a half hours, with a final dab of red to tip the last bare barb, she was finished. “Aaaand I’m done.” She got up and grabbed a mirror so he could see every bit of it a little easier. There was all sorts of shading and there were even parts of the barbed wire that looked chipped and worn down as though the wire had gone through a lot and was somehow still holding on, wrapped around the skull. “What do you think?”

James looked down at it with a smile and then went to a larger mirror so he could get a better look at it, flexing the muscle a little just to see what it looked like different ways, and then he grinned at it with his arm bent like he was about to punch somebody. “It’s brilliant. I love it.” He shook out his arm a little, a bit of pain finally setting in. “Stings a bit now, but I’ll blame that on the barbed wire.”

“Hey, so, I want to show you something else.” She said abruptly as she led him a little further back into her booth. She convinced him to bend down to look at something she was pointing at on her drawing table, but there was nothing there. When he turned his head to look at her with an expression of confusion, she kissed him. It didn’t really mean anything to Aura, but it was fun to kiss, and she was teased for mixing business with pleasure, after all. She might as well deserve the reputation that Artie was trying to give her.

James was about three times her size, and so he had to lean down quite a ways to kiss her, but as soon as she kissed him, he definitely returned the kiss and pulled her in close in the process, grinning by the end of it. “I’m guessing that means you’ve got an idea for the other arm?”

Aura laughed and then poked at the shoulder of the arm that was more or less bare. “Not yet. I just wanted to kiss you. Is that okay?”

“That’s more than okay by me.” He leaned down and kissed her again briefly, not pushing anything too hard. “So now that I’ve come by your place of business, when do you wanna come by mine?”

“Well, my latest appointment is at five. Can I come after that?”

“Well, we don’t even open up till seven or so. But I’ll be there about six thirty setting up tonight. I’ll see you then?”

She nodded and then grave him one more final kiss, since he really was a good kisser. “Bree up front should be able to get you some ointment for your arm if you’re out from the last time.”

“Still got plenty, actually. These didn’t even blister at all.” He ran his hands over the flames on his arms with a smile as he put his shirt back on over the skull and barbed wire. “You’re magic, remember?”

“Uh huh.” She rolled her eyes with a giggle as he walked backwards to make his way up to the front to pay. “See you tonight!”

Artie grinned over at her after the bouncer-boy left. “Finally, the girl with the magic hands gets a date!” He and Jane started clapping, as did Bree. Trevor, the other artist, came in the door looking like something from another decade and started clapping right with everybody else. “Hey, alright!!! What’re we excited about?” Trevor asked, even as he continued his confused applause. He was by far the most punk-looking of all of them, with a short blue mohawk and almost as many piercings as Aura.

Jane answered loudly before Aura could change the subject. “One of her clients asked her out and then she was kissing him right before he left. Our tattoo goddess is about to actually have some fun for the first time in two years!”

Trevor pointed a thumb at the door. “You’re goin’ out with the bulldozer I just passed on the way in?” Trevor was even smaller than Aura was, and was the kind of guy who still got carded when he went out to the bar, but he was a true artist with a tattoo gun.

“Yeah.” She shrugged and went about cleaning up her station for her next appointment. She didn’t want the date to seem like a big deal. “So what?”

“Yikes.” He went to his station and looked Aura up and down for a moment as he put his stuff down. “I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta say I’m a little concerned for your health. That guy’s gonna break you in half.”

Aura actually laughed and then shook her head as she grabbed some more paper and her pencils to start on her next tattoo sketch. Her next appointment was a young woman who wanted angel wings on her shoulders and multi-colored rose blossoms in the middle of the wings to honor her mother who had passed away recently. “Do I look breakable? I’ll be fine.”

“Uh huh.” He said with another look that ended up just making Bree and Artie start laughing even without him saying anything.

She glared teasingly at Trevor and then stuck her pierced tongue out at him before she started in on her drawing. “Who asked you, anyway?”

“You don’t need to ask me. I give you my opinion for free. That’s one of the perks of having me around.” He started getting his things set up for the day and tossed his bag under his station before heading over behind Bree and massaging her shoulders for a moment before going beside her at the desk to see what he had in stock for the day. The two of them had been flirting pretty steadily for weeks, but both of them were too shy to actually ask each other out.

Aura looked up over at them and since Trevor always gave her such a hard time about her dating life, she couldn’t help but prod at him a bit. “Why don’t you both come with me? Just to make sure I don’t get broken, of course.”

“I don’t think we’d wanna be around for the breaking part. You’re going to that kind of party?” Trevor said with a raised eyebrow.

“I’m going to a club and we’re going to dance. WITH our clothes on, thank you.” She hopped up from the seat she’d recently occupied and then went to Bree’s desk and leaned on it as she looked at Bree. “I know you like dancing. Trevor can’t be that bad, right?”

Bree was blushing a deep red and screaming on the inside for Aura to shut up, but it wasn’t really working to keep Aura quiet. “I, um, I don’t know if Trevor is, um, interested in going.”

“I’m…a pretty terrible dancer, but it’s not for lack of trying.” He said with a smile and a shrug.

Aura grabbed Bree’s arm from across the desk and then she led her to the side opposite where Trevor was standing. Once she had Bree out in the open, she started dancing with her, even though Aura looked incredibly experienced and Bree just blushed an even deeper red. “Well, then I’ll dance with her and it’ll be your loss.”

Artie was busy just laughing at the two of them, and obligingly went over to put some music on the stereo that they could dance to while Trevor was being pushed across the floor by Jane. Trevor fell into incredibly bad dancing with Bree once Aura relinquished her, but it was so bad it was funny, and soon Artie, Jane and Aura were just cheering the two of them on.

Bree was still incredibly embarrassed once the song was over, but she was eventually smiling at Trevor. Bree was the sore thumb in the parlor with only a tattoo on her wrist, one under her ponytail on the back of her neck, and purple streaks in her otherwise platinum blonde hair. But despite Trevor’s far more extreme appearance, she really liked him. “I think we dance pretty well together.” She said with a nervous laugh.

“Yeah, I kinda think so too.” Trevor said just as nervously as he leaned up against Bree’s desk at the front of the shop after they separated with a laugh that was just as nervous. Everyone thought that Aura was the youngest person in the shop because she’d been lying about her age since she got there, but the two of them actually were. And at the moment they were actually acting like it, which was almost refreshing.

“Yeah, great, you’re gonna be on Dancing with the Stars next week. Just take the girl out, for cryin’ out loud.” Artie could always be relied upon to state the obvious.

Aura laughed at Artie’s statement as Bree and Trevor agreed to go out together, and she couldn’t help but feel a little jab of regret that she had left her old life behind. Nick used to look at her the way Trevor looked at Bree. The way Trevor noticed the little things about Bree, and the way he focused on the details that made Bree unique reminded her of Nick and how he had treated her. Aura inconspicuously inched her way back to her station and back to her sketch so that she could be distracted from the loneliness that she often felt so far away from home. And more importantly, so she could be distracted from her thoughts of Nick.

II

Later on that night, when Aura made it down the block to the club where James was working, he wasn’t outside where she expected that he would be. Apparently, though, he had told the other guys that she was coming, because they waved her in with a few meaningful grins in her direction. There were some disgruntled moans and groans from the others at the front of the line to get in when she was waved past, but the bouncers dissuaded those in a hurry as she went in.

Aura looked around for James, but she didn’t see him in the crowd despite his large stature, so she went to sit by the bar. While she waited, she ordered a shot of tequila to get started, since she didn’t know what kind of night she would be in for. Aura sat there and swiveled back and forth on the stool as she waited, grinning at the several compliments she got from people that passed by. She was wearing a short skirt and a low V cut top that cut so deep it almost went down to her belly button, and the shirt exposed a tattoo that was right on her left breast by the cut of the V. The tattoo was of a paw print in black as well as a few angry lines of red above it, as though she had been scratched and marked by some beast.

“Hey there, beautiful.” She heard from behind her, before two huge hands went to her waist and there was a kiss to her shoulder. “I’m glad you came.”

She grinned at the feeling of James’ lips on the bare skin of her shoulder. A good portion of her back was exposed as well, and she was more and more grateful for her outfit choice as James’ hands lingered on her skin. Aura turned around slowly and then grinned up at him. “Did you really think I wasn’t going to?”

“No, but I’m still glad you did.” He nodded at the bartender for a drink and then he slid onto a stool next to her that had been quickly vacated by a wimpy-looking guy who’d been trying to hit on her and who had beat a hasty retreat when James showed up.

Aura looked down at herself and then up at him as she exposed her whole tattoo, which wasn’t that big and didn’t really need that much more exposure, but she wanted him to see every detail. Even if it meant she was dangerously close to flashing random people nearby. “Now you can see one of my tattoos.”

He’d been leaning on the bar, but he took a hand and ran a finger down the tattoo, actually behaving himself, surprisingly, but he wanted to feel the texture of the tattoo instead of just looking at it. “That looks like it hurt.”

She shrugged. It had actually felt incredible the entire time, but she couldn’t exactly say that it had been an almost orgasmic experience and retain any semblance of humanity. Even though it was the truth. “I have a high tolerance for pain.”

“Obviously.” He let the slight caress linger a little before he pulled his hand away to get his drink. “Is that the only one? Or is that just the one for the first date?”

“Well…” She looked further down her own body but then she looked back up into his dark brown eyes. There was always something different between a wolf’s eyes and a human’s eyes, but sometimes it was hard to tell when it was something like brown eyes. Earthborn wolves, the ones that had brown eyes like his, were the most common color among wolves. She could have met several in her life and never known it. James could even be a wolf and she might not know it, but she supposed she could take that risk for right now. At least he didn’t know that she was a wolf. Human as he likely was, they didn’t handle news like that well. “Maybe if the date goes well, I’ll show you another one.”

“Looking forward to it.” He grinned and actually chugged the rest of his drink, in a very simple attempt at showing off that he’d obviously had a lot of practice with. “The rest of your appointments go alright?”

“Yep. But don’t worry, I didn’t kiss anyone else.” She giggled and then pulled him in closer and down to her level so she could kiss him. It was nice to feel close to someone, even if it was just for that moment. There obviously wasn’t anything serious between the two of them, but the date was already heating up, and quickly.

They stayed there as long as he knew they could without some of his fellow bouncers giving him crap about just making out at the bar, and then he finally got up and nodded to the dance floor. “Come on, I’ve seen this…” he ran his fingers down over the tattoo on her chest and over the scratch marks, “now I wanna see those Spanish moves you were bragging about.”

Aura nodded and then hopped up off of the stool and then went with him into the heart of the crowd. The whole floor was moving with the beat of the song, and everyone was paying close attention to the person they were with. She couldn’t help but enjoy the fact that the crowd was so thick that she and James were forced to be close together and that the music was sexy enough for her to be dirty about it.

It had been a long time since she’d had the chance to truly be herself, to be the troublemaker that she had once been known as, and as soon as she let go it was like the floodgates had opened. Her body was pressed back against him so tightly that it was almost like they were glued that way with no space between them. Every tiny move that she made, he could feel, she made sure of that.

James wasn’t much of a dancer, but he was more than happy to let her do most of the work. The club was already warm from the body heat of everybody pressed around them, and obviously neither of them minded at all. A few songs went by and they stayed where they were in the middle of everything, but slowly they worked towards one wall and a slightly darker section of the already-darkened club.

Aura’s amply-exposed skin was glistening a little with sweat as they moved away from the crowd, and she smiled up at him when they were in a place that was a little more secluded. She ran a finger down his arm where his new tattoo was, and even though it should have been covered up since it was so fresh, it didn’t look that fresh. Her power was to blame for the quick healing, since she’d been laying it on him through the metal touch of the needles. “So what do you think of my moves?”

“I think they’re a lot like your tattoos. I look forward to seeing more of them.” He had his hands on her waist and he held her close against him, and was officially loving life in general with a slight buzz in his system from both her and the alcohol he’d been hitting for a while already. He leaned down to kiss her neck as he held her with two handfuls of her shirt, and glanced up only out of habit when he saw the front door open, just to get a look at the clientele. It was just a normal patron, fairly gothic-looking guy that didn’t really catch his attention at all, especially with her so close, so he turned his attention back to her completely.

She didn’t mind the way he held on to her. In fact, she liked it. Her life had been too calm and too peaceful for far too long. Two years of just work, work, and trying to hide her true self was exhausting. She missed the fun and freedom that she had as a wolf, and it was always so devastating to her that she only got to really let loose in her wolf form around the Fulness when they were forced into the change for three nights. Aura missed the danger and the thrill, but now with James clutching at her and spiking her emotions, she felt a little bit of that pleasure from before. “Well…” She said as she pulled him further back toward a wall where it was darker still, but they could still see each other well enough.

Aura pulled down her skirt just enough so that he could see another tattoo of hers that was on her hipbone. It was probably something that no one would expect to be a part of Aura’s body, as gentle as she often seemed. It was a heart dripping with blood as it was being stabbed by a wicked looked dagger that almost looked like a bolt of lightning constrained in its power by the metal. There were legends among her people of wolves that had done spectacular things when they went with such a direct approach of gaining power. It was painful, she was sure, but the best kind of pain she imagined that there could be.

“Ooooh.” He took the liberty of running his thumb over that one too, even though he couldn’t see it that clearly in the dark corner they’d been pressed into, but he held onto her skirt afterwards. “I think I’m gonna need to get a closer look at that one.”

“No, actually you’re not.” A voice she thought she should recognize chimed out from behind her. When she turned, it was so dark that all she could really see was the black shape of the man’s clothes and the glint of light off several piercings on his face. More than most guys generally felt comfortable with.

“Hey, man, back off and mind somebody else’s business. This is a private party.” James’ voice had already switched into bouncer-mode, and she could feel his grip on her get a little tighter as he glared at the newcomer.

“She is my business, beefcake.” Just as she recognized, not the man, but the piercings in his ear and on his eyebrow, his fist flew through the air over her head and clocked James in the jaw and the two men were off in a tumble through the crowd nearby.

Aura was not only in shock at the fact that James had been attacked so violently, but she was also in shock that she had been found by Nick, and that he was here laying claim on her like the animal that he was. That they both were. Except that she hadn’t seen him in two years, and she had left home by her own decision. They were not together, and even though he had found her, it didn’t mean that he could try to control her life. “Nick? NICK! Stop it!!”

Most of the other dancers and drinkers around them were in just as much shock as she was at the moment, but for completely different reasons. James looked like he had been born for the job he had, as a large and obviously-dangerous man. But even though Nick was of average height and looked about half James’ weight, he was mopping the floor with the bouncer, apparently without even breaking a sweat.

Every punch or elbow James landed seemed to not even faze him, while Nick was drawing blood with every swing. On a few punches, Aura swore she could hear a few of James’ ribs crack. It wasn’t long before he beat James back into the same wall he’d been leaning against while putting his hands all over Aura, except this time James slumped to the floor afterwards. Nick stood a few steps away, looking down on him with fists still clenched, and he seemed almost disappointed that the fight was over so quickly.

Aura completely ignored Nick to rush to James’ side, and she went to her knees on the floor next to him. “James? James??” Aura turned to look at any other face in the crowd, but they were all stunned and terrified after what they had seen. “Someone call for an ambulance!! Hurry!!”

“He won’t need an ambulance.” Nick said calmly as he looked down at her, his hands already back in the pockets of his coat. “Just a band-aid and maybe a kiss to make it all better.” His tone was angrier than she’d ever heard from him, and there was a wealth of bitterness behind it. Two years’ worth, to be exact.

Someone behind the bar did get to a phone and call for help, and some of the other workers, particularly a lot of the women who worked at the club, surrounded James since they were all concerned for their friend. Aura, however, had jumped up at Nick’s tone, and much to the surprise of everyone watching, she approached Nick with a glare. Aura walked up to him threateningly, which made her look crazy to all the people watching. She was a tiny person by any standard, and she had to be insane to approach the man who had just turned one of the biggest bouncers in the club into a punching bag that was now bleeding on the floor. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Don’t ask questions you already know the answer to.” He snapped back at her. “I came here for you.”

She actually got up close to him and shoved him backwards toward the doors. The rest of the bouncers looked like they were coming up with a way to attack Nick all at once, but the two of them couldn’t risk another chance for exposure. He could beat ten humans at once, easily. Once she shoved him out the door, she just started walking down the sidewalk and away from the club. She hated to leave James, but she had to get Nick out and she knew that James would be taken care of. He wasn’t her boyfriend or anything, though she could probably say that he was a friend. At least he had been a friend before Nick had shown up and made a mess of everything. There was too much at risk, though, to worry about James.

When they saw that Nick was leaving, everybody got out of the way, not wanting to be the next object of his anger. He followed her easily, being taller and faster than she was. He didn’t say anything, though. He knew Aura, and he knew that once she’d gotten angry about something, she needed time to cool down before she could have any kind of a rational conversation.

It was several blocks of walking before Aura even said anything. “Why would you come after me? I left.”

“Which would be why I came after you.” He said condescendingly, still walking slightly behind her. “I thought you’d go to Italy first, you speaking the language and all. I never once thought you’d go British.”

“That is exactly why I chose this place.” She said with obvious irritation and then sighed loudly. “I just couldn’t do it, Nick. I’m sorry, I couldn’t. I just kept seeing my life and the way I wanted to live it slipping away from me. I didn’t want us to change, and I knew we would. I was so scared that night that staying just didn’t seem like an option. It should have been a happy time, not a terrifying one.”

Nick stayed behind her and actually kept his distance, taking some time before he actually spoke. “You could have told me, Aura.” He said quietly, not even a hint of bitterness in his voice. “All you had to do was tell me. One word and it would’ve been off. Canceled, postponed, whatever you wanted.”

“You know that’s not true.” She finally stopped walking near a run-down brick building, but it was a quiet area, so she didn’t feel too worried about it. The two of them could handle just about anything anyway. “I still care about you and I miss you all the time. But there was no canceling or even postponing. We’re not even individuals to them, can’t you see that? We’re a product of careful breeding that they think they own. There’s no freedom there. There’s no room to be yourself in that. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could be happy with you. I didn’t think I couldn’t be happy there.”

“And you didn’t think I would have gone with you?” He actually approached her a little more closely, though he was still more than arm’s length away just in case she decided to take a swing at him herself. “You and I never agreed on home and how we do things there, but if you had asked me, if you had told me you wanted to, we would’ve both been gone that night. I ran after you that morning, but I just wasn’t fast enough to catch you, I guess.”

“You believe in the plan that they outlined for us. You want it. Don’t tell me you don’t, because I know that you do.”

He couldn’t deny that, and he shrugged. “I do believe in it. And I do want it. I always have.” He took a step closer to her. “But it’s centered on us, Aura. It doesn’t have to be the way they think it should be. It’s up to us.”

Aura started walking again abruptly, this time headed in the direction of her apartment. She didn’t need him to get any closer to her. It actually wasn’t that far of a walk from the club to her place, so she saw no point in getting a ride. “It will always go the way they want it to. It has for hundreds of years. It will never be up to us.”

“I haven’t been home in two years.” He said to her back as she walked away. “And I’m not going back unless it’s with you.”

She sighed loudly and she stopped again so that she could look back at him. “You’re young. There’s plenty of time for one of the other families to produce someone else that could take my place. Maybe she could do what I can’t.”

“Maybe you didn’t hear me.” He took a few steps closer to her and repeated himself as he held eye contact with her. “I’m not going home without you. I didn’t say I was looking for someone to replace you. I told you that night that I wanted you. And that hasn’t changed.”

Her hazel eyes held his, and she felt the familiar pull toward him. Their power, even the metal that they wore, knew the other person just as well as they knew each other. She had missed that familiar feel, and yes, she had missed her best friend. There was a lot about her home and her life that she missed, but she was determined not to go back. “You were raised with the knowledge that we were going to be together. There was no option but to want to be with me. Now you have options.”

“You know, I’ve rehearsed this meeting a lot over the last two years of running around looking for you, but I never thought you’d actually do the whole ‘find somebody else’ speech. I thought you knew me better than that.”

Aura stared at him for a moment, taking in the sight of the man that she was sure she had loved once. But the last two years apart from him made her wonder why she had loved him. Not that he was unlovable, but had she been forced to love him? Led to believe that he was the only one that she could love? What kind of relationship was that, if it only existed because she’d been trained to have it? “It felt like we were just going through with the plan. I want to be Mated to someone who feels like he can’t live without me because he’s in love with me. Not because of some ridiculous pack mentality. And I don’t want to question my love for him either. I don’t want to think that someone put ideas there, that I was made to love someone else.”

Aura had been so persistent for him to stay that night because she’d known that no one would know he was gone, since everyone in the pack had assumed the both of them would be preparing for the next day. It was why no one caught her when she ran. She had wanted to spend the night with him and wake up at his side and find out if the emotions remained before they were both trapped in something that they couldn’t escape. “What did you think would happen if you found me?”

“I didn’t know. I guess I had hoped you might be the slightest bit happy to see me again.” He glanced back in the direction of the club. “Apparently not.”

Aura followed his glance back to the club and then she looked at him again. “That was one of the first times I’ve gone anywhere outside my flat or my work in two years, Nick. I just wanted a chance to feel a little bit of freedom.” She walked up closer to him, but she felt conflicted as she held his gaze. “James is a frequent client of the tattoo parlor where I work, and that was our first date.” Finally she broke eye contact and looked down. “I miss you a lot, Nick. I miss my best friend. I miss running as wolves whenever we wanted to and causing all the trouble we dared to create. That’s the truth.”

“Let’s run, then.” He unbuttoned the front of his coat slowly and then started to shrug it off. “There’s an Earthborn pack that lives on the outskirts of the city, but they recognized me on the way in. They won’t give us or anybody else any trouble unless somebody else gives them trouble first. Let’s just go.”

She wanted to. She wanted to shift and run so badly that it was a physical pain inside her. “I can’t, Nick. I have a life here. I can’t risk it.”

“If you can’t run free, that’s only half a life.”

“Better than no life at all.” Which was what she felt she’d had before, or what she would have had if she would have stayed behind with their pack.

“I’m not leaving without you.” He said calmly, and closed the last distance between them to sweep her into a kiss that was filled with the power of their kind. He sent it ringing through her, from the base of her spine to the tips of her fingers. Every piece of metal in her body started singing through her blood in response to his touch. “That’s the other half of the life you’ve been missing, Aura. The life we were supposed to have.”

Aura moaned at his kiss and then held tighter to him as the pleasure of it continued to ripple through her entire body even after he stopped kissing her. Her fingers dug into his shoulders and she trembled because she both enjoyed it and wanted more of it so badly. It was as though she had been starving herself for the past two years and he had given her a taste of a perfect steak. “Stop. Just…stop.” Aura sounded like she was in pain just by asking, but she had to stop him.

“I won’t do that.” Nick said without kissing her again, but now she could feel the strength of his presence, unmoving and unyielding beneath her fingers. He would only bend if it meant he could hold her tighter to him in the end. “You know I won’t.”

She leaned in even though something inside of her screamed at her to pull away, and she pressed her cheek to his. Aura rubbed the side of her face against his cheek and then kissed down to the steel chain around his neck. She kissed the metal itself and felt the power from it tingling in her lips as she inhaled the scent of his skin. Every sensation was one that she missed and ached for, and it felt incredible to have Nick so close to her again. She kissed back up the side of his neck to his cheek and then she bit down gently on his earlobe. The rod in her tongue tapped lightly against his earrings and it made her shiver. It was intoxicating, the clink of her metal against his, and she squirmed at how much more it made her want him. She whispered in heavy, heated breaths into his ear. “It hurts, how much I have missed you.”

“Does it?” He asked with a few deep breaths himself, and one heavily ringed hand came up to the side of her neck, sliding up against her ear and clicking against her own earrings as his power ran directly from his skin into hers. As if they had turned into liquid in that moment, his rings melted off his hand and actually dripped around the back of her neck, stretching out to form themselves into a silver and gold choker that was tight up against her skin. A single pendant stretched down from it as though reaching down toward the wolf paw on her chest, caressing as it went. “You should probably stop missing me, then.”

Aura whimpered and moaned as she lifted up her hand and pressed it against the back of his neck; her own rings dripping off her fingers to slither across the back of his neck and then over his shoulder to the hollow of his throat, forming her own choker around his neck. Her whole body pressed into his as the need for him only got that much more intense. She found herself growling for more. “How do you do this to me?”

“I’m not exactly sure, but it’s a lot of work, I can tell you that.”

For some reason his telling her that being with her was a lot of work made her feel like the moment wasn’t romance, that it wasn’t passion. In an instant it reminded her of why she left, since she didn’t want to be work. Suddenly it was like she had been doused with ice water and the heat of the moment was gone. The metal from her rings jumped off his skin and back around her fingers before she pulled away from him. “No, I’m not doing this.”

“I was teasing.” He reached out and grabbed one of her hands as she pulled away, holding onto her tightly, but not painfully.

She forced his own metal off of her skin and it crawled back to his wrist where she wrapped it around to clasp it into a bracelet. But then she pulled away from him completely. “You can stay at my place if you want for tonight. But that’s it.”

Nick looked at her for another moment or two in silence, but then just put his hands together as the metal flowed into rings around all of his fingers back into the forms it had previously held. Without pushing things any further, she could feel the slight bitterness flow back into his face, but he started walking next to her, keeping his distance.

They walked in silence all the way back to her place and then once they were inside, she just kicked off her heels and locked the door behind him. “You can help yourself to whatever is around.” She refused to look at him as she went to her phone and checked for messages, but there were none. Not even from Trevor, and since he and Bree had been at the club when it all happened, she’d been sure that he would call.

“There’s a guest room if you want to take it.” She hated herself for wanting him to sleep in her bed with her, but she had always wanted him to. He’d never actually stayed overnight with her during their entire relationship, and she found that even now she still yearned for it. Angry as she was with him, she found herself quickly offering her own room instead immediately after her mention of the guest room. “My bed is big and it’s just a thick sheet of steel.” No one ever came over to her place, so no one ever knew that her bed was actually nothing like anything a human would call a bed. Even with her complete lack of visitors, though, she’d always had what humans would have called a normal bed in her guest room. “You can stay with me if you want, as long as you stay on the other side.” She wasn’t so cruel as to not allow for someone to recharge on energy after a long day when they needed it. Even if she was angry with him.

Nick didn’t say anything, but he did go with her into her room and started getting undressed. He laid his coat and his shirt in a neat pile in one corner of the room, obviously accustomed to sleeping in some tight places. As he turned around, she saw that there were two new additions to his piercings on his chest, and along with the piercings in his ear and his eyebrow, overall he looked fairly dangerous. Also on the right side of his chest was a tattoo of a chain coming down from his shoulder, but it stopped before it reached the left side of his torso.

Aura looked at him for a moment since she couldn’t help herself, but then she turned her gaze away and started to get undressed herself. It wasn’t the nakedness that had caught her attention. Wolves were used to that. In order to preserve their clothes they had to be rid of them before they shifted. It was just the fact that she was attracted to him and she always had been, and the piercings certainly upped that attraction. She had new things on her body as well, since in addition to all of her previous piercings she had finally added one to her navel.

All of the tattoos were new, since she hadn’t gotten into that until after she ran away. There was the one on her hipbone, the paw print in the middle of her chest, and then there was also one of the face of a dark-colored wolf with hazel eyes on her right breast. When she turned around, he could see more tattoos along her back. The most prominent was a wicked line of barbed wire that danced all the way down her spine, and there were red lines that were made to look like claw marks etched into both of her shoulder blades. The barbed wire tattoo had been the most pleasurable of all, and she had scared the artist when she hadn’t flinched in pain even once. She sighed as she pulled up her hair into a ponytail and revealed one more tattoo at the base of her neck, a chain made of three links where the middle one was broken. Once she was completely undressed, she walked over to the bed, struggling the entire time to keep herself from looking at him again.

As Nick finished undressing, she could see that the tattoo of the chain went all the way over his shoulder onto his back, where it split into two separate images. It was two sets of spiked manacles that seemed to be lying on the ground somewhere, and both were open with drops of blood in them, like two people had pulled themselves free of shackles they shouldn’t have been able to escape from.

He went to the side of the bed that she wasn’t on and laid down on his back, looking up at the ceiling awkwardly even as he enjoyed the feel of the steel against his skin. It was softer to them than the thickest feather bed. It was their element, and it knew them. “If I had stayed that night…” he finally said quietly, “would it have made a difference?”

Aura’s eyes suddenly burned with tears, since in some ways she felt like it would have made all difference. There were many nights when they’d stayed out late together, but he’d always gone home. Even at that moment in her flat, in a bed that they were sharing, she believed that he would get up in the middle of the night and leave. She found herself sniffling as she answered. “I don’t know. I always wanted you to stay.”

He turned on his side as she said so, and pulled her back against him a little possessively. The metal beneath them molded around their heads and contoured to the rest of their bodies, as though to hold them together. He didn’t kiss her and didn’t try to turn the situation into anything more, he just held onto her as the metal closed around them in a wave like a blanket settling over them.

Aura let him hold her like that for a few minutes before the blanket of liquid metal moved as she moved. She turned over so that her back wasn’t against him, but so that she could curl into him. Her eyes were closed and she rested her head on his shoulder as she wrapped her arms around him and hugged herself to him. She just wanted him to stay, and she felt like the only way he would was if she held on to him. Aura’s tears still leaked out of the corners of her eyes and fell across her face onto his skin, but there was nothing else to be said. All that was left was to pass the night and see, as she had wondered two years before, what her heart would tell her in the morning.

III

Come the morning, Nick was still there sleeping under her grip and he had barely moved at all in his sleep. Being a deep sleeper was a kind of feature of their race overall, since metal didn’t tend to move unless something else was trying to bend it, and Nick had always been a deep sleeper in the first place.

She watched him sleep for a little while as she continued to hold on to him, but she couldn’t stay, since she knew she had to go into the parlor. Aura knew how deeply he slept from the many times she’d snuck into his house when they were younger to try and get him out of bed, and so she kissed his lips for a short moment, since she expected that he wouldn’t wake up. After the kiss broke, she moved the metal blanket so that it would let her out, but then she let it flow back in place around Nick so it would keep him comfortable and warm while she was gone. She got dressed quickly in a pair of jeans and a simple black shirt and then left a simple silver ring for him to find later so that he would know that she was thinking about him when she left. Aura didn’t know what to think about the situation anymore, but she did know that she hadn’t changed her mind about going back. She was staying in England, no matter what.

When she came into the parlor, Trevor and Bree were already there and were all over her the moment she came in the door. “God, back from the dead, are you okay?!?!?” Trevor jumped up from his station and headed to the door, though Bree had already latched onto her like ivy on an oak tree.

Aura hugged Bree and then looked up at Trevor like she didn’t understand what in the world was going on. It wasn’t like she had been dragged out of the club. “Did you hear anything about James? Is he okay?”

“I didn’t hear anything more about him, but he did walk out to the ambulance, so I’m pretty sure he was okay. Who was that freak of nature that kicked his teeth in?” Trevor was still wide-eyed, and had obviously been replaying the scene in his mind the entire night she’d been sleeping soundly in her freak of nature’s arms. “Guy was like…my size.”

“I know him. Someone from my past. I don’t know what got into him, I guess jealousy runs deep sometimes and makes people crazy. Don’t worry, he’s not going to be hanging around or anything. Was anyone else hurt?”

“No, I’m pretty sure it was just the jolly green giant.”

She sighed heavily. “I feel horrible.” She shook her head and then looked around as if she had expected something to change overnight, but everything was the same. “I’m going to call James later and go see him.”

He let out a low whistle and just shook his head. “That’s some crazy past you got there, Goldilocks.”

Aura looked over at Trevor with another sigh and a shrug. “I kind of jilted the guy at the altar.”

“You…Wow.” He took that in for a moment and then shook his head like he’d just been hit over the head with something potentially life-threatening. “I thought you were allergic to altars.”

“I am.” She went to her station after Bree let go of her and then pretended like everything was normal. “Like I said, everything is fine. Can we just get to work now?”

“Um…yeah, sure.” Trevor and Bree shared a worried look, but he got back to work, avoiding conversation with her for a while, though he spent more time up at Bree’s desk than normal that morning.

She was glad for the two of them, glad that they had actually hit it off and that they were willing to be a little more open with their flirting than before. Aura didn’t pay them much attention, though, she just went right to work preparing for the day. Every time she heard the bells on the door jingle, she looked up expecting to see Nick walking through the door, but a couple of hours passed and he didn’t come. Maybe he’d gone back home. She didn’t know if she was relieved or hurt by the idea of him leaving, but the thoughts distracted her until Bree came up with a client around eleven in the morning.

“Aura? This is Orlando.”

She didn’t have an appointment scheduled, so that made her the artist open for walk-ins. Aura got up and gave him a polite smile. “Nice to meet you.”

The first impression Aura had of Orlando was just the fact that he was exceptionally tall, at least to her. He was a little over six feet tall, but he was skinny to the point of looking unhealthy. He had a hungry look about him for some reason, but his smile was polite. “Nice to meet you too.” As he spoke, a second observation joined his height in her notice, and that was that he had a Spanish accent, which she didn’t run into very often.

Aura actually smiled brighter at his accent and then nodded toward another stool next to her own, switching to Spanish. “What can I do for you today?”

He smiled at her switch for a moment, and then answered in Spanish as well. “I um…I wanted to get a memorial tattoo done of my two brothers.” He took out photographs of two men that looked a great deal like him. They had almost identical black hair, but she saw in one of the close-ups that one man had brown eyes and the other had grey. Orlando was also obviously the tallest of the three in one of the pictures that he gave her that had all three of them in it. “They died a little over a year ago, and I wanted to get something done on my back as a remembrance of them.”

“Okay, I can definitely do that. What do you want to get, do you know?” She looked at the picture carefully instead of the man himself. In comparison to his brother with brown eyes, his own were exceptionally dark. They could pass as brown, she supposed…but she had to wonder. When she looked up into his face again, her eyes met his as she waited for an answer from him.

They were, as a matter of fact, a very dark brown as she looked at them again while he was speaking. “It was always just kind of the three of us against the world, seemed like. We had a saying where we always said we would stand against the storm. I kinda wanted to do something like…” he pulled out a very badly done sketch of three stick figures with their backs to each other, standing on a stone in some kind of field, with a storm crashing down on them with very badly done lightning bolts, “this. But I’m definitely open to suggestions on specifics.”

Aura looked at the sketch and then looked at him again. “Do you want it across your entire back?”

“At least the center of it, yeah.”

“I can sketch out an idea in about an hour…do you want to wait or come back later?”

“I’ll just wait, if that’s alright. I haven’t got anywhere else to go for the day. And I came prepared.” He took out an iPod and started unwinding a set of headphones.

She smiled and showed him to the chairs at the front of the shop and then she headed back to her station and pulled out a new sheet of paper, looking over at the pictures from time to time as she sketched. It was almost exactly an hour before she tapped on his shoulder and held out the sketch. He was in the middle as the tallest, and she had every detail about him sketched to perfection. Behind him the sky was recovering from a big flash of lightning, made obvious by the shading, but then right behind where he stood, a strike of lightning was hitting the ground. His brothers stood firm, unmoving even with the storm behind them. There was a boulder that was behind his brother with the grey eyes, and while they all stood on the ground, there was a mound of dirt underneath a raised foot of his other brother. The likenesses of their faces were also quite intricate, and they all seemed to stand firmly against the obvious wind that was blowing their hair and clothes about in the drawing. Last of all, up in the corner behind a dark cloud there was a sketch of the moon, half full, hovering above their heads. “What do you think?”

Orlando looked at it silently for a full half minute before he leaned forward and pulled the ear buds out of his ears. “That’s…perfect.” He looked up at her gratefully for a moment, and then stood up slowly. “There’s…one other problem, and I’m not really sure if you’ll be able to work past it or not, but…you don’t have a weak stomach, do you?”

“Not really. I’ve seen some pretty gruesome things. What would you like me to add?”

“It’s not the drawing.” He took his shirt off slowly, unbuttoning it down the front and then he shrugged it off as he turned around. On his back and on his upper arms there was a series of horribly-healed-over scars, some of which ran the length of his back from shoulder to waist. Some looked like burn marks, some looked like bad cuts or even gunshot wounds. There was a mix of them, and none of them looked like they had been well-tended at the time he got them.

Aura stared at all the scars and then she looked back at the drawing. “I’ll do my best to work with it. It will make it a little more difficult, but I think I can get it done.” She finally walked back around to look into his eyes again. “Do you want color or just black and grey?”

“Will adding brown make it hideous? I haven’t really thought about that.”

“No, adding brown won’t make it hideous. I can make the sky a dark blue, add color to the lightning, or I can leave it all with the black. It’s up to you.”

He winced as though she’d given him a new scar when she mentioned the color blue, and he shook his head. “I’d prefer if we could avoid the blue.”

“Okay. We’ll avoid the blue. Are you ready now?”

“Yeah, absolutely. Bring the pain.” He said as he forced himself to smile again, and went to straddle the seat so she could work on his jigsaw puzzle of a back.

She actually ran her fingertips across the raised scars before she put the stencil down, trying to gauge how to work them into the drawing she’d made. Once she had it settled to where she thought she could work with it, she transferred the sketch from the paper and made some alterations by hand to accommodate the raised texture in awkward places. Aura looked at it for a moment after she finished and then grabbed her gun and her ink. As soon as her gun touched his skin the pain that he had probably expected wasn’t there. In fact, it felt good, and she made sure that it was plenty pleasurable. Better than good, since it was little bursts of her power that went directly into his skin.

Orlando actually flinched the first time she touched the gun to his skin, which was the first time anyone had done so under her needle. He let her continue for a moment, then looked back at her over his shoulder. “That’s um…some needlework you’ve got there.”

“I must be losing my touch. Usually people don’t flinch.” Aura said as she stared intently at the stencil on his skin. She was very careful and meticulous about her work.

“I just didn’t expect it.” As he turned to try and see her, she met his eyes and she could see, for a brief flicker of a moment, the light glint off the corner of a contact lens, though it didn’t give any hint of what his actual eye color was underneath.

Aura smiled and then kept working, not sure what to say or even talk about. She was fairly positive that the man underneath her gun was a wolf, but she could never tell completely. She had spent almost her entire life exclusively with Ironborn wolves, and so it was hard for her to tell when it came to wolves outside her own kind. Whenever someone had a litter of puppies in her society and any other color was produced, they were sent somewhere else, and so her experience with other colors was severely limited. She never knew where those puppies went, but she knew that she had two sisters and a brother that were something other than hazel-eyed. She just didn’t know what. An hour passed in silence for her as he listened to his music, and then she took a break to tap him on the shoulder and check on him and his pain levels. When he could hear her again, she got him to sit up and look at her progress in a mirror. “How are you feeling? Are you having much pain?”

“No.” He said without smiling as he looked at the drawing in the mirror, though he nodded his head in approval. “No pain at all. You um…you have a gift with needles.”

“You seem disappointed. I can let someone else finish if you want me to. I’ve already outlined the whole thing.” She wasn’t sure how to interpret his expressionless face, but she did want him to be pleased with the tattoo even if she didn’t finish it.

“No, no. I love it.” He smiled back at her and then looked at the mirror again. “I’m sorry, I’m just really glad I’m getting this done. It’s just still hard to remember them. We were always really close.”

“I’m a good listener if you want to talk about it.” She grabbed her equipment again to get moving once more. It would take probably a couple more hours before she was finished, and so there was plenty of time for her to listen to any story he was willing to tell.

“There’s not too much to tell, honestly. We were out on a fishing boat off the coast of France. There was a storm that apparently we couldn’t stand against. I made it to England’s coast. My brothers…didn’t.”

Aura was quiet for a long time after that statement, and her eyes flicked back over to the picture on her desk where she had drawn the sketch. Aura then focused on the details of her work without making a comment about the picture, and she certainly wasn’t going to ask any questions. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you. It’s still strange without them. But every day is another move forward, right?” He waited for a moment, then turned around again and looked at her. “So I have kind of a strange question for you.” He said in a low voice.

Aura didn’t look up, since she was concentrating hard on her work and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to hear what he was going to ask if he felt he needed to lower his voice. “Sure. Ask away.”

“What’re you doing next weekend?” The next Saturday and Sunday were two days of the Fulness, the third night of which was Monday night.

“Are you asking me out on a date? Cuz that might not go so well.” Aura’s expression didn’t change, and she still didn’t look up from her work.

“Why do you say that?”

“My last date was broken up violently by an ex. It would be quite a risk.”

That made him laugh, an almost harsh sound because it came so suddenly from him. “Extreme dating, then, huh? Well, I suppose that with…some types…that’s always a risk.”

Aura raised an eyebrow as she looked up to the big mirror in front him where he could see her working behind him. She met his eyes for a moment before she focused on the middle of his back. “I’m pretty extreme myself, if you hadn’t noticed.”

“I did notice.” He said with a brief nod. “So if you were to not be dating anyone next weekend, what do you think you’d be up to?”

“Probably the usual. Sketching during the day, causing trouble at night.”

“Trouble anywhere in particular?”

“Any reason why you’re asking?” She said with a little more sharpness than she intended.

“Just curious. You seem like a…pretty wild kind of girl.” He was looking at her in the mirror as he spoke. “I just like to know where the party is when the right time comes around, you know?”

She didn’t respond at first since it was easier just to pretend like she was busy with the details of his work. The only person who knew what was really going on with her was Nick, otherwise she hadn’t been noticed by any other wolves in all the time that she had lived and worked in the area. “There’s a massive park nearby with a lot of trees and a lake in the middle. I like to go there whenever there’s a full moon, since I take those days off. The park is beautiful and quiet. Undisturbed.”

“Sounds perfect.” He said with a sad sigh, knowing that she had just confirmed what he had thought about her. He was clearly just as uncomfortable with revealing himself to her as she had been to him, but she could feel his relief in her answer.

Aura was quiet for another long stretch of time, and this time it was long enough to finish his tattoo. She then grabbed a mirror for him once he sat up so that he could see it from all angles. “So, what do you think?”

He looked over it for a long time with a smile. She had incorporated a few of his scars into the stone that one of his brothers was standing on, then another few into the clouds that formed the storm. One of them even helped form part of the lightning bolt that was striking behind him in the image. “It’s perfect. It’s better than what I had envisioned for it.”

She smiled since she was glad that he liked it, and she had hoped that it would turn out well. “I’m glad that you’re pleased with it.” She took a few steps closer to him and then looked into his eyes again. “Your eyes are a particularly dark…shade of brown.”

“Yes, they are.” He looked down into hers for a long time with a slight smile on his face, and then reached out to take her hand. When he did, she felt a slight shock jolt from her fingertips straight up her arm that made her heart actually skip a beat.

Aura gasped, but she was surprised at how it didn’t hurt because he was so in control of the jolt. She shivered at the feel of the shock running through her and the feeling afterward of his power lingering in the place of the jolt. She held onto his hand for a moment after the jolt dissipated and a ring that was on her middle finger melted away and then re-formed before his eyes, locking their fingers together by turning into a thin wire that wrapped around both their middle fingers.

Orlando watched the ring form around their fingers with a smile. “Pleased to meet you, Aura.”

She was glad to see he was smiling, at least. A lot of wolves didn’t care for her kind, and in fact, they were always seen as lesser wolves. Almost every other bloodline of the ten types of wolves was held in higher regard than her own. Ironborn like herself were normally only made by a turning, a human who became a werewolf. Rarely were they born, like she and Nick had been. “Are you only passing through?”

“I’ll be…passing through for the rest of my life, looks like.” He said as he looked in the mirror again. “I’ve been just passing through for two years now.”

“You don’t like to stay anywhere?” She said with genuine curiosity. It was a hard life for a wolf as a wanderer, simply because it was hard to know if any given place could meet their particular needs, depending on the wolf type.

“It’s not really a matter of like. I’m not particularly popular anywhere I go. You know how that is.” He shrugged, and would have let go of her hand, but the ring was still connecting them, so he held on. “The Council isn’t overly fond of either of us.”

She shrugged and then summoned her ring back so that it wrapped itself just around her finger again. “They don’t know either of us are here, and it might be nice to have someone else around for once.” Aura said without specifically voicing her suggestion. She wasn’t exactly sure why she was inviting another wolf into her hard-earned territory, but he was a new face and he was someone else she wouldn’t have to hide from.

“Is there likely to be much company in the park next weekend?”

“I doubt it. Just me.”

He sighed again in relief, and took his own hand back, this time with another slight spark between their fingers. “It will be good to have company again. I’ve been doing my best to run alone for a while now, but I always seem to find the wrong kind of company.”

“Maybe it’s just my attractive personality.” She said with a teasing grin. “You just can’t help but want to be around me.”

“We do sort of go together.” He said with a grin and a hand on her arm, which sent sparks of electrical power running through her, making her twitch a few times in a way that just made him grin a little wider.

She actually moaned softly, since it did feel really good to have his power running through her body. “I’ve never seen anyone like you. I’ve only heard stories.” She sighed and then ran her hand along his arm. “What incredible power.”

“It’s not as incredible as the stories would have you believe. And it’s nowhere near as glamorous.” He grinned and caressed her arm. “Yours at least has a great many practical applications.”

Aura looked down at his touch on her arm, and since she was still so surprised that she was actually talking to another wolf, not to mention a wolf that was actually a Shadowborn, she just let his touch linger. “So you’ll come to the park, right?”

“Yes, I will.” He looked at Trevor and Bree, who were giving her a rather odd look for speaking in hushed tones, in Spanish, with a very tall stranger. Apparently this was Aura’s week for getting hit on by her clientele. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go down and run the public library’s electric bill through the roof.” He smiled slightly and let her go. “But I’ll see you at the park. And maybe before that.”

She nodded with a smile. “Until then, Orlando.”

Trevor waited until Orlando was out the door, and then finally started talking. “Okay, so is this a new program that I didn’t get the memo for, or what?”

Aura shrugged and then started cleaning up without looking at anyone else in the place. “I’m just friendly. There’s nothing wrong with that, right?”

“No, nothing wrong.” They had just never seen her with quite that look in her eye with a customer before, and certainly hadn’t seen any lingering touches like that one before, with a customer or otherwise. “Just looked a little cozier than usual, that’s all.”

“Sometimes people just instantly connect, I guess.” She looked back at them and then back at the door that Orlando had just walked out of. Aura couldn’t believe that she had actually met a wolf so rare. Shadowborn wolves, ones with eyes black as night, were only made in the most unique of circumstances. One parent had to be a turned human and the other parent had to be a wolf of very high breeding for a wolf like that to be produced. Most wolves several generations pure considered themselves too good to even think about touching someone who was a turned wolf, let alone have puppies with them. After she had cleaned up her station a bit she looked at the clock to see that it was early afternoon. “I’m going out to grab something to eat. I’ll be back soon.” She said without any other explanation. She just needed to get out.

“Uh huh.” Trevor said with a teasing note of disbelief in his voice, but he quickly went back to work on the drawing he was working on between clients. “We’ll be here.”

IV

The next week was one that was a little too intense for Aura, but it was her own fault more than anything else. That night after the session with Orlando, she’d gone back to find Nick still at her place. She had come home exhausted from a long day of work, and she hadn’t had the energy to tell him to get out. A part of her wanted him to stay anyway, and she even let him sleep in her bed when they got cozy all over again. It was a week of torture for her, and she had no one else to blame but herself. Every night when she went to sleep, she let Nick stay with her, and every night she wanted even more to be with him.

By the time the day before the first night of the Fulness came around, she was almost in a frenzy with desire for him. Aura had even taken extra time off work because she couldn’t focus, and she was actually glad that for some reason he’d gone out when she got back to her flat and found it currently empty.

It was a few hours before she heard somebody coming down the hall to her door, but right afterward, instead of a knock, she heard her lock click itself to unlock and Nick came through carrying two large paper bags in his arms. He saw her in her living room and paused to look her over like he was making sure it was actually her. “Hey, you’re home early.”

She looked back at him with a weak smile. “I just thought I’d relax before tonight.”

“Probably not a bad idea.” He took the bags over to her small refrigerator and started putting away wrapped parcels of meat that looked delicious raw even while they were in human form. “I got your ham steaks. I don’t know if you still like those or not, but…” he shrugged and showed her the cuts he’d gotten for her before he put them in the fridge.

Aura got up and then put down the black nail polish she’d been using to repair the chipped paint on her fingers and toes. She went to the high countertop that was between the kitchen and her living room and she leaned on it a little. “Makes me hungry just thinking about it.” She smiled a little brighter. “Thanks.”

“Yeah, sure.” He finished putting them away and tossed the paper bags in the trash, leaning back against the sink opposite her. “Where do you normally go for the Fulness?” They hadn’t actually taken many opportunities to talk since he’d been there with her. It had just been him there when she got home and them falling asleep together every night.

“There’s um, a park nearby. It’s huge. There’s a lake in the middle and everything.” She looked at him for a moment then back at the refrigerator. “Should I make something to eat now, do you think? Are you hungry?”

“I actually went hunting this morning, so I’m alright. I was just planning on getting a nap before you got home.”

“Oh, okay.” She actually sounded a little disappointed, since she was a fairly good cook, but she went about it anyway, since she was hungry. She didn’t take what he had bought, though, since she didn’t know if he had plans for it or not. “I’ll keep quiet so I won’t bother you.”

“You don’t bother me.” He let her start getting busy cooking without saying much else, and eventually he started back towards the bedroom. “Oh, I wanted to let you know, while I was out hunting, I smelled another somebody around. I couldn’t find them, but there was definitely another wolf hunting on the outskirts of town, maybe earlier this morning, maybe a day old or so.” Nick had always been more the animal of the two of them, preferring to hunt and eat and live most of his time as a wolf instead of as a human. It was a personal preference among them, not some kind of natural impulse, and different people just had different tastes.

Aura nodded as she got started with some bacon on the stove. Breakfast any time of the day was always one of her favorite meals. As a human, anyway. Her favorites as a wolf were quite different. “I know. He came into my shop last week. I told him about my Fulness spot, so he should be there tonight, I think.”

She could almost feel the shift in his emotions from where she was in the kitchen, and a jealous note immediately found its way into his tone. “Who is he?”

Aura shrugged as she got out another pan to make some eggs in. “He’s just some wolf passing through, I think. He says that he never stays anywhere too long. After hours of suspicion and a finished tattoo, we kind of both discovered that we were hiding something. He seems like a really nice guy.” Aura grabbed several eggs out and then cracked them in a bowl and started stirring them, and then she added some seasoning so that they would taste just the way she liked them.

“What is he?” That was always the most important question with him, and there was an echo in his voice that reminded her of the endless time they’d spent together growing up. The prejudice they had toward other kinds of wolves was built into the way their pack lived, and Nick had embraced it much more fully than she ever had.

“It doesn’t matter.” She said firmly, but not with a tone of chastisement, she just wanted to remind him that they weren’t back with their pack. They were somewhere different.

“It does to me.” He went back into her kitchen, standing near the door to the hallway as though he needed to be closer to her to protect her.

Aura grabbed out yet another pan and pulled a bag of frozen hash browns out of the freezer. With a little oil in the bottom of the pan, she was well on her way to a very delicious breakfast. “He’s a Shadowborn.”

He couldn’t even respond to that at first, and his eyes went a little wide. “Are you sure? Shouldn’t he be out destroying a continent somewhere or something?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” She said simply as she flipped over the bacon like there was nothing out of the ordinary about a Shadowborn hanging around. “He was very kind and very quiet. I’m still here, aren’t I? I think I would know if he was that dangerous after he’d been under me for three hours.”

“Unde…” he stopped himself before he finished that particular exclamation, realizing what she meant and cutting himself off. “Whatever he is, he’d just better keep his wits about him tonight.”

“Honestly,” she finally said as she looked back at him for a moment. “I’m more worried about you.”

“Me?” He was confused by that, since he had never had a problem keeping himself sane during the forced change of the Fulness. And two years of wandering alone had made him even better at it. “Why about me?”

“We were never allowed to even see each other the day before the Fulness, never mind actually during the Fulness.”

With that kind of statement, he knew what she was worried about, and he backed away again slightly, putting his hands in his pockets as usual. “I’ll keep my distance if that’s what you want.”

Aura sighed and then focused on the meal she was making, all of it sizzling and filling the flat with a smell that turned a rented space into a home. “I keep telling myself that’s what I want.”

Nick stepped into the kitchen behind her as everything started bubbling and steaming, and put both hands on her waist from behind. “I’m not going anywhere.” He kissed the back of her neck once, and took in a deep breath of her scent as he held her.

The hand that wasn’t holding a spatula reached down and caressed the top of his left hand, since she didn’t want him to let go. “I’ve been going insane with you here.”

He held her a little more closely at that. “What kind of insane?”

She was quiet for a moment before she responded, since she wasn’t sure what she should admit to him. “Every night I’m curled up into you and it takes me hours to actually fall asleep. I kiss you every morning before I get up and leave.” She put down her egg-covered spatula on the countertop and then she turned to face him. “I keep telling you to leave but I can’t tell you how much I want you to stay.”

Nick kissed her at that, his hands sliding around to the small of her back to keep her close. “If I ever woke up before you, I think I might do the same.”

Aura actually let him pull her in, and she rested her head against his chest for a moment as she held tightly to him in return. “I want you so much. Do you feel as tempted as I do?”

“To tell you that, I would…have to know how tempted you are.” He said with a teasing look as he kissed her again with a slight moan. “But tempted is a good word for what I am.”

She reached up and ran her fingers across his piercings in his ear and then his eyebrow before she looked up into his eyes. Aura kissed him passionately and pressed up into him even more. The piercings elsewhere on their bodies created little jolts of power that leapt back and forth between them while the stud through her tongue made even her kisses taste like she was holding a penny in her mouth.

He wanted it to continue, wanted her to just leave the breakfast-for-lunch she was cooking to burn on the stove. Partially it was the approaching Fulness making him a little more wild than usual, but mostly it was just the fact that it was her. It was Aura, the woman he’d been looking for and dreaming about for most of his adult life. Even so, he tried to restrain himself, just because she had said she was worried about him being around at the moment.

Aura only pulled away from him for a moment to turn off every burner behind her so that some Fireborn didn’t show up out of the woodworks when the whole building went ablaze. Then she was immediately back up against him, actually kissing him with more fervor than before. Even though it was a risk to be near him since it was technically the first day of the Fulness, she couldn’t find it in her to care. Every kiss, every touch between them at that moment felt better than any other had in their young lives. They’d never been around each other during a Fulness in the past because of the threat that came with it. Male wolves could only impregnate a female during the Fulness, and though she was aware of the risk, she didn’t seem to care. They’d been intimate before, but she knew, from what they’d been told, that nothing was like being with another wolf during the Fulness. Both fortunately and unfortunately, she’d never had the opportunity to find out for herself.

They weren’t at home anymore. They had no rules binding them, no pack around them, and no intention of missing the opportunity that had presented itself.

**************

Much later that afternoon, with the sunlight fading outside the window, they finally settled back on the bed, which had curved into strange and twisted patterns over the course of the hours, but was now settling back into a flat sheet beneath them as they caught their breath.

Aura rested her head on his shoulder, as some of her hair stuck to the sides of her face and to his skin. She kissed the spot where his neck met his shoulder and she savored the salty taste of his skin. Her body was still buzzing with energy because of the sheet of metal beneath them, though she was plenty spent physically. “I want to do that again. That was incredible.”

“Yes, it was.” He sighed heavily and ran his fingers through her hair. “Now we know what everybody’s been talking about. Good gods almighty.” He was still shaking a little as he kissed her, and he wondered if he’d ever be able to think straight again for the rest of his life.

She laughed softly and then she kissed up to his lips again, her fingers trailing to the top of his shoulder opposite the side she was resting her head. “I think I dug my fingers a little deep.” There were scratch marks all over his shoulders and a few on his back. She hadn’t been expecting him to remember all the little things that made her crazy, but since he had, she hadn’t been able to control herself.

He didn’t mind the scratches in the slightest, and just kissed her again to make sure she knew it. It wasn’t the first time they’d been together, which was why he knew what she liked in the first place, though he hadn’t realized he remembered them quite THAT well. “Are you alright?”

Aura nodded and then kissed him again. “I’m difficult to break.” She sighed contentedly against his lips and then looked down in his eyes. His were always a little more on the brown side while hers were a little more on the green. “Are you worried?”

“I probably should be.” He kissed her again hungrily. “But I’m…just not.”

She ran her fingers across his forehead and then through his hair once, lightly, before she nuzzled the side of his neck with her tiny human nose. “It feels right, being with you.”

“That’s because it is.” He looked over at the window as it got darker, and then back at her. “We need to get down to this park of yours.”

Reluctantly, Aura nodded and then got up off of him. The sheet of metal moved to help her get out of the bed easily enough, and then she started to get dressed even though she knew it was essentially pointless. They would just have to take off their clothes again soon enough, and not precisely in the way she would have preferred at the moment. As she dressed, she pulled out the piercings that always fell out whenever she shifted, which left only her nose piercing, her tongue and her ears. The other earrings and rings that she wore she bunched into one piece of metal and formed into a chain that she then wore loosely around her neck. She liked her metal to stay with her at all times, and this way it would turn into some kind of loose collar that she could still wear as a wolf.

Nick followed her lead, but he just put on a pair of shorts and nothing else, since there wasn’t any point. He got out into the kitchen with her and started laughing at the bacon and eggs that were still sitting, partially burnt, in their now-cold pans on the stove, and started helping her clean up. “Do you usually come back here at all, or just run all three nights like we did back home?”

“I come back here.” She thought about the home he was talking about, and the fact that most of the female wolves there ran a completely different territory than the males. “I can’t risk someone spotting a wolf that has been lingering around the park for days. They’ll send animal control after us.”

“Yeah, I had that happen a few times.” He shook his head as his smile disappeared. “Staying in a kennel is far from my idea of a good time. I was in one for almost a month a little under a year ago. Damned wooden cages.”

She actually looked back at him with a very sad expression, hurt by the idea that someone would actually cage Nick up. Aura went up to him and gave him a gentle kiss. “I know the area, and I know what to watch out for. We’ll be alright, I think.” After she stuck the final dish into the dishwasher, she walked with him out of her place and then she locked the door by simply touching the handle and forcing the lock to act instead of using a key. “Come on, I’ll race you.”

“You’ll lose.” He started running off past her as they got out the door, and then had to stop to wait for her. “Except you actually know where you’re going and I don’t.”

Aura giggled and then took off as fast as she could, but in the end, he kept his eye on her and basically just ran beside her until he knew they were in the final stretch and he burst forward and beat her by the end. She was laughing as she bent over and held on to her knees, trying to catch her breath. “You…must’ve cheated…”

“I do more running than you do, sweetheart.” He was breathing heavy too, but not out of breath. He looked around at the park, which actually sloped down from the street into a huge hollow with the small pond at the bottom stretching out and away from them into the distance. The park was pretty large, as she’d said, and there was a lot of cover to be had, which he was happy for. “I like this place.”

She smiled and then straightened up to walk down further into the park. It was already getting dark, and so she looked back at him as they stopped on a manicured patch of grass. Aura was so caught up in Nick that she was hardly able to think of much else. “Let’s make a game out of finding each other.” The Fulness would force them to shift and remain in their wolf form until sunrise, but that didn’t mean that they had to fight the shift. They could change of their own accord and deny the moon a chance to force them. She started backing away from him with a grin as she pulled off her shirt, exposing her bra without even looking around to make sure they were alone. The park wasn’t that busy a place since most people were afraid of all the dark and secluded places the trees provided. “I’ll bet you won’t be able to find me.”

“Oh I think I will.” He dropped his shorts and tossed them up into a tree as high as he could get them, without a single shred of modesty in mind, though he was looking around the moment after to make sure no one was watching for what would come next. “I found you across a continent. I think I can find you in one little park.” He shifted the next moment, and as it always was when it was by choice, it was a seamless change. There was no long and involved process by which his features were replaced, or any kind of glowing light to announce the transformation. One moment he was human, the next he wasn’t. It was that simple. They were creatures of both worlds. Switching between the two came as naturally to them as blinking their eyes. With what passed for a wolf’s smile, he took off running through the underbrush, his dark fur blending in seamlessly and allowing him to disappear almost before she saw him finish changing.

Aura was thinking strategically when it came to their game, and so she created a path of her scent that would throw him off when he went looking for her. She undressed in pieces and left the clothes in random places so that he would think he had found her, but he would only find another piece of her clothing.

By the time she took off the last piece, she tossed her underwear onto a bench and then gasped when she turned around and saw Orlando standing not far away, up the path she was on. “O…Orlando.” She wasn’t ashamed of the fact that he was seeing her without her clothes on, since in wolf culture it was actually common, but he was drinking in the sight of her the way most wolves didn’t. It was almost like he hadn’t seen many disrobed women, and he couldn’t help but stare.

“I’m sorry…” he turned away quickly, already naked himself, but obviously not ashamed of his own nudity either. They looked like a couple of nudists trying to start their own colony. “It’s just not often you see a beautiful woman walking through the woods, especially not one stripping all the way like she’s putting on a show for the ficus.”

She actually laughed at that and then looked down at herself. “I, um, I forgot you were coming. I haven’t seen you since you were in the shop.”

“Sorry about that.” He said as he still didn’t look back at her, though she could see his eyes starting to glance her direction. From the angle where she was looking, she could see all his scars all over his back as well as the tattoo she’d just done for him, looking incredibly lifelike in the creeping darkness. “I meant to come by, but I got sick most of the first half of the week, so I figured that wouldn’t have gone well.”

Aura walked up a little closer to him. “You got sick?”

“Just for a few days.” Their kind didn’t get sick often by nature, though when they did, it tended to be something that was almost life-threatening. He finally looked back at her, keeping his eyes on hers, and she could see that he wasn’t wearing his contacts at the moment. His eyes were perfect pools of darkness, like the night around them. “How about you? How’ve you been?”

She actually looked back the direction that Nick had run off, knowing that he wouldn’t start looking until the feeling of the Fulness had settled into them. It was how their games had always been played, ever since they were little. Aura was captivated by Orlando’s eyes, since she’d so rarely seen any other color but those of an Ironborn and normal human eyes. Human eyes didn’t come in his color, though. “I’ve been okay. There’s, um, another wolf here with us too. He’s someone I’ve known from the pack I once belonged to. It’ll just be the three of us here.” Aura looked up at the sky and then back to his eyes, truly unable to get enough of looking into them. “It must be hard always have to hide such an important part of yourself. Your eyes are stunning.”

“Thank you.” He said quietly as he looked her over again, unable to really help himself. “You…all of you is stunning.”

Aura smiled, but her cheeks flushed a little at his compliment. “Come on, come play with us.” She nodded toward the middle of the park and then she shifted into the small, sandy-colored wolf that was the other part of who she was. The true part of herself, she would say. One moment she was standing next to him and the next her fur was brushing his leg.

He started walking with her down the hill, but he didn’t shift, which was something she couldn’t understand. Could he not do it? She knew Shadowborn existed, and she knew how rare they were as wolves went, but there wasn’t much else about them commonly known, just because it was so seldom anyone met one. Their legends weren’t much on specifics. Just the fact that they, more than any other kind of wolf, even Fireborn, had a reputation for destroying everything they touched.

After a few moments’ walk, though, she could feel the Fulness begin to pull at her, and Orlando stopped walking next to a bench, actually crumpling onto it with a look of pure agony across his face. The next few moments were visibly hard for him, though it was nothing like the pain that Hollywood had spent so long dreaming up for their race.

He was holding onto the metal bench as though it were some kind of lifeline for him, and Aura could see sparks actually flying between his skin and the metal supports for the seat over and over again, as though he was the center of the storm drawn on his back. The small arcs of lightning became so intense they actually lit the area around them for a moment as the pain intensified on his face. Finally, he cried out once in pain, and shifted into a black-furred wolf, laying half on the bench and half off. He fell off the bench and onto the brick walkway and started trying to get up, but she could see he was still in pain from the forced change, even if it was fading.

Aura went over to him and nuzzled the side of his neck, trying to encourage him to get up. She’d never seen anything so painful and she’d never really even known that their kind could go through such a struggle. All her life, she had been with wolves that were always surrounded by their element, and always kept strong because of it. There was no struggle, except for those who were newly turned, but even they didn’t go through as much pain as Orlando obviously just had. [_Are you alright? _]Her voice was concerned as it rang through his thoughts. In their wolf form they could speak that way, hear each other’s thoughts and stay connected by speaking into each other’s minds.

I will be. He answered, obviously embarrassed that she’d had to see what he went through, but his tone was grateful as well. [_I’m sorry. The Fulness has never been the easiest time for me. _]His voice actually sounded awkward, like someone who had just learned a language and was still wondering if they were using the right pronouns.

[_Don’t be sorry. I’m just glad you’re okay. _]She helped him up and then she brushed her fur against his, which sent little sparks of her power into his fur, though he couldn’t take it into himself. The Fulness was always an exhausting thing each day, since in their wolf form, they could only expend the power they gained from their own element, but they were never stronger than when they were in their wolf form.

As he walked, she could see tiny sparks lighting up the ground beneath his paws, though he didn’t twitch once. So…where is this friend of yours?

[I’m not sure yet. _]She growled playfully as she bumped into Orlando’s side. _We have to find him.

**************

Both Aura and Orlando decided to stick together since it was kind of a game where both she and Nick were trying to find each other first. She, however, was better at hiding than finding, so she decided to go up into a wooden structure that was on the playground and high enough up that she hoped to spot Nick from her hiding spot before he found her. She liked to win. Aura sat down near the entrance of the slide up on the third level of the structure and watched through a crack in the fence that kept kids from jumping off of such a height.

He could feel the excitement of the game in the air around her, just because she was that young and still a bit of a puppy at heart, even though she was thirty years old. Most wolves she knew of maxed out at about three hundred years old, so she was still very young in their culture. She looked over at Orlando several times as he sat there next to her, quiet as could be. Aura scooted closer to him and tried to poke his side with her nose to get him to cheer up a little bit. You seem so sad. The Fulness can be a lot of fun.

She could feel his weak answering smile, and he looked over at her with his unsettlingly-dark eyes for a moment before looking back through his own crack in the playpen’s walls. [_I’m sorry to be kind of a buzzkill. I’m not really accustomed to having others around during the Fulness anymore. _]She could feel him smile as he looked over at her and put a paw up to one of the metal screws in the wood, producing a spark that lit the small room for a moment. [_And I always lost at hide-and-hunt, especially at night. _]

[It’s hard to be alone. _]She sighed heavily looking at him with sympathy in even the eyes of her wolf form. _I miss so much about being with a pack.

[_You had a pack? _]He asked a little incredulously.

Aura nodded. [_Well, I wasn’t the leader or anything. I was just a part of it. _]That was pretty much bending the truth in every way she could, but no one could trust every wolf that they met. She couldn’t take the risk of him wanting to use her against her family, so she kept the details to herself.

[_I’m sorry you lost them. _]Since she was listening to him speaking directly into her mind, she could hear the veritable oceans of sympathy in his voice, since he couldn’t imagine anything worse than having a pack and then not being a part of it anymore.

Aura wasn’t really sure how to respond at first, since he seemed so sincere about his sympathy for her, but there was no reason for her to lie to a stranger. I left.

Oh. He was confused by that, but he also didn’t want to pry, since she didn’t seem to want to talk about it. [_Is that why we’re hiding from your friend? _]

Aura looked out through a crack, but she still didn’t see Nick anywhere. No, no, no. We’re just playing. I did hide from him for awhile, but he found me recently. _]She sniffed the air, but she didn’t smell Nick nearby either. He was either being especially sneaky or he was looking for her at the completely wrong end of the park. [_We were supposed to be Mated, but I couldn’t go through with it. We were born to be the culmination of hundreds of years of very careful breeding so that our pups would be eighth generation Ironborn. We are the first generation of Pure Ironborn that could possibly be recognized by The Council.

He looked at her in surprise, looking over the full length of her with obvious appreciation in his mind. That’s…quite a legacy. _]Yet he still seemed to know a little about what she meant when she spoke about her family. [_Were they kind to you? Your pack, I mean?

They weren’t cruel to me. But they were very controlling. Everything in my life was managed so that I wouldn’t get hurt or damaged somehow. The only reason I was able to get away that night was because they thought that they had finally found a way to leash me without an actual collar around my neck, through my Mating with Nick. He’s very devoted to the cause.

Having an Ironborn seat on the Council…He shook his head at the thought as he looked away again. [_That would certainly be something. _]The Council had always, in his understanding, been made up of one ruling member from each of the most prominent subsets of their race. His own kind, commonly known as Shadowborn, were rare enough that they weren’t thought to exist by some, much less have a dedicated seat, nor were Ironborn, since they were normally only found as turned wolves and never occurred unless turned or born to another Ironborn.

[_I know. I don’t know if I ever believed it could really be possible. The Council hates us. _]Aura looked away from Orlando as a pang of guilt stabbed at her. If she truly allowed herself to believe that Council would recognize her and Nick as legitimate, then she ruined more than she wanted to admit when she ran away.

I know I didn’t think it was possible. He said as his nose accidentally sparked against another screw in the wood and he flinched, pawing at his nose.[_ For an Ironborn to be seventh generation, I mean. _]

I’m sure a lot of people thought that way. _]She thought she heard something and so she looked out the crack again, but it was only a rabbit dashing across the grass and disappearing quickly into a bush. [_It’s not that I don’t think it would be an honor, but our pack doesn’t exactly leave room for the female like me to be free. My purpose would have been to give Nick an Ironborn heir and to support him in all things. And I just like causing too much trouble to give up my freedom for that.

[_What kind of trouble? _]

Sticking my nose in places where it doesn’t belong. Doing things that are against human law. Flirting with waaay too many boys. _]She let out a soft yip that passed for a giggle. [_I’m still young, and I do have feelings for Nick, but I’ve always had feelings for Nick. He has always driven me crazy and I’m pretty sure I love him, but most of that wasn’t a choice. I don’t think. I don’t know, really.

[_Well, something like that shouldn’t happen unless you’ve chosen it and you’re sure you’ve chosen it. _]He sounded like he had some idea of what he was talking about, but before he could say anything else, he nodded to the opening for the slide. [_Wolf on the hunt at ten o’clock. Apparently with a taste for rabbit. _]They both had a mostly-obscured view of Nick, a fairly large wolf with sandy blonde and dark brown fur that seemed to go in waves down his back, with the offending rabbit between his front paws as it became his midnight snack.

[_Thanks. I’m totally winning this one! _]She jumped up so that she was standing up on her hind legs with her front paws hanging over the edge of the fence around the slide. On her hind legs she was much taller than a little child. [_Gimme a push. _]It was high up, but she wasn’t afraid of getting hurt.

He gave her a look, then another look down at the ground, then got under her so that she could stand on his back, and stood up beneath her to put her up to the edge.

With his help she jumped over the edge and then tumbled once she hit the ground, landing very close to Nick and his prey. She barked playfully and then got up quickly and tackled him with a growl. I win!

Nick was actually surprised, and was laughing as she tackled him, rolling along the ground with her a few times until she pinned him down. Aren’t you a little old to be playing on a swing set?

Nope. _]She looked back at the slide and then barked a few times. [_Come on, Orlando! Whatcha waiting for?

Orlando came walking down the slide, which was a testament to how agile he was in the first place, that he could do so without sliding. He was looking at Nick the whole way down, and Nick had gotten up from underneath Aura, taking a half-step in front of her protectively. Orlando was bigger than he was, he could tell that much, but Orlando was a great deal skinnier and looked almost malnourished by comparison to Nick’s bulk.

She licked the side of Nick’s face and then stepped out in front of him. Orlando isn’t going to hurt me.

Orlando got a little closer, and nodded to Nick, but stayed far enough away that if he were pounced on, he’d have some warning. [_Just passing through. But it’s good to meet you anyway. _]

Likewise. Nick said without much friendliness in his tone, before turning back to Aura. Come on, they’ve got a walking track on the other side that’ll work perfectly for a racetrack.

That sounds like fun. _]Aura looked back at Orlando with her ears perked up. While she and Nick had eyes that were similar in color, hers were the ones that looked more lively. Hers were the ones that were warm and friendly toward Orlando, no matter what color eyes he had. She hadn’t once judged him or criticized him for what he was, even though she had been raised in a pack that did nothing but criticize the world because of the way that they had always been shunned by others. [_You coming?

[_Sure. _]He said as he started off along with them, but he still kept his distance. The two of them were obviously together in every way, and he knew he was the outsider at the moment, so he didn’t try and intrude.

Nick didn’t give him a second look as they trotted across the park, but when they did get to the walking track, he went to the asphalt and looked over at Orlando, attempting to make some kind of effort, since he seemed to be a friend of Aura’s. How fast are you, Shadowborn?

Orlando’s reaction was subdued, and he actually shrugged. Fast enough, I suppose.

Nick is actually faster than me, _]Aura said to Orlando, ready to play, [_but I’m pretty darn good, if I do say so myself. Wanna race?

Nick bristled a little, but stepped back, heading further down the path. [_Sprint or cross-country? Lady’s choice. _]Nick added with a tone of chivalry that was just as instilled in him as his views on the rest of the wolves in the world.

Hm. _]She looked back at Nick. [_What should we do?

He knew she was faster over short distances. It was the only way that she ever beat him in a race, so he gave her a silent smile. [_I’d say sprint. I haven’t seen you run in a while. _]

Aura danced around on the track a little before she started moving toward the starting line. Nick, you watch the finish line! I’m gonna win!! _]She kept moving further back with Orlando and bumped into him again with a playful growl. [_Racing’s no fun unless there’s something on the line. Are you much for gambling?

Orlando clearly wasn’t quite as playful, still looking around the park constantly to make sure they were alone, which they were, but he smiled as he joined her, crouching low on the starting line as he stretched. What are your terms?

Hm…She crouched low as well. If I win you have to come hang out with us for awhile. Live in my place and power my hairdryer. _]She yipped again with giggles. [_If you win, I’ll give you two more tattoos of your choosing. Anytime. Anywhere.

That actually made him laugh. [_I could power your hair dryer for a year with a sneeze. I couldn’t take that bet, it wouldn’t be fair. Does your place have solar panels on it? _]It was something he’d seen a fair bit of around town, which made things a great deal easier for a wolf like him, since he couldn’t exactly plug himself into a lightning rod and hope for a storm every day to keep him alive.

Yeah. _]She rolled her eyes, which made him laugh since it was an incredibly human expression on a wolf face. [_My landlady’s an eco-nut, so she keeps the building all new and modern.

[_Good. Then if you win, I’ll take care of your electric bill for the month. It’ll take me a grand total of about five minutes. _]As opposed to her tattoos, which would undoubtedly take hours.

[_You’re that eager to get out of here, huh? _]And then she took off running with a bark.

Even though she got an unfair few paces’ head start on him, he was a bigger wolf, with a longer stride than she had, and he took off after her with a speed that even surprised Nick as he watched from a few hundred yards away. His paws were moving so fast along the pavement that it looked like he was walking on a constant carpet of flying sparks, and Nick actually took a step backward as he watched. He’d heard of Shadowborn all his life, but actually seeing one in flight confirmed every legend he’d ever heard about them. A creature like that wasn’t safe. Could never be safe, no matter how gentle he appeared.

Aura tried to run faster, but there was a limit to her strength, even for a creature built to be incredible. In a last ditch attempt to win, she launched herself at Orlando, causing them to tumble together past Nick into a bush.

His power reached out and shocked her over almost her entire body at once, making her limbs twitch uncontrollably as they spun through the bushes. As they rolled, the bush behind them actually caught fire from a few of his sparks, but they were on the other side of it before it began to spread.

[_Aura!!! _]Nick’s voice shouted in her mind, and she could feel Nick growling as he ran to get around the other side of the bush to get to her.

Aura knew how crazy it made her, but even as Orlando’s sparks singed her fur, she liked it. It gave her a dangerous thrill that she hadn’t felt in a long time, and the feel of his power rushing through her fur combined with the brilliance of the light and the fire was intoxicating. The fire burned behind them as she laid on top of him for a moment longer, with Nick behind them still trying to make sure she was okay as he tried to extinguish the fire to get to her. Aura looked into Orlando’s eyes instead of running away, still enthralled by the whole experience of it.

The sparks died as he got control of it again, but Orlando answered her look with one of surprised fun himself, before Nick finally broke through the flames simply by jumping through the last of the fire to land near them. [_Are you alright? _]The look in his eyes was a little murderous as he looked at her on top of Orlando as she was, even if Orlando’s paws weren’t even on her.

She jumped up off of Orlando and then shook off her fur before she looked over at Nick innocently. Did I win?

I’m… Nick had clearly switched out of playful mode at the first sign of fire, but attempted to switch back as he heard her tone, though he was still looking back and forth between her and Orlando a few times every second. _I think you did, actually. Since you kind of tossed him off the path before he crossed the finish line. _

That actually made Orlando laugh, still lying on his back on the ground. [_So that’s how races go in your pack? The dirtiest player wins by disqualifying the others? _]

Nick took a single instantly-offended step in Orlando’s direction, already starting to bare his teeth, but then Aura went up and nuzzled the side of Nick’s neck to try and snap him out of it. [He didn’t mean it as an insult, he was just teasing. _]She looked back at Orlando and then she growled as well, but hers was a playful growl. _Yep. Dirtiest player wins.

[_Guess that means the electric bill’s on me, then. _]Orlando said as he got up and shook himself off.

Nick did back off at Aura’s insistence, but looked at the bush nearby. Come on, we’ll need to get out of here before somebody sees that and calls somebody. This park is going to be full of fire trucks pretty soon.

[We’re not useless. Come on, we can put it out. _]She went closer to the fire and then turned so that she could kick dirt back onto it. _You males would be useless without me around.

Orlando joined in, digging into the ground and showering dirt on the bushes quickly, but there were still a few spots that just wouldn’t go out, so he tossed himself onto the fire to put it out bodily. Only a few sparks remained, which he managed to extinguish in a second round of rolling over it. It singed his fur, but his fur was black in the first place, so it didn’t show that badly.

She met Orlando’s eyes again for a moment afterward, using her tail to brush off some of the dirt and ash from his fur. Thanks for helping me.

[_Yeah, sure. _]He looked around again, making sure no one was coming at the sight of the bit of smoke the fire had raised.

[_Come on. _]Nick said as he started back toward the path that they’d rolled off of. [_It’s you and me next. Cross country. _]

Orlando looked over at Aura almost apologetically for a moment, but went over to the path with Nick anyway, taking the spot on the other side of him from Aura. [_Where to? _]

The path loops around this part of the park. Let’s say one full lap?

_Fair enough. _

Aura backed away slightly so that she could be out of the way when they started to run. Are you guys ready?

[_What are your terms, Ironborn? _]Orlando said only to Nick, his tone quiet without being submissive.

He’d known the question was coming, and he didn’t hesitate to answer. I win, you work your magic on the electric bill and move on. I’ve got no quarrel with you, He added quickly, giving Orlando a look that was supposed to be courteous, if not kind, [_nor with any like you, but Aura and I have a lot of work ahead of us, and having you around won’t make that any easier. _]

[_So I’ve heard. _]He said with a nod that he knew Nick was likely to misinterpret as compliance. In truth, he was really only agreeing with the part where he’d said that he and Aura had a lot of work ahead. [_If I win, then you help me find an apartment here in town. I haven’t had much luck on my own just yet. _]

Nick didn’t answer that, just looked back at Aura. [_We’re ready. _]He was far too pride-and-honor minded to start without warning or before she said so, and so he just dug his claws into the pavement and waited for her signal, Orlando doing the same beside him.

She twirled around once and then barked loudly, since she loved a good race. GO!

The two of them raced past her at a steady pace, neither of them expending themselves completely in a sprint, but going quickly enough to keep up with the other. They didn’t speak, but both did a fair deal of growling as they made their way down the path out of Aura’s sight.

Once they were around a curve away from her, they started bumping and nipping at each other, trying to shove and side-swipe the other off the path. There was a section of the path that ran right up beside a chain-link fence, and Orlando found himself pinched between Nick and the links of it that were reaching out towards him like magnets pulling themselves toward their master. Sparks flew between him and the fence freely, and as he ran past it, the entirety of the fence was electrified, until they peeled away down the path and Orlando actually managed to get a lead on Nick.

More than halfway around, Nick got a solid swipe at Orlando’s hind legs and tripped him up, but the black wolf fell into Nick’s way in a tumble, catching Nick with a swipe square in the jaw that sent him tumbling off the path, bleeding from the chin. The Fulness was running high in their blood from the exhilaration of the race, and for a moment, the race was forgotten as the two men pounced and scratched at each other in a whirlwind of fur. Nick, however, was quickly put at a disadvantage because every time he took a swipe at Orlando, his muscles started twitching in response to the arcs of electricity jumping through his body.

Finally, Orlando managed to get his teeth around Nick’s neck, and power shot through his whole body, making him convulse violently. No matter what Nick was trying to tell his muscles to do, they wouldn’t respond, just flopping around without dignity in the sand they’d landed in. Finally Nick lay still just to keep from embarrassing himself further, though he was growling furiously between Orlando’s teeth.

But as Orlando forced him to the ground, his teeth didn’t even break the skin, and after a moment’s pause, he let Nick go, and took off again down the path.

Aura paced up and down the side of the track as she waited, and she was actually surprised to see Orlando, far, far down as a little black speck heading her way.

Nick was running flat-out behind him, though Orlando clearly had a few yards’ lead. She could see Nick try and break into a full sprint several times, but no matter how fast he ran, Orlando was faster. Nick didn’t even get within biting distance again the rest of the race, and Orlando won with almost a full body length between them, walking off the race in a slow half-circle off the track, facing Nick and panting heavily.

Nick had the decency to cross the finish line with a nod at Orlando, though he was still glaring. You’re a fast one, I’ll give you that.

[_You have your nature, I have mine. _]Orlando answered with a nod. _And when you spend most of your life running to stay alive, you learn to run pretty fast. _

Aura went up to Nick and licked the side of his face, acting more like a Mate or a girlfriend than she had all night. When she had seen Orlando running down that path, there was something that made a spark of interest ignite within her. Aura realized that he looked as wild as she wished she could be, and she found herself wanting the adventure, the rush that he would provide. It scared her that she even had a flicker of a conscious desire for Orlando, and so she overcompensated by being even more affectionate with Nick. That was quite the race.

[_Yes, it was. _]Nick agreed, with an answering brush to her own fur, though his tone was a great deal darker than hers. [_I don’t suppose you know of any apartment vacancies around town? _]

Orlando was keeping his distance, using a bush to get the dirt off his fur, but Aura could feel him smile anyway.

Aura helped brush Nick off and then looked back at Orlando for a moment, but she didn’t understand why Nick was asking. Was he trying to say that he was going to find a more permanent place since she kept threatening to kick him out just to keep herself from running back to the pack with him? Um, there are some open apartments on my floor…

She could feel Nick’s heart sink a little at that, and she saw his mouth curl up slightly in a sneer, but Orlando turned around quickly enough to distract her from the sight. Does your landlady ask many questions if you pay your rent in cash?

[_No. She doesn’t come around much, but it’s a really nice place in a good neighborhood. I pay in cash. _]Since that was pretty much how she got all of her tips and most of her payments from Artie. [_I didn’t know you were interested? _]She looked back over at Nick, her eyes showing her confusion about Orlando staying around.

[_I think I might be. _]Orlando said with a shrug. [_At least for a little while. It’d be nice to sleep in the same bed two nights in a row for once. _]

She stayed next to Nick, but her tail wagged a little with excitement. She was very happy about the fact that not only was Nick around, but that there would be another wolf too. Aura was so tired of being alone, and anyway, she wanted to learn more about Orlando. Even if it did scare her a bit. It’ll be fun. _]She gave a short bark. [_Lots of fun. Come on, let’s go get something to eat, I’m starving!

The two men looked at each other for a moment before Orlando spoke up. [_There’s good fox-hunting on the outskirts of town. If you’re fast enough. _]Orlando put in that slight jab with a quiet smile, which Nick very nearly growled at, but didn’t answer.

Aura took off before the both of them, since her stomach was growling louder than Nick was. She was fairly oblivious to whatever was going on between them, and so she turned it into another game. You both are going to go hungry tonight if you don’t keep up!

They shared a final glare as they ran off after her, Nick right at her side, Orlando at a slight distance, no longer throwing challenging looks at Nick. Instead, he was just watching Aura run, and just the fact that he was actually running with other wolves made him feel more comfortable than he had in what seemed like a lifetime.

V

That Fulness was the most fun Aura had had in the years that she had been gone from her pack, and she was exhausted but grinning as she woke up to the sun breaking through the window that was actually on her ceiling. She lived on the top floor, and she loved it, but she knew that if the sun was waking her up from overhead, that meant that they had slept until at least a little after noon. They had turned in pretty much as soon as their bodies were able to turn back into their human forms, and she rolled into Nick with a giggle. Aura kissed the side of his cheek and then poked at his sides to wake him up. “Hey, you. Come on, get up.”

“Mmmm…” he groaned as he turned with her, flinching since her touch tickled. “Fimoreminiss…”

She scooted in closer and then ran her fingers up and down his bare chest. “Five more minutes? No way!”

He still didn’t open his eyes. “You got awful bossy, you know that?” He was teasing, though, since he was pulling her in closer even as he said so.

Aura kissed him passionately and then bit down on his bottom lip playfully before she spoke. “This is the first time in days that I haven’t been too tired during the day to even move while in my human form. Now I can touch you and I like it.” She giggled again. The Fulness always left her feeling giddy after she had recovered a bit, like she was new and fresh for another month.

Nick, on the other hand, just felt drained, and the metal sheet they called a bed was far too comfortable for him to want to even attempt to move. “You go on and touch. I have no problems with that.”

She pushed him onto his back again and she sat on top of his stomach as the steel beneath them moved like water and then wrapped around his arms to pin them down. Aura knew that he could fight metal with metal, but she also knew that he was too tired to fight back. She kissed down his chest and then back up to his lips. “I’m so glad you found me. Fulnesses have been about hiding ever since I left, and this time it was so much fun. I loved every second.”

He opened his eyes at that and smiled up at her. “I’m glad you had fun.” He ran his fingers along the metal that was holding his arms down, knowing she would feel the caress as though it was against her own skin. “Nothing should be about hiding. Not from other wolves, anyway. And certainly not from me.”

Aura leaned down and kissed the center of his chest before she rested her head against it and listened to his heartbeat. “Do you ever wonder what it might have been like if we hadn’t been born into the pack we were born into?”

He managed to move enough to kiss the top of her head, sighing sadly. “I’ve thought about it, yeah. We’d be like every other Ironborn in the world.” He paused and kissed her again before continuing. “Wanderers, probably ostracized from any pack we would’ve been born into, or stuck trying to hide what we are on our own against the rest of the world. The pack we were born into kept us safe from all that.”

“They kept everyone else safe.” Bitterness that she hadn’t intended to reveal crept back into her tone with the declaration. “We were still ostracized. In a place where we should have belonged.”

“There’s a difference between ostracized and well-cared-for.” They’d had the same disagreement more than once over the years, since he didn’t mind the preferential treatment they had always received. He had never really understood why she hated it so much. They were special. They had special roles to fulfill. It shouldn’t have been any surprise to her that their people treated them as such.

“Do you remember when I was seven? I fell from a tree in my back yard and the next morning, the tree was gone.” She sighed and her warm breath danced along the top of his chest. “Or when I was twelve and I got the chicken pox, and they made my own mother leave so that only the best healer could come in and make sure I would be okay. I was only twelve and they wouldn’t let my own mother take care of me because she had allowed me to be exposed in the first place. She didn’t know.” Aura finally lifted up her head and rested her chin on the middle of his chest so she could look up at him. “Or when I was sixteen and they caught me with Ziem, and they banished him for touching me when I told him he could?” There were a lot of things that had happened with Ziem, a close friend of hers, but all of them were things that she’d wanted intensely at the time.

“It was better than what I would’ve done with him if I’d gotten the chance, I can tell you that much.” He shrugged slightly, and laid his head back down to look up at the skylight in her ceiling. “We’re important, Aura. Whether we asked for it or not. Why do you think your parents gave you the name they did?”

“I don’t care why they did. And I was sixteen. So what if Ziem wanted to touch me and I wanted to kiss him? So what? No one punished Allie when you were kissing her in the middle of a scrap pile.”

“They didn’t…really have to.” He said sheepishly. “Her parents scared her so badly after that encounter that she never came anywhere near me again. Not that I wanted her to.” He looked back at her with a shrug. “I only did that because I wanted to see what being with somebody else would be like. And it was pretty much exactly like my dad warned me it would be.”

Any mention of his father was enough to make Aura frown, but she was too curious not to ask. “What was his warning?”

“That it would never be as good as being with someone you love.” He shrugged slightly and freed his hands from the metal that had bound them so he could rest them on her waist. “He was right.”

She sighed as she looked down into his eyes and felt his hands on her skin. Did it mean that she didn’t love him because she had enjoyed the moments with Ziem? How was anyone sure that they loved someone, anyway? Aura leaned down and then kissed him gently. “How did you know? That you loved me?”

“I don’t know.” He said frankly. “It’s not something you really ever know, I think. It’s past knowing, as my mom would say. Like you don’t know the sky is blue, it just is. Knowing or feeling doesn’t change the fact that it is, just whether you’re actually thinking about it or feeling it at that particular moment.”

Aura ran her fingers along the muscles in his arm and then she kissed the bars in his eyebrow, which sent a shock of power through him. She then looked down into his eyes as she thought about what he said and how she felt. She was pretty sure she loved him, but there were so many things that just didn’t match up. “You and I want different things.”

He pulled her back down for another kiss before he answered, his tone gentle. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I want over the last two years. And what you might have wanted differently the night you ran away. And I don’t think that’s it.” He ran his hands up and down her back as he settled himself to be a little more comfortable there beneath her. “I think we want the same things, we just want them in different ways. I want to be able to change things, to make things better, for both of us. I want to be able to run into another pack when I’m traveling and not worry about them coming after me and hunting me without repercussions.” Which, under current laws, almost any other pack could, since Ironborn weren’t really considered full-blooded and therefore fully-protected wolves under Council Law. “I want to be free. The same as you do.”

Aura shook her head. “But we’ll never be free like we are right now. Ever. You want to be free by helping our entire race and sacrificing us in the process. If I ever went back, I would just be useful because I could give you Pure puppies. Everywhere we went we were watched. Guards outside the door no matter what time, day or night, no matter what you’re doing, sleeping or making love. That’s not a life.”

He put a hand up to her cheek and touched it more gently than a creature that thrived on the harsh edge of metal should have been able to, caressing her skin like a perfectly polished expanse of steel. “I’m not after you for the amount of pureborn puppies you can give me, Aura.”

Aura’s heart pounded loudly in her chest. He was being so kind and so caring that it made her heart soar. “You know I love you too, don’t you?”

“I know.” He kissed her with a smile, but it faded slightly. “I meant what I said that night before you left. I want you. But I also think we could do a great deal of good for our people at the same time.”

She sighed and then started kissing him more and more since she didn’t want to talk about going back. It still wasn’t really an option to her. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t have to know.” He returned her kisses with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, which unfortunately wasn’t much. “One thing we have plenty of is time. There’s no rush. Never was.”

“That’s not what they think. The longer we wait, the longer it takes before The Council accepts us.” Aura said sharply, since she knew that was certainly what Nick’s father thought.

“I’m not talking about what they think. I’m talking about what I think. What we think.” He took in a deep breath, which raised her body a good bit, and then actually sat up a little, as the bed raised itself behind him until they were lying at an angle. “If we go before the Council, and present ourselves as pureborn, claim our rightful place and our rightful power beside them, then we will be the ones who take the seat, either you or I. We will be the ones in control.” Which was what she wanted so badly, wasn’t it?

“I don’t know, Nick…”

“Like I said, you don’t have to know.” He kissed her again for a long time, pulling her down with him as he wrapped the steel around her back to hold her there with him. “There’s time.”

Aura hugged him tightly for a long time, just enjoying the moment until her alarm went off, letting them know that it was 1:30 in the afternoon. She groaned because she didn’t want to get up, but then she kissed him lightly and went about getting up off the bed. The day before while she was in hr human form, she’d called her landlady for Orlando and gotten him a really nice apartment on her floor relatively cheap. “I told Carol that I’d help her by helping Orlando get settled. I have to give him his key and everything.”

Nick wasn’t particularly happy about that, but he didn’t get up afterwards with her and just watched her get ready. “Which one did he end up getting?”

“The one at the end of the hall. Four doors down.” She pulled on her clothes quickly so she wouldn’t be late. “You’re the one that wanted me to help him.”

“I know.” He said quickly, to stave off any further fighting about it. “Do you know if he has much to move in?”

“I don’t think so. I can run out, give him his key and help for a bit and then run back and hopefully you’ll be able to get up from bed by then. Cuz you can’t even lift a feather right now.” Aura said with a teasing grin.

“You know, I really can’t.” He managed to roll over onto his side to look at her, but that was all the energy he had. “You were always the strong one.”

Aura walked over to the bed again and kissed him passionately before she whispered into his ear. “I love you. I’ll be back just in time to tickle-attack you again.”

“I surrender. Before you even start, I surrender.”

She giggled and then wrapped him back up in the steel bed to help him stay nice and comfortable. Aura then looked back and smirked at him as she rushed around to finish getting dressed, and by the time she was actually fully clothed, Nick was already fast asleep. Aura was still putting her shoes on when she hopped out of her apartment and down the hall.

When she got to the top of the stairs, she saw Orlando already on his way up with some luggage. She tapped the metal railing a few times to make it hum and catch his attention, and then she waved at him. “Hey!”

“Hey.” Orlando said with a quiet smile, pulling a backpack a little higher up on his shoulder. He was carrying one large backpack that was made for going camping, and a duffel bag that had a number of noticeable holes in it. “Sorry I’m a little late.” He said with an obvious excuse behind his apology that he just as obviously didn’t want to go into. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting.”

“Nope, you’re just on time as far as I’m concerned.” She grinned and then motioned down the hall just past her door to where his apartment was. Aura took out the keys and then opened the door for him. “I hope you don’t mind, I put some of my extra stuff in here to get you started. Just some old stuff that I wanted to get out of storage anyway.” There was black couch and a coffee table in the middle of the living room, as well as a smaller TV, but it still looked fairly new. In the kitchen there was also a table and chairs, though the chairs were all mismatched.

There were little things too, though. Paintings on the wall, a few books in an otherwise empty bookcase. There was even an air freshener plugged into the wall that smelled like pine, since that was the only other smell that she missed about home, even though she wasn’t a Forestborn or anything. “There’s also a bed, but I didn’t know if you sleep in real beds or not.” Since she obviously didn’t, and most other varieties of wolf that she knew of certainly wouldn’t. “And I stocked the fridge, but if you don’t like what’s in it, then you don’t have to eat it.”

Orlando looked around the apartment wide-eyed for a while, then looked down at his bags with a sheepish expression, since she’d stocked the place with more than he had owned in a very long time. “I…gracias really doesn’t begin to cover it.” He put his pack down next to the couch, and she could see tent poles sticking out of it, along with a very thin sleeping bag, all well-packed. He’d obviously been living out of those bags for quite some time. “And yes, I do sleep in beds sometimes, or I prefer to, anyway. Though if they ever find a way to make a mattress out of an electrical current, I’ll be first in line to buy it.”

“I’ll keep my eye out for one.” She giggled and then gave him a little more of a tour, where he was able to see the massive bed covered in black sheets and blankets. The bathroom was also already stocked with towels and some toiletries to get him through until he bought whatever he wanted to buy. “I tried to keep stuff black for you.” She figured burn-marks were probably a part of his daily life, and she had guessed right if his bag was any indication. At least with black, the burns would blend in better. When they ended up in the living room/kitchen (since they were only distinguishable by where the carpet ended and the tile and countertops began) she went over to the refrigerator. She pulled out a small chocolate cake and then grabbed some forks out of one of the drawers. “I made you a cake as a housewarming present.” She grinned brighter and then held out a fork for him. “I hope you like chocolate.”

He held out his hand under hers for her to drop the fork in and smiled when she hesitated. “Little safer this way.”

Aura raised an eyebrow and then held on to the fork. “I’m not afraid.”

He took the fork from her with an expected jolt, and held her hand for a moment afterwards to keep her steady. “You should see the problems I have in the wintertime with static.”

She just smiled and then shook her head as she held on to his and a little longer than she needed to before she let go and grabbed her own fork. She pushed the cake toward him so that he would take the first bite. “Lemme know how it turned out.”

He cut off one bite and held it up for a moment with a smile. “You know, whoever created us, or wherever we came from, there are a few things I’m glad got left out of the deal. The whole chocolate being lethal thing is one of them.” He took a bite and nodded. “That…is the best cake I’ve had in a long time.”

Aura giggled and then dug her fork in as well and took a big bite. It really was great cake. She’d gotten the recipe from Bree, since Bree had made it for Trevor’s most recent birthday. “Good, I’m glad.” She said through her only half-eaten bite, which made it sound muffled and she had to cover her mouth as she giggled so she wouldn’t spit it out. It made her feel like an impolite little kid, but she didn’t care.

Orlando took a few more bites in comfortable silence, just enjoying the cake and the feeling of being in a place that was more or less his own, with four walls around him and a roof over his head. “So do you do this for all your clients? Is that why you’re the most-recommended tat artist in town?”

She finished up another bite and then shook her head. “No way. I’m not this nice to anyone else. I just haven’t been around other wolves in such a long time that I can’t help but enjoy the company.”

“Humans make for nice enough company most of the time.” He said with a shrug. “As long as they’re not overly observant, anyway.”

“I guess.” She sighed. “But there are so many fun things about being a wolf that they never know. And if they did know, they’d hunt you down with their guns and leave you to rot.”

“Yes, well…they have to catch you first.” He took another bite to avoid elaborating on that particular topic.

“I wasn’t expecting that humans would react that way when I first ran away.” Aura pulled down her sleeve to expose her shoulder a little more, right where her collarbone ran. There was a scar there, clearly left by a bullet. Normally she didn’t scar, but she’d left the wound exposed too long, and it left a scar as a result. “The guy thought I was crazy for laughing.” Since to her, getting shot was both painful and pleasurable, so laughing had resulted. “He saw me shift and shot me once I was a human again. Crazy old man.”

He couldn’t help but laugh a little as well at that image. “I had never really thought about it that way. I guess that would be…kinda fun for your kind. You’d make great police officers.”

She shrugged and then pulled up her sleeve again. “It felt good but it still hurt. Nothing ripping through your skin like that can feel good.” She went and got a couple of mismatched cups out of his cupboard and then grabbed some milk and poured them each a glass. She chugged hers with enthusiasm, since it went so well with the cake. “I hope you like it here.”

“I’m pretty sure I already do.” He sipped from the glass she gave him, and looked back at his bags. “I just hope the utility company’s hiring.”

“Just don’t take no for an answer. They’d be lucky to have someone like you working for them, even though they wouldn’t understand why.” She said with encouragement in her voice. She really did want him to stay around awhile.

“The time off is the hard thing to come by. But as long as I can swing a day shift and not be on call all the time, I usually manage pretty well. You’ve got a really good thing going at that tattoo parlor, seems like.”

Aura nodded and then jumped up to sit on the counter. “I know. It’s pretty awesome, since they were the ones that turned it into a joke.”

“I’ve never tried actually turning it into a joke. I might have to try that this time around.” That kind of regular time off always seemed to have a way of getting back to somebody before. He took a sip and then shook his head to get rid of the darker flow of conversation. “So now that your friend Nick is back, what do you think you’re gonna do? About the Council and all?”

She sighed and then looked away from him, over toward his living room. “I don’t know. I care about him a lot, but it’s still not enough for me to want to commit myself to something like that. I didn’t ask for it.”

“Always seems to shake out that way, though, somehow.” He shrugged, setting his fork down on the plate with the cake. “Let’s say for a second you did go. What do you think would happen? I mean if they recognized Ironborn finally and gave you or Nick a seat on the Council. What do you think would happen afterward?”

“Then we’d go back to our pack, since the Council would be watching us. We’d be under even more pressure to Mate, since we’d be the only ones Pure enough to really be recognized by the Council. Only one of us could take the seat if we were Mated and then we would have to wait for another seventh generation to fill the other seat.” She found the lessons they’d been taught as children coming back to her memory far more easily than she liked. “Nick is the next Alpha male, but…his father is still young. He’s still got at least half his life ahead of him, and I couldn’t stand living under his father’s rule. His father knows just what to say to make me seem worthless next to Nick.”

“But if Nick was made a Council member, or you were, wouldn’t that make one of you the Alpha of your pack?” He asked with real curiosity, since he had never lived in a pack setting, so he really didn’t understand the rules.

“Yes and no. Technically, yes, Nick would be the Alpha, then, since he would be the only recognized leader. But he hangs on his father’s every word, and he and I don’t know how to lead a pack. We’ve spent half of our lives hiding from it.”

“So then he, or you, would let his father run the pack, and you two could do whatever you want.”

“That’s really not how it would happen. Nick’s father is very…old-fashioned. He likes to think of females as property. He would view me as Nick’s property and expect me to act accordingly. Anyway, I’m thirty. How am I supposed to know if I even want to Mate with Nick? I haven’t had enough fun yet.” She said as she tried to steer the conversation away from the heavy topics.

That made him laugh, but for their kind, thirty might as well have been just out of puberty. “So what else is on the fun list for you, then?”

“I don’t really know yet. I like my job and the way things are going right now. It’s okay for now.” Aura knew that was part of where her problem was, so she was silent for a moment. She wanted more without knowing what more she wanted. So instead of answering, she changed the subject. “What about you? Do you have plans for fun?”

“Fun was never really high on my list of priorities.” He said with a shrug. “I’d like to try and get some money saved and have something for emergencies tucked away in a bank somewhere. Maybe get some new clothes.” He smiled quietly. “That’d be a welcome change.”

“Hm.” She said as she jumped down off the counter and then she stood in front of him, looking him up and down as though she was measuring him. After a few looks, she grabbed him by the arm and then led him back into his room, with a wafting scent of pine that followed after them. She then positioned him right in front of his closet and then she opened it up ceremoniously. Inside were several changes of clothes, new clothes, not used like everything else in the place. “I guessed your size. I hope everything fits.” Mostly it was just shirts and jeans, but there were some jackets too.

She could actually feel the power under her fingers humming as she held onto his arm, like she was holding onto a power line that was actually buzzing against her skin. Just that small contact made the hair on her arms stand on end, and it only buzzed stronger as he took in everything in the closet. Finally, when he judged himself able to speak again, he looked down at her slowly. “You realize of course that now I have to pay your electric bill for a year instead of a month, right?”

Aura shrugged. “Metal loves me. And I’ve got a lot of metal saved. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is for my kind to find the shiny stuff to pay the bills. Don’t worry about it.”

Orlando’s gaze didn’t let up, though, his dark eyes intense as they looked down into hers. “Why did you do all this?”

Aura shrugged again, and she looked away feeling a little embarrassed since she probably had gone too far, but she finally answered softly. “When I ran away from home, no one would help me. No one. People who I thought might be wolves were that much more cruel to me, and humans who accidentally saw me as a wolf chased after me.” She sighed and then let go of his arm as she looked back toward the one window, and then she started walking slowly toward it. “I had to sell off most of the things that were precious to me just to survive at first, and I swore if I was ever in a position to help, then I wouldn’t let someone suffer like I had to.”

He looked after her a moment, then walked up behind her and put his hands on her arms in a brief hug. “My own parents never gave me as much in my whole life as you have in ten minutes.” With two of his hands on her arms, she could feel a very different sensation than came from just touching him. Rather than just a spark from the contact, she could feel his power moving through her, making her into a living circuit between his hands. The power didn’t stay, but it made everything seem sharper, every breath a little shallower and harder to take because the air itself seemed infused with energy.

It was so strange, to feel his energy through her body, since she was so used to only sharing with someone who was an Ironborn. Someone whose power was just like hers, and so it felt familiar. But Orlando’s certainly wasn’t familiar, and that was what made it exciting. She turned around in the touch and hugged him back. “I’m glad…I could help.”

Orlando held her hesitantly, though he knew he wasn’t likely to break her. He just didn’t want her to think he was trying to make more out of the hug than she was. “Is there anything that I can do for you? Besides the electric bill, I mean?”

She shook her head and then let go of the hug as her warm smile returned and she looked up into his eyes. “Nah, I think I’m okay.” She stepped back and put space between them, since she knew she needed to. What was she thinking? Why was she so interested in him? “You could tell me something, though.”

“Sure. What do you want to know?”

“Do you think that I should do it? Go to the Council?”

He smiled as she asked the question, and backed up to sit on the bed, bouncing a little to test the mattress. “I think it’s a big decision, and it’s a hard one either way. And I don’t envy you for having to make it.”

Aura glared at him, but she was smirking as well. “That’s not helpful at all!”

He returned her smirk. “I never said I was much good at helping.” He settled back further on the bed, looking around at the sheets and pillows appreciatively. “I think you have a huge opportunity to do good. To change things for your people.” He shrugged, as his smile disappeared somewhat. “My kind will never have the opportunity you have. I will never be protected under the laws of the Council, because there have never been enough Shadowborn to assert our own rights. All of us have the same kind of life. Shadowborn, Ironborn, Heartborn…” he shook his head, “they call us the strongest or the weakest of the wolves, but there are never enough of us to prove it one way or another. You have the chance to change that. Not just for your pack, either, but for every turned wolf who turns Ironborn and for all those turned wolves’ Ironborn children. You can make that difference.”

She smirked once and folded her arms. “You sure you’re an electrician and not a politician? I’m having doubts after a speech like that.”

He grinned and held up his hands innocently. “I’m just here to keep the lights on, mi princesa, not to run for office.”

She sighed and then watched him for a moment without saying anything to him, but eventually she spoke. “I can see what you mean.”

“But just because you can doesn’t mean you should, of course.” He shook his head with a shrug. “I can’t tell you what’s right. I don’t…know your situation or your pack at all.” He met her eyes afterwards, and she noticed that he wasn’t wearing his contacts at the moment, so his eyes were the deep black pools that somehow didn’t seem empty despite their lack of color. “But whatever your decision, if there’s anything I can do to help you, I will.”

“That’s really kind.” She said with a gentle smile and then she went to sit near him on the edge of the bed. “What happened with you and Nick out there that night? He really hates you. Though, I’m not surprised. He dislikes anyone who isn’t Ironborn, but he really hates you.”

Orlando just smiled at that annunciation, though, strangely enough. “He lost our bet. So he had to help me look for a place to live. He didn’t like that too much.”

Aura looked over at him, since everything about him made her curious about what he was like. “Why did you want to stay? You told me you were a wanderer.”

“I am.” He looked over at the bags that he’d discarded on the side of the room, and she could see years of moving place to place flashing through the abyss in his eyes. “But you’re not the only one who likes to have company.”

Aura nodded and got up to pace around the room for a few minutes in silence before she turned back to face him. “What if Nick and I did go to face the Council? What would you do?”

He shrugged. “I may not have full rights under their laws, but the Council fears my kind. Like most sane people do.” He smiled at her, which was his way of lumping her distinctly with the insane. “If I go with you, it might help get their attention long enough to make sure they listen.”

She felt guilty that a part of her was hoping that he might say that he would come. Aura shouldn’t want him to come when it was such an important issue for her pack and more importantly for her kind, but she knew he was right. A lot of people feared him and it might be helpful to have him there. “Nick would hate it.”

“I imagine there are a lot of things Nick hates.” He shrugged. “That doesn’t make him a bad person.”

Immediately she was defensive, since she didn’t want Orlando to think that she thought ill of Nick. “I don’t think he’s a bad person.”

“I know. But people who hate as well as he does are easy to mistake for bad people.” He turned to face her, leaning back on his hands. “If you go into this, and you decide to go before the Council to claim a space there, you need to be sure it’s what you want. If it is, then it doesn’t matter what Nick hates. Or what Nick likes, for that matter. You’ll have to be so sure that nothing will get in your way.”

“I know. I just…I don’t want to give up what I have.”

“Sometimes you have to. So that you can have more.” He laughed at himself for that. “Okay, scratch the utility company. I’m gonna go write for Hallmark full time.”

Aura laughed and then looked over at him with a grin. “I knew I liked you.”

He smiled back at her, and then looked around at the room again, heaving a huge sigh. “Thank you again, for all of this. It’s…overwhelming.”

“I didn’t mean to overwhelm you, but I’m glad you like it.” She reached out and touched his arm lightly, gently. “I really am glad you’re still around.”

“And will be for the foreseeable future, it looks like.” He put his hand on top of hers on his arm, and the same strange feeling came back, of being in the middle of the power running through him.

She held tighter to his arm and then answered his power surge with her own, and her grip shoved her own power into his body. The mixture of the power instantly ignited something inside of her that caused sparks to jump from the touch. It was like she was being drawn to him and he was being drawn to her. His power was looking for something like her, something like a conductor that could possibly channel his power, and her power enjoyed the sensation of something new. Especially something that almost made her want to melt with the intensity of it.

Aura could tell he felt it too, from the way his eyes widened slightly and the sharp breath he took. He let go of her hand, but just moved his fingers up her arm a little, sparks flying between his palm and her skin the entire way, every tiny hair on the back of her arms a miniature lightning rod. His eyes took on the wild shadow that she had seen in him the first night of the Fulness when he’d raced Nick, but the caress of his fingers was gentler than any animal would have ever been able to give.

Aura felt chills jolt up and down her spine from how good it felt. She’d never realized that anyone else’s power could feel good, since she’d been raised to believe that only Ironborn could be good for Ironborn. She scooted a little closer and then lifted up her hand from his arm to brush her fingertips along the side of his neck. The mixture of their shared power seemed more like a caress than anything else when it came from her fingertips across his skin.

Through her fingertips, she couldn’t tell whether what she felt was the buzz of electricity in her veins or a very low growl in his throat beneath her caress. He lifted his hand to run it along her arm, and turned his face towards her hand as he closed his eyes. For a moment, he held her arm there against him, then kissed the inside of her wrist, completing the circuit again, and this time intentionally sending a slightly more intense wave of power through her. It was the difference between drinking from a water fountain and being soaked by a garden hose, and it seemed to touch every nerve she had at once.

Aura couldn’t help but tilt her head back as she felt his kiss against her skin ripple through her entire body. Incredible was an insufficient word to describe the sensation, but it was the only one her mind could latch onto at the moment. She moaned softly as the current from him worked its way through her blood, but not soft enough that he couldn’t hear it. Every time he turned up the amount of energy that he gave her, her body, her power, responded just as forcefully, as if she was the knob for the volume. Every piece of metal on her body hummed with his power, and some of them even started to warp against her heated skin. No matter what form the metal was in, though, it couldn’t really injure her that much. It actually felt good to have her element responding to his.

She couldn’t feel him hesitate in the midst of the kiss against her skin and the flow of power between them, but there was a moment when he did, though it was only for a few seconds. Then he moved his kiss to her palm, and finally to her ever-present rings. As his lips touched them, electricity arced between every one of them almost violently, and the gold and silver on her fingers nearly danced with power under his touch.

Aura gasped, since her metal was so much a part of her that it was really just an extension of her body. “Mmmm. . . that’s…incredible…” She barely managed to get out between growls.

He held her hand after the kiss, looking back at her with eyes that seemed, for the moment, to actually have, not color, but light within them. “Are you alright?”

She nodded and scooted a bit closer to him still, and with the hand that he wasn’t holding, she touched the side of his face again. “I’m fine. Are you?”

“I’m great.” He looked her up and down once, obviously checking her out more intensely than he had previously. “I probably should have…expected something like that, but I really didn’t.”

Aura laughed softly and honestly, she didn’t even mind the fact that he was looking her up and down. In fact, a part of her wanted him to do more than look. “I didn’t either. I didn’t know that anything could feel like that.”

His fingertips were still caressing her arm as he held her hand gently. “I once went to school for medicine. Only for a class here and there, but I still learned a lot.” A few small arcs lit out from a single fingertip, traveling up her skin like controlled bolts of lightning, bending in slow trails. “Everything we feel is just a collection of nerves.”

She shivered again at his caresses, but her fingers on her other hand trailed up his neck until she ran a single finger across his lips. “And some places are more sensitive than others.”

He kissed her fingertips, his power running down into her rings yet again as he did so. “Much more.”

Aura bit down on her bottom lip as his power whipped through her body again, but she leaned in anyway and when her face was only inches from his, she met his eyes. He could see, from how close they were, how intricately colored her eyes were, as though every piece of her irises was a different shade of brown or green. She could feel his breath against her lips and the closeness of him made her heart race.

He had met Ironborn before, but they had always had the characteristic shard to their eyes of their former human selves. As wolves, their eyes told everything about them, and that included their breeding or lack thereof. Most Ironborn were turned, and so there would be some single piece of a dull green or brown or blue left over from their old life to show what they had once been. Her eyes, though, were captivating in their seemingly endless layers and interplays of color, and there was nothing in them to mark her as anything but a wolf of the purest blood. “You are…beautiful, Aura.” He caressed her cheek, running the back of his fingers up along her earrings and making them each sing with power for a moment before he leaned back just slightly, reluctantly. “Nick is a very lucky wolf. I hope he knows it.”

Aura looked into his eyes for a moment longer and then she pulled further away from him than he had from her. She broke all contact with him as she slowly inched toward the edge of the bed, and she felt something just as new as the sensations he had just introduced. When she parted from him and her body stopped humming with his direct power, she felt quiet. And empty. Her body, her power wanted more of him, but without the touch, there was nothing for it to find.

Eventually she turned her face away as she finally got off the bed. Obviously he wasn’t as interested as she was, and she thought back to the legends she had learned about other wolves. Shadowborn were like their very own Gods on earth. They were so rare that they were so much more precious than even a pure Ironborn like her could ever be. “I’m sorry.” She whispered as she backed toward the doorway that led out of his room. “I, uh, I’ll let you get yourself situated in your new place.” She said a little louder as she pretended like everything that had just happened between them didn’t exist, except for the fact that she was refusing to look at him.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he stood up as well, almost as though he was in an old movie where the gentlemen at the table jumped to their feet when a lady entered the room, “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’m…things get away from me pretty easily.”

“No, no. I understand.” She dared to look up at him once more as she finally made it to his front door, and she stared at him for a moment as she realized that for the first time in her life, she felt inadequate. She wasn’t good enough for him. Aura opened the door from behind her back. “See ya around.”

He got up closer to her, but not within touching distance, since he’d apparently shattered whatever brief moment they’d had. “I meant what I said, you know.” He leveled a look at her as he stood in the center of the room, both hands in his pockets. “Anything I can do. Just tell me.”

She swallowed the lump in her throat and then turned around quickly to walk out. “Yeah. Okay. Thanks.” She let out a heavy sigh as she shook her head and walked out of his apartment and then down the hallway back to her apartment. Maybe Nick was right. She had a place where she belonged and perhaps she just needed to stick to that.

When she got back to her apartment, Nick was already awake and the bed was made flat again, with the end rolled up slightly as a pillow, which was a very Nick touch to things. He was out on her balcony with a small grill going, working on four steaks, and he didn’t hear her come in.

Aura smiled weakly at him and then she went out to sit on the porch with him. “And here I thought you’d still be sleeping.”

“I figured I needed to get up sometime. And I hope you’re hungry.” He smiled over at her and stretched a little, wearing only shorts and sweating already from standing outside so close to the grill.

She curled up on the hammock that she had set up in one corner, but between that, the grill and two other chairs, her balcony was full. “I’m not, actually. But I’m sure you could polish those things off without me.”

He looked a little disappointed at that, since he’d cooked extra for her, but he didn’t say anything about it. “Orlando get settled in alright?” He said as he went back to turning the steaks, which now looked huge.

“I guess so.” She said a little quieter than she meant to. Aura turned toward Nick on the hammock and then watched him quietly for a moment before she continued on. “I think you were right, Nick.”

He caught her serious tone, and looked over at her as she said so, between taking the steaks off the grill. He liked them fairly rare anyway. “About what?”

She took a deep breath and leaned her head back against the pillow on the hammock. “That we should go to the Council.

The fourth steak remained on the grill, completely forgotten as she said so. “You…want to go now? Just a little while ago, you were telling me…”

“I know.” She said quickly and then sighed, thinking about what it would mean. “I guess being around Orlando made me realize that we all have a role. Ours is to redeem our race.”

He went over to the railing near her, but leaned back against it at arm’s length from the hammock where she was laid out. “Being around Orlando.” There was more confusion in his tone than there was jealousy, though there was some of that as well.

Aura rolled her eyes, still brushing off the last pangs of rejection with casual dismissal. “He’s a god, remember?”

“So the stories say.” Nick had never believed much in the stories, though, and his tone said as much. “The gods don’t bleed, though. They don’t sleep or scar or get tired. He does.”

“Anyway, what do you care about how I come to my decision? Isn’t this what you wanted?” Aura followed up quickly, since she didn’t really feel like spending much time discussing Orlando with Nick.

“Of course it’s what I wanted.” He said as he stepped up to the hammock, putting his hand on her arm and running it up to her shoulder. “But I want this for both of us, and I want you to be sure.”

She looked away from his hand on her arm, but then back up at him after a moment. “If I’m not meant for this, then what am I here for?”

“That’s for you to decide.” He leaned down and kissed her gently, letting her know that he supported her, whatever decision she made. As he did, he felt the lack of power within her, and thought it was strange how empty she felt. Rather than think any more on it, though, he started to give her as much as he could, even though he was still tired from the Fulness.

She kissed him back, gently at first, even though her heart wasn’t in it. The longer she kissed Nick, though, the more she realized that she was right about what she had been born for. Nick wasn’t a bad person, he was a good man and a strong wolf. And she did love him, so there was nothing to lose, right? She and Orlando hadn’t even kissed, and he clearly had his sights set on something higher, since the taste of steel he’d gotten wasn’t enough to keep his attention. “Then I decide that you and I are going to the Council together.” She said firmly as soon as their kiss broke.

“Then that’s what’ll happen.” He moved onto the hammock with her as she said so, kissing her again as he held her. “I love you, Aura. We’re going to change everything.”

Aura curled up into Nick’s embrace and just rested her head on his chest. She did feel better, less empty with his arms around her. Nick was a solid force. He always had been. He embodied everything about being Ironborn that she’d ever known. Or loved. “Yes we are.”

VI

It had been almost a week since Aura had made the decision to go to the Council with Nick, and they were just waiting until she could either finish some of the appointments with clients she had already booked, or she could contact them to let them know she was going out of town for an undetermined amount of time. In the meantime, almost every day when she came home, she found Nick outside working on her car. She’d had it since she’d moved into her place, but it had broken down some time ago and she’d never bothered to repair it. Cars were naturally one of the things that Ironborn in general were good at, but Nick had both the natural talent and the know-how she lacked to get it working again, though it was a long process. She came up and leaned against the side of the car as he had his head under the hood, and she smirked as she began talking. “You know, I’ve always had a thing for a man who works with his hands.”

“A thing? Really?” He finished what he was doing for the moment, then stood back up, covered in grease and sweat, but obviously not caring. “What kind of thing? Hope it’s not too painful.”

Aura giggled and then ran a finger down his sweaty arm. “You really should just give up on this piece of junk. Driving always freaks me out anyway.”

“Well, unless you know of any gold deposits you and I can go strip-mine, we’ll have to make do with this until we get home. It should get us there, though, I think. It’s only what, nineteen hours? Give or take a few hundred miles?”

“Something like that.” She wrapped an arm around his neck and pulled him in for a kiss. “I’m gonna go pack a little more. You almost done for the day?”

“Just about. It’ll start now, but I’ve gotta do some more work on the transmission. Should be ready to actually move by tomorrow. How was work?”

“It’s just ink and needles.” She had distanced herself from it by this point, since she knew if she made it out to be less than what it actually meant to her, it wouldn’t become something that made her hesitate or worse, change her mind. “Jane asked me not to go again today, but I told her that I had already made up my mind. She was angry at me all day.”

“They’ll be alright.” He kissed her one more time with a smile. “Go on and pack, I’m gonna get done here and get this mess cleaned up, then I’ll be up.”

Aura kissed him back and then headed back up to their apartment without even glancing at Orlando’s door down the hall. She hadn’t told him that they were leaving, since she figured that he wouldn’t be interested even though he had offered to go before. Aura hadn’t even seen him since that day, and she knew he must have been avoiding her.

As she rounded the corner, though, she very nearly ran into him coming the other way, though he jumped out of the way with the reflexes of a cat rather than those of a wolf. “Whoa, sorry, I…” he nodded back toward her door, “was just coming…knocking…I didn’t know if you’d be back from work yet.”

Her heart skipped a beat for multiple reasons, though the foremost was actually seeing him again. She looked up at him for a quiet moment before she looked down to the ground. “Jane was glaring at me all day, so I decided to give Artie my last client.”

“Last?” She had said it with a little more finality than she would have if she was just talking about leaving for the day, he thought.

“Yeah,” She said as she started moving toward her door. When she unlocked it, he could see that almost all of the things that had once made her apartment look homey were almost all gone or boxed up. Most of it was going into storage for whenever she came back. IF she came back. “We’re probably leaving tomorrow.”

“Leaving?” He asked a little more quietly. It wasn’t likely she was imagining the hurt in his eyes at the fact that she hadn’t told him, either.

Aura leaned against her doorway and she looked up at him once before she looked back down concentrated on the pattern of the tile flooring in the hallway. “It was nice of you to offer to help us, but I understand. You were just being nice.” She shrugged as if it didn’t matter to her. “I thought about telling you, but then you were avoiding me all week, so I figured you’d found someone else more worthy of your time.”

“More worthy of my time?” He parroted back to her as though it was the most ridiculous thing he’d heard all week, which it actually was. “What’re you talking about? I meant what I said when I offered to help.”

She hated the way his look was making her feel, and she hated more that there was someone out there in the world that could shake her confidence. “You’re a Shadowborn. I get it. You are a god that belongs with your match or whatever. I know how it goes.”

“Huh. And here I thought my brothers just made those stories up.” He leaned back against the opposite wall, dressed all in the black clothing she’d given him, which apparently fit perfectly. “The more accurate description would be to say I’m a walking death sentence that’s been living out of a backpack and a gym bag for three years. Does that sound like any god you’ve ever heard of?”

“I guess you’re unique.” She looked toward the stairs but she could still hear Nick working away on the car outside.

“I’ve heard that one before too. But that’s not right either.” He shrugged. “I’ve met two others like me. Both of them were in about the same position. Only they didn’t have brothers that actually cared about them enough to help.”

She still wasn’t looking at him when she answered. “You could have just told me that you weren’t really interested.”

“I…never said that.” He said with confusion thick in his voice. “You’re with Nick. I respect that. That’s all.”

Aura actually looked up at that and then she searched his face to make sure that he was telling the truth. “That’s why?”

He nodded slowly, surprised that she hadn’t understood that at the time. “I thought…after the cake, that maybe I had crossed a line. And I’m sorry if I did.”

“I don’t know what I want.” She answered as she thought about Nick. Aura glanced back into her apartment, already bare because of her decision. “When you pulled away, I thought that you thought I wasn’t good enough for you. So I’m doing what I was born to do. Supposed to do. Nick is a good guy, and so he deserves the life he wants.”

It took him a long time to respond to that, but when he did, he walked directly over to her, and pulled her into a hug, with one hand resting on the back of her neck beneath her hair. “Unless we’re both wolves at the time, I wouldn’t suggest trying to read my mind anymore. You don’t seem to be very good at it.”

As soon as his skin touched hers, she could feel his power leaping into her in a way that was so pleasurable she trembled against his body. “Where were you all week?”

“Jumping from one public place to the next, wherever you can plug in a cell phone charger without anybody getting too angry.” He let her go, but didn’t move too far away. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an exceptionally trashy-looking cell phone with a charger cord plugged into it, along with the other end of the charger, but both led into his pocket.

She nodded at his self-charger, but then looked back up at him, wondering why she felt like the fate of the world hinged on the answer to the next question she was going to ask. “Will you still come?”

“If you want me to.” He said with a nod, conspicuously making no mention of Nick.

Aura reached out to touch the inside of his arm, from his elbow all the way down to his wrist. “I want you to.”

“Then I’ll start packing.” He said with a smile. “I guess it’s a good thing the utilities guys blew me off, huh?”

“They blew you off? Why?” Aura was genuinely surprised by that, since he seemed so obviously qualified for the job.

“One of them said something about me being too young and inexperienced to do the job.” He said with a half-chuckle half-growl under his breath. “I guess when it comes to age, what they don’t know can’t shock the hell out of them, huh?”

She had just dropped her hand and stepped back a little, and before she could reply, Nick came up the stairs, but they were still a little too close not to be suspicious. Aura looked up at Nick with a smile when she saw him, trying to make the closeness between her and Orlando into something that wasn’t a big deal. “Hey. The car up and running?”

“Just about.” He said as he wiped off his hands on a rag he was holding, resisting the urge to crack his knuckles as he looked at the two of them. “Orlando, I presume?” He’d never actually seen the man in human form before. “Always a pleasure.”

“Likewise.” He said with a slight nod at Nick and then a look back at Aura. “I’ll see you later.” He headed back down the hall toward his apartment, putting his charger back in his pocket as he went.

Aura turned and walked into her apartment, finally starting the packing she said she was going to do. “This place looks so sad when it’s bare.”

“It’ll be here when we come back.” He always talked about the place as though they were definitely coming back, even though they both knew anything could happen. He shut the door behind him and spoke quietly, trying to sound as calm as possible. “What did he want?”

“I was wondering where he had gone all week, but I guess he was out recharging.” She went into the kitchen to get them both something cold to drink, and she filled his glass to the brim with ice just like he liked it before she added the water. She went up to him and held it out with a gentle smile. “I asked him to come with us. The Council might actually listen to us if he’s with us.”

He took the glass, but didn’t drink from it. “You don’t think they will without him?”

She shrugged and then drank from her own glass. “I don’t know what they’re going to do, Nick. We might as well take help where we can.”

“I just don’t want them to think we’re there for…” he shook his head and put down his glass, “we’re going for us, for our people. If he’s there with us, then won’t they think he’s there to lay a claim as well?”

“Lay claim for what, Nick? You and I were born into a pack that is behind us as we go up to the Council. He doesn’t have anyone. Anyone except us. That’s why he wants to support us.”

He thought about it for a moment, but she seemed set on it, and he didn’t want to contradict her. “Alright. If he wants to help, then he’s welcome. He’ll just…have to stay in the car when we get home until I can explain it to my dad.”

She almost growled just at the thought of his father. “You’re going to be the Alpha. You should be telling your father what to do, not the other way around.”

“It might be you.” He said just to remind her, since if the Council chose her as their new member, she would be the one who was above the authority of the pack, technically speaking. “Either way, me or you, they’re gonna have to get used to listening to both of us. But this trip, my father is still the Alpha. So I’ll have to explain to him why we have a Shadowborn along for the ride before they, you know, shoot him.”

She half-glared at him for that, but then she smiled instead, repressing a giggle. “They might be surprised what they would get back if they tried.”

“I’m sure they would.” He said without smiling. “Everybody’s going to be really excited to see you again, you know.”

“No they aren’t.” She said with a humorless laugh. “Half of them are going to be angry and the female half are going to be upset that I didn’t die out here.”

He took a long and much-needed drink of his water after she said that, emptying the entire thing and setting it back down so he could wait for the ice to melt. “You know, our whole lives growing up, you always thought I was the one everybody focused on, but you were always just as important to any of them. Probably more. You and I are the only seventh-generations ever to be born. And you know it’s more likely for you to have another Ironborn child with somebody than it is for me to father one. You were always more important. More treasured.” He shrugged. “I was just the Alpha’s son.”

Aura went up closer to him after that and she put her hand on his arm before she looked up into his ever-familiar eyes. “Hey. Don’t.” Her other hand came up to touch the side of his face gently. “You are incredibly important.”

He pulled her into a kiss with a smile to let her know that he was alright. “I just want to be important to you. Not really concerned about anybody else.”

She kissed him several times despite the heavy feeling of guilt that had had settled in the pit of her stomach, and then she rested her forehead against his with a long sigh. “You are important to me. We’ve known each other our whole lives, Nick. You mean so much to me.” It was all true, he was important to her, but she still didn’t know if she could see him as the most important person in her life.

He picked her up as she said so, and kissed her deeply, setting her up on the counter as he did so. “Do you need me to help with anything in here?”

“Hm…” She said as she looked around the room, which was pretty much all packed up. She leaned in, though, so that her chest was right in front of his face, and she slid her hands down his arms. “No, I don’t think I do.”

He looked up at her with a grin and leaned his head back to kiss her neck. “Then I think I need a shower. Desperately.”

Aura leaned back and smirked at him as her fingers darted out to poke at his sides. Once he was trying to protect his ticklish spots, she darted toward the bathroom to prevent him from getting in. They needed the simple pleasures.

**************

They were ready to leave the next day, but even after the two of them had gotten their bags stowed in the car, there was still no sign of Orlando. Aura had done several sweeps of her apartment ostensibly to look for anything she might’ve left behind, but actually to take another look at Orlando’s apartment to see where he was. But there was no answer when she knocked on his door, and no sign of life from within.

Finally, more than an hour after they’d been ready to go in the first place, she came back outside to see Orlando with his same two bags from before strapped over his shoulder, coming up the sidewalk and having a momentary glaring contest with Nick. She wasn’t sure on first sight who was winning.

Aura was a little angry that Orlando had taken so long, especially since it had, in turn, made Nick angry as well. She really wasn’t in the mood to sit in a car with an angry Ironborn. Sometimes things could get sticky that way, since the entire car was made of metal. She went up to Orlando anyway, her confusion plainly displayed on her face. “Where were you? We’ve been waiting forever.”

“I’m sorry.” He was clearly not in the best of moods himself, but it wasn’t because of her, so his tone was earnestly apologetic. “I have a few old acquaintances in Geneva. I was trying to get in touch with them to see if they had any recent news about the Council that might be helpful to you.” He took his backpack off and settled it and his duffel bag on one side of the trunk by themselves. “It took longer than I expected to dig them up again and actually get them on the phone, but hopefully some of what I found out will help.”

Her expression softened and then she gave a weak smile. Any news about the Council might be helpful, but it didn’t mean that she was exactly happy about it. Part of her felt like she was going to her execution instead of going to claim a seat that should be rightfully theirs. “Come on. We can talk about it on the way.”

As soon as he was in the car and she was situated in the passenger seat, Nick got in and started the car, obviously still angry. But when he went to start it, it didn’t quite turn over completely. He tried it a second time, and a third, with the same result. “What the hell, I just changed the alternator yesterday! Piece o’…”

“May I ask if you changed the battery?” Orlando said quietly from the back seat.

Nick didn’t answer that, just sighed angrily and glared at the wheel, as Orlando opened the door again. “Pop the hood, if you would.”

As he did, Orlando looked around for a moment to make sure the coast was clear. When he was certain he was safe, he lifted it and leaned in to put both hands on the battery in a way that would have made any car mechanic with an ounce of self-preservation roll over in their grave, then leaned over to look at Nick. “Try it now.”

Nick did, and after a few cycles, they could feel a slight jolt as the car started up and roared to life. When the engine was humming, Orlando dropped the hood and got back in the car without saying a word.

Aura turned and looked back at Orlando with a gentle smile. “Thanks.” She met his eyes for a moment and then she turned her head forward again and ran her hand down Nick’s arm and took his hand closest to her. “See? Teamwork.”

Nick started off and nodded accommodatingly. “As long as we’re playing football and not cricket or some crap, that’s fine with me.”

That made Orlando laugh, clearly in an attempt to lighten the mood. “That depends. Manchester or Chelsea?”

“Neither. Seville.” Nick said with a glare in the mirror, but it was enough of a break in tension that it allowed the two men to go off talking about sports for the next half hour straight, even if it was mostly an argument about players and team performance that year so far. It was the kind of argument had between people at least on civil terms, though, and that was enough for Aura to consider it an improvement.

After about ten hours of music, sleeping and some random conversation, they were all quite finished with driving for the day, so they found a place to stop. Out of sheer convenience, they decided to stay together in the same room at least for the one night. There were two beds, at least, but she knew that Orlando would have been willing to sleep on the floor since he was just that kind of guy. Nick offered to get food for the group of them, so at the moment, it was just her and Orlando waiting awkwardly in the room for Nick to get back. She bounced slightly on the bed that she and Nick were going to share and she sighed. “I miss my old bed already.”

“Let me guess. An iron sheet? Maybe queen-sized?”

She nodded as she fell back into the mattress, actually hoping that it was old so that the springs could be felt through the cushion, but it didn’t seem to be working in her favor. “It was amazing. Truly amazing.”

“I had an electric blanket once, when I was a child.” He smiled at the memory. “My foster-parents kept worrying about it shorting out and catching fire because the wires were always stripped, but I never complained.”

Aura smiled at the thought but then she couldn’t help but wonder what it might be like if…“I guess it could get pretty dangerous if something like that shorted on a sheet of metal.”

“That depends on your definition of dangerous.” He shrugged with half a smile.

She turned onto her side and looked over at him as he sat on the bed across from hers. “Nick was furious at me for wanting to wait for you.”

Orlando was rummaging through one of his bags looking for something, and shrugged in a way that made it obvious he couldn’t have cared less. “I imagine he’s not accustomed to waiting for much of anything.”

“I guess not.” She turned onto her back again, looking up at the blank ceiling and missing her skylight. “It might be dangerous for you to come all the way with us. The pack won’t kill you or anything, but it won’t be easy. Or welcoming.”

“Easy and welcoming isn’t something I’m much accustomed to anyway. I wouldn’t need both hands to count the number of times I’ve had a welcome reception somewhere with strangers.”

Aura looked toward the door and then pulled the pillow closer to her, propping her head up higher as she continued to look over at him. “I’m so confused, Orlando.”

He didn’t move from where he was sitting, on the far edge of the other bed from her. “About going to the Council?”

“No.” She watched him carefully and then sighed. “I’m confused about what I want.” Aura’s eyes drifted to his lips and then back up to his eyes. “I think about you so much. But I don’t know…I just know that you’re exciting and I just want to taste more of you.”

That seemed to surprise him, both because of what she was saying and the fact that she was saying it at all, and after a moment of shock, he just smiled a little. “You’re very direct.”

She blushed a little but she was still smiling, too. “Yeah…I guess I am.”

Orlando paused for a moment before saying anything else. “You’ve never really been with anyone but Nick, have you?”

Now she felt well and truly embarrassed, but she just turned so that she was on her back, looking up at the ceiling instead of over at him. “I’ve kissed other men. Not very many, I suppose, but that’s it. In all other aspects, it’s been Nick and only Nick. Which is how it is supposed to be.”

He gave another noncommittal shrug and went back to looking in his bag. “You mean how they wanted it to be.”

Aura wasn’t sure how to respond, so she stared up at the ceiling in silence for a moment before she spoke. “Yes, how they wanted it to be. But Nick isn’t a bad person. He loves me.”

“I know he does. Anyone who spends any time around the two of you can see that.” He got up and went to sit on the side of the bed closer to her. “He thinks he has to be strong for both of you.”

“He’s right, since I’m just…my heart isn’t in any of this. He deserves someone who can be sure about what she wants. And how can I be sure? How can I continue to tell him that I love him when I don’t know what it’s really like to be without him? We were raised to fit together. I know that I love him. I just constantly find myself wondering what kind of love it actually is.”

“I think everyone always wonders that. Whether things are what they think they are. Whether things are as complete as we think they are.” He shrugged. “I’m not the best person for advice on this kind of thing. Love has never been my strong point in the past.”

“It doesn’t matter.” She sighed again and then got up quickly and went over to her bag to get a change of clothes to sleep in. “Once we go back to the pack and then tell them that we’re going to see the Council, Nick and I are hooked together. We’re the ones with the purest blood. Even our Ironborn siblings were born from different Turned mothers.” In their pack, it was about numbers. Often even the Mated males had additional females that he was allowed to dally with just to get more Ironborn pups. She didn’t think Nick would do that to her, but there was no telling once they were back in the pack. Especially once they were Mated.

“There are worse lives.” He said with a shrug. “In two years alone, what did you think you wanted? If Nick had never found you, if you had never had to return to your pack or go to the Council, what would you have wanted?”

“I really enjoyed my life. I had dreams about being a celebrity artist. About meeting all these fantastic people and being recognized for my art.” She sighed. “Sure, I got lonely and sure, I missed being in a pack, but I was starting to come out of my shell.”

He laughed once. “You with a shell. I have trouble picturing that.”

She stood there near the edge of the bed he was sitting on with her clean clothes hanging over her arm, just a pair of grey sweatpants and a black tank top. “I’d never lived among humans before. Of course I had a shell. Well, fur, anyway.”

“Subtle difference.” He stood up as well, since he felt especially strange about sitting on a bed with her standing so close by. “I’m glad you came out of your shell. Fur. Whatever. Just don’t go back into it now that you’re out. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of or shy about.”

“I’m not ashamed about who I am. I love being the wolf that I am.” She looked into his dark eyes and she didn’t look away. It was so easy to get lost in the depth of them. “But the life I’m committing myself to already has a marked path to follow.”

“You still have to see what the Council has to say. It might not be as marked as you think.”

She finally pulled her gaze away and then went into the bathroom to change. It took a few splashes of cold water to her face to keep her desire of jumping onto Orlando’s bed instead of Nick’s at bay. When she came back out, she pulled her hair into a ponytail. “What are you going to do after we go to see the Council?” She would go back to the pack with Nick, and he couldn’t stay at that point.

“I’m not sure, honestly. Maybe just go back to my new apartment. It’s the only home I’ve got.”

Aura nodded and then plopped onto her back down on the bed. Her stomach was growling, so she hoped that Nick would get back soon with the food. Once it was quiet again, though, she wondered why he hadn’t said anything back to her. She’d put it out there that she was interested and wanted more, and yet he hadn’t said a word about it. But before he said she was wrong when she thought that he didn’t want her. It was all just as confusing as everything else the last two weeks had dredged up for her.

Since she didn’t seem interested in further conversation, he went into the bathroom and got changed as well, into long black cotton pajamas that were obviously old and faded and lacking a drawstring. Again when he walked out, it was striking just how many scars he had all over his upper body, since now she could see his chest as well, where he had just as many if not more than on his back. He just went and tossed his clothes on his backpack in the corner beside his bed, not looking back at her. “So how do you think you’ll know?”

“Know what?” Her thoughts about his appearance and lack of obvious interest had distracted her and so she wasn’t thinking along the lines of whatever he was talking about.

“What you really want?” He went to his bed and pushed back the sheets, cringing a little at the fact that they were white and would therefore most likely end up singed black in several places by morning.

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“You won’t be happy if you’re not sure.” He got himself settled under the covers and laid back on the pillow with a sigh. “And if you’re not happy, then what’s the point?”

“The point is for Ironborn as a whole, I suppose.” Aura said with a shrug.

Orlando turned on his side toward her, with one hand propping up his head. “It’s the rest of your life. You should probably do a little more than suppose. Just a suggestion.”

Aura turned back onto her side again and looked over at him. “I don’t hear you making any big, life-altering decisions.”

He turned onto his back again after a moment’s look. “I think my life has been altered pretty drastically in recent years.”

She immediately felt bad for saying so, and bit her tongue for a few moments before she spoke again, just looking him over. “Where did you get your scars?” She asked abruptly, since it hurt her to even look at them and imagine what kind of pain he must have endured.

Orlando didn’t answer for a moment, then looked back over at her without turning. “That’s kind of like asking where you’ve eaten lunch for the last twenty-some years. I’ve gotten them a lot of different places, from a lot of different people. Mostly for the same reasons.”

Aura couldn’t help but get up, and when she did, she walked over to his bed and touched his shoulder, her fingers tracing along a long scar. “What reasons?”

“I killed someone the night I got that one.” He knew which scar she was touching, as he knew all of them. “Someone was chasing me through some condemned housing project. I got snagged with some faulty wiring and the place caught fire. The one following me died, but one of them got an axe in my shoulder before the place came down.”

She didn’t move her fingers away, even when he turned his head and was completely facing away from her. Touching him felt so good no matter what he was saying to her. Aura leaned down and kissed the side of his neck, a move that she had thought about doing several times since the last time they had touched.

He leaned his head back a little as she did so, his eyes closed. “What was that for?”

Aura wasn’t exactly expecting to be questioned about it, but she kissed a little further up his neck and her power jumped from the contact into his skin, actually causing a spark between her lips and his neck. It made her heart jump, but she didn’t pull away. “I just wanted to.” She whispered into his ear.

Orlando didn’t move any further into the kiss, but he didn’t move away either. “Well, that’s one thing you know you want. That’s a start, right?”

It didn’t really feel like a start. It didn’t feel like anything at all, since he wasn’t responding at all. She let go and then walked over the window, pushing aside the curtain to look out. “We should arrive tomorrow. It’ll be good to get off the road. I always hated wandering.”

He looked over at her for a moment before speaking again. “Come back here a second.”

Aura didn’t move as she watched the road, almost willing Nick to come back so that the awkwardness between her and Orlando could be pushed away as much as possible. “Did you like traveling all the time?”

“It wasn’t a matter of like.” He got up and went over to her, since she hadn’t come back to him. “Whatever you choose for yourself, you’ll do well. It seems like that’s in your nature.” He had his hands on her waist as he stood behind her, just at the lower edge of her shirt.

She wanted so badly for his fingers to move just slightly and touch her skin, but she was really beginning to think that he only responded to her like this just to keep her around. “You know, I’ll still be your friend even if you don’t like me back. You don’t have to act like this to keep me interested. I think you’re plenty interesting.”

“I’m glad you do.” His hands went down onto the waistline of her pants, but still didn’t touch her skin. “But see, I have a problem. My problem is that I like you, but I respect what you have with Nick.”

Aura trembled a little but certainly not because she was scared. She wanted more, so much more. Slowly she turned around to face him, and when she did she let go of the curtain, she let it fall back over the window so that the view of the road was again obscured. She looked up into his eyes as she ached for his fingers to connect with her skin. “My problem is that I don’t know what I have with Nick.” She stepped in a little bit closer to him. “But I know that I like you too.”

Orlando reached up a hand to brush a fingertip across her lips with a single spark to light her nerves on fire, but then suddenly stepped back away from her and sniffed the air. He had just enough time to get back to sitting on his bed before she could hear Nick’s keycard slide in the door.

Her heart was still racing as she leaned back against the window frame. She looked over at Nick as he walked through the door with a few bags of food. The good thing about being a werewolf was that they burned through energy quickly and so she could eat more and still maintain a good figure. The bad thing was that they were hungry often, though at the moment she could’ve stood to be hungry just a little longer. “Hey.” She said as she looked up into Nick’s eyes. “I was just watching for you. Did you have trouble finding a place that was open?”

“A little, yeah. Damn country goes to sleep with the sun.” He put down several grocery bags and then reached into his pocket with a smile. “The owner tried to overcharge me because I couldn’t speak French.” He took out a gold watch and tossed it at her, floating it through the air to give her plenty of time to catch it. It was a beautiful and obviously-expensive piece of jewelry, and of course he’d been able to tell at first touch that the gold was real.

Aura looked down at the watch and then smiled weakly. She went up to him and then held out her wrist. “Will you put it on for me?”

He put the watch around her wrist, and then pulled a few of the links out of it to make it the right size, before the watch clicked into place on its own tightly against her skin. The extra metal from the links he’d removed he crushed in his hand, then let them flow over the rest of the watch to inscribe her name down both sides of the band in stylized letters that took him a few moments’ concentration.

Once he was finished she gave him a quick kiss on his cheek and then she smiled. “Thank you, Nick. It’s beautiful.”

“Thought you might like it.” He kissed her once and then started opening grocery bags with a look over at Orlando. “Come on and dig in, man. And tell us what you’ve got about the Council. At least now I’m not driving, so it doesn’t matter how pissed off I get about them.”

Orlando went up and got one of the sandwiches that he’d gotten and went back to his bed to eat it. “The big news is that they recently replaced one of their members.”

She grabbed a sandwich as well and sat on the edge of the other bed, directly across from Orlando. “Did one die?”

“That’s just about the only way any of them ever get replaced.” He said with a shrug. “But the good part of that news is that they always pick someone young as a replacement. The girl who took the Earthborn seat is actually a year or so younger than you are, so at least there are a few younger members of the Council that will be more or less your peers there with them. They’ll be a little more sympathetic at least.”

“We can hope.” After only a few bites, suddenly Aura wasn’t so hungry any more. She wrapped up the sandwich and got up to stuff it into the tiny refrigerator that was in the room. Aura then went through the bags and started to pack the rest of what he’d gotten into the refrigerator too to keep herself distracted. “I don’t know if I want their sympathy, anyway. We don’t need sympathy. We need them to realize that we’re strong and just as valuable as any of them.”

“They will.” Nick said from where he was still inhaling a sandwich of his own. “Are you okay, baby?”

She finished putting the food away and then she looked over at Nick and shrugged. “I’m fine, why?”

“Nothing, I just thought you were hungry.”

Orlando finished with his sandwich and tossed away the wrappings with a single shot at the trash can, then gave Aura an apologetic look before he got back under the covers.

Aura sighed and then went over and gave Nick a gentle hug. “I must just be nervous about going home. I have butterflies taking up space in my stomach.”

“It’ll be alright.” He kissed her neck and hugged her tightly. “Go ahead and get some rest, it’s been a long day.”

She looked back at the bed but she didn’t look over at Orlando as she continued to talk to Nick. “You aren’t going to sleep?”

“I’ll be there soon. I’m gonna get a shower real quick before I turn in.”

Aura kissed his cheek again and then gave him another hug before she went over to the bed. She got in and curled up under the blanket, but she was facing Orlando’s bed.

When the bathroom door closed and they could both hear the shower running, Orlando turned over to face her, speaking quietly. “Not hungry?”

Aura looked his direction, barely able to see him in the dark but she could see the outline of his face. “Not for food.”

She could hear him sigh as he got up slightly in the bed, but didn’t get any closer to her. “You’re not going to be sleeping in steel tonight. You need something else to see you through until morning. Unless the springs are poking through, which wouldn’t surprise me.”

“I was hoping that they would be, but this seems like a fairly new bed. Unfortunately.”

Orlando got up out of the covers and went over to sit on her bed next to her waist. “I’m not accustomed to people, even wolves, being able to handle being around me for very long, you know.”

She sat up slowly and fought as hard as she could against her initial impulse to reach out for him. “I guess that makes me weird.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t need any help from me to be weird.” He put a hand up and rested it against her collarbone for a moment, then moved it up to her neck. She could feel a mix of emotions from him at the moment. There was the same flow of power into her, but there was something else as well that went much deeper. It was like his apparently limitless power was just an appearance on the surface of him. Deeper than that, he was hungry. More hungry and empty than anything she’d ever felt from another wolf. An abyss like that could never be filled.

Aura took a deep breath that sounded more like a gasp than anything else. Her fingers dug into the mattress below her, trying to get closer to the springs, and she was strong enough to rip through if she wanted to. She leaned in a little closer to him and their noses touched. “Kiss me.”

“I’m not sure you want that.” He didn’t pull away from her, though, holding her close as their cheeks brushed. He was giving her all the power he could at the moment, essentially tucking her in for the night.

She trembled as she pressed her forehead to his and her hands came up and caressed the sides of his neck. Her jewelry brushed against his skin, which left a trail of sparks that trickled down his back. Aura kissed the corner of his mouth afterward. “Yes. I do.”

He pulled her in a little closer at the power running down his back over the tattoo that she herself had put there. He hesitated for a long time, and she could actually feel him tremble once, but he finally looked her in the eye for a moment before his lips acted almost on their own to kiss her.

It was unlike any kind of touch she’d had from anyone before, because it seemed to lock up every one of her muscles at once. Her body didn’t seem to respond at all at first, and when it did, it was with jerks and frantic spasms of movement. His power was flowing through her as if she were caught lying on a live wire, and every hair on her body was standing on end.

Aura actually did rip through the mattress with her fingers at that point, and once her fingers connected with the springs, her power was also responding to his. The bed was humming with the mixture of their power, and she kissed him back once she had a little more control over her body.

Orlando almost had to forcibly push himself away from the kiss, teeth gritted afterwards partially from the effort and partially because he really hadn’t wanted to pull away in the first place. He took a deep breath afterwards, shivering a little in the aftermath of it, but didn’t get any further away from her.

She was breathing heavily as the springs cooled, now a little misshapen. The kiss hadn’t really lasted long enough to burn the bed, which she was thankful for, but she really wanted the kiss to last until she couldn’t even move. When she spoke she moved closer again so that her words could be felt by her breath on his skin. “That was incredible.”

He nodded against her cheek and took a few breaths before he spoke, calming himself. “So that’s what that’s supposed to be like.”

Aura wanted to kiss him again, but she heard the water go off in the bathroom. It seemed like Nick had been in there for only a second. She just wanted to keep kissing Orlando. She didn’t exactly know why, but she did. “That’s what it’s supposed to be like.”

He heard it too, and though he wanted to kiss her again as well, he just kissed her neck once and got up off the bed, though she could feel an almost magnetic attraction between his hand and her skin as he got up and pulled away. He went over to his bag and pulled out a cord, turning on the light on his side of the bed so that he could see to find the electrical outlet. First he plugged it into the wall, then wrapped the sparking end around his wrist, actually pulling it tight with his teeth, even as the electricity sparked through his mouth. He then took a roll of duct tape and wrapped some around his wrist to keep it from setting the bed on fire.

She watched him for a moment, but then she turned to her other side and closed her eyes tightly so that Nick would think she was asleep or at least trying to get to sleep. The truth was that she couldn’t fall asleep, that she was much too filled with energy that she needed to expel somehow or else she might burst.

Nick came back out with his pajamas already on and still toweling off his hair. He saw that both of them looked like they were asleep, so he tried to be as quiet as possible as he got himself dry and tucked into bed beside Aura. He saw her fidgeting when he got in, and saw the damage to the mattress, and just laughed. “You alright, hon?”

Aura curled up into his bare chest if only to give him some of her energy since she couldn’t handle it all. “I…played with the springs a little…too much.”

“I can see that.” He had no problem pulling her in tightly, or taking some of her excess power. He was accustomed to her seeming like she always had too much, since she was always so much stronger than he was that way. He whispered low enough not to be heard by anyone other than her over the air unit by the window. “Apparently it’s true what they say. Electro-boy turned off like a light.”

She rested her head against his chest and then sighed, since it felt much better once he took some of her energy. “No matter what happens, we’re still going to be there for each other, right?”

“You mean with the Council?”

“Yes, with the Council.” She pressed her forehead into his chest. “Or whatever else happens once we get back to the pack.”

“I’ve been here for you all our lives, Aura.” He kissed her gently, and she could feel the silent strength in him that had always been there. But there was excitement as well. He couldn’t wait for what was coming. “I’m not going anywhere now.”

“Maybe we should be open to whatever opportunities are there. It’s been two years.”

“What opportunities do you mean?”

“Well, with relationships or whatever.” She sighed against his skin. “We should be sure about what we want before everything gets out of control.”

Nick didn’t say anything for a few moments, but then let her go and moved away slightly. “I didn’t make you come, you know. If you had somebody back at the parlor or somebody else you were interested in, you could’ve told me.”

“No, no, there’s no one there that I’m interested in, Nick.” She said quickly. It was scary to her to feel him pull away from her. It was scary to think that he might not be there for her, since they had been a part of everything together basically her whole life, so lying was easier. Aura touched his arm lightly even though he pulled away. “But if we get Mated, I don’t want there to be a single shred of doubt between us. I don’t want to be your Mate and then watch my whole world crumble away as the females throw themselves at you so they can also bear your Ironborn pups. Nor do I want to become indifferent to that because I’ve never been sure. I want the love that I feel for you to be solid, as I want yours for me to be. It takes pain, it takes heat and abuse for any respectable piece of metal to become something better than it started out. I need to know that we can withstand the blacksmith’s strike.”

It was the kind of thing that the elders of their pack had been telling them their entire life, and hearing it from her was oddly comforting to him. The fact that she wanted to be certain. The flip side of that bitter coin, though, was that if she was talking that way, it meant she wasn’t sure at that moment, and that hurt. Even so, he got next to her again and kissed her, running his fingertips along the several earrings she was wearing and making each one hum with his own power for a moment. “I want that too. And for me, nothing has taught me so much about how I feel than these last two years running without you.” He kissed her again, and then settled onto the pillow. “I can be patient. You know I can. And you know I will.”

She reached out and ran her fingers along his earrings as well, and down to every other piercing on his upper body. “If you can’t, won’t, or don’t want to be, I understand. I don’t want to lose you, but I have to know. I have to make the choice to love you on my own instead of worrying that someone else made it for me.” She sighed. and then she kissed him back gently. “I know this hurts you. I’m sorry.”

He shrugged slowly, his shoulders molded against hers. “If it’s what you need, then you don’t have to apologize for it.”

Aura kissed him a little bit deeper and she was glad for the comfort she felt from it. Orlando might be exciting and new, but Nick was still familiar and comfortable. She liked that too. “I do. Because you’re the last person I ever want to hurt.”

**************

The next day, the car ride was mostly a silent one so far as conversation went, but all three of them seemed to be in lighter spirits as they crossed the Pyrenees and got to a place where they could finally speak Spanish when they stopped for gas.

She knew the roads well when they really started getting close to the dirt road that ultimately led down deep into the forest where there was a town-sized compound made almost entirely of metal. Everything that could be made that way, anyway, was. Just when Nick turned down the dirt road, she started to get incredibly nervous and she made him pull over. Once he did, she hopped out of the car bent over the side into the grass like she was going to lose her lunch.

Orlando got out of the car to stretch and stayed with Nick for a moment on the driver’s side as she had her moment alone. “Good to be home, huh?”

Nick didn’t even look at the man as he answered. “Things are complicated here. For both of us. Not just for her. You need to just worry about staying quiet and letting us talk for you.”

“And if that becomes a problem?” It was the first direct challenge he’d given Nick, and the glare he got in return for it was well aware of that fact.

“Then I hope you’re up to date on your life insurance policy.”

“Very welcoming.”

“Welcoming isn’t my strong point.”

“What is your strong point?”

“Strong is my strong point, actually.”

“Ah.” Orlando said noncommittally.

Once she was done feeling completely nauseous, she looked back to where both boys were standing. She looked back and forth between them and then walked up slowly, not walking to either of them. “I don’t think I can do this.”

“You can.” Orlando said, not so much an encouragement as a statement of fact.

Nick answered afterwards, with a look over at Orlando that had spikes in it. “Take your time. There’s no rush to this. They’ve waited two years, they can wait a little longer.”

Aura felt like she was just going to fall into pieces right then and there. The fact that she was just down the road from the place she swore she would never return to was just the cherry on top of the entire situation. The situation with the Council, alongside the fact that she was in love with Nick and her rising certainty that she had some decently strong feelings for Orlando, even though she knew she wasn’t in love with Orlando. There was an attraction to him that was just undeniable. It was all too much. “Let’s leave the car. I want to go as wolves.” She was more confident in her wolf, even though she was small and less powerful that way. There was something about showing her true self that always made her feel strong again.

“Alright.” Nick said as he shut the driver’s side door and started getting undressed.

Orlando was a little more hesitant. “I…can drive you two if you want to do that.” He seemed sheepish about it, but obviously didn’t want to shift for some reason. Nick gave him a slightly condescending look, then just looked back at Aura, since she was the one who’d made the request in the first place.

She wasn’t going to leave Orlando, especially not in Ironborn territory. She looked back over to Nick and then she walked up to him. “He’s probably just nervous too. I don’t blame him, since he is kind of walking into a hostile environment.” Aura kissed Nick gently, though she still wasn’t feeling well. “You have to go explain his presence here anyway, remember? I’ll bring him along not long after you go.”

Nick was obviously more than a little hesitant to go, but if it was what Aura wanted, he wasn’t going to say no. “Alright. Give me half an hour, then follow me in. I’ll have everybody together for you.”

Aura kissed Nick again and she met his eyes, glad for his stability and for the familiarity she felt when she looked into his eyes. “Thank you. I’ll be there. Half an hour.”

He finished undressing and took a few steps away up the dirt road before he shifted, then gave one final look back at the two of them before running off faster than any normal wolf would have been able to move.

Orlando was leaning back against the car watching him go. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that.”

She finally turned and looked at him before she went up to him where he stood next to the car. “I’ll help you. I’m certain that shifting doesn’t always have to be painful for you.”

He looked at her with pain in his eyes nonetheless. “I’ve never shifted on my own. Not once since I was born. Not unless it’s the Fulness. It’s not in my nature.”

Aura put one hand on the rusty pile of metal that had carried them twenty hours to the last place she wanted to be and then held out her other hand. “It only hurts when you don’t have enough energy, since that’s what our wolves need. Shadowborn seem to be the ones always hungry for more, so let’s try to give you enough to last a little while.”

“That’s just it.” He said with a slight smile, since it was almost funny how cliché it was. “We never have enough. There’s only one time when we’re actually satisfied completely. And that’s only happened to me twice.”

“With Lightborn, right?” Aura said as she was reminded again about the legends she’d been raised with.

Orlando laughed. “No, those only exist in stories, I’m afraid. I’ve never met one or met anybody who has.” He looked up at the sky and sighed wistfully. “Lightning strikes. That’s the only time.”

She didn’t lower her hand, since she hoped he would still give it a try with her. “This car is a lot of metal. Maybe it’ll only feel like a pinch or something. Won’t you try?”

He couldn’t say no to someone asking him to try, so he took off his shirt. “I hope you don’t regret this.”

Aura sighed and then watched him carefully for a moment before she also took off her shirt and her jeans so that she was only in her underclothes. More exposure to the metal would help. She backed up so that the entire back side of her body was more or less press against the car. Then she held out both of her hands again. “I won’t.”

Once he was barefoot and in his boxers he stepped up to her and put his hands on either side of her waist, holding himself gently against her. She could feel a flow of his power through her, but it wasn’t staying inside her, it was just like it was burning a trail through her body to get to his other hand.

She couldn’t help the fact that she was really enjoying how close he was to her and the feel of his skin against hers. Aura didn’t say anything about it at first, though, she just let all the energy she was getting from the entire car flow freely through her into him. It left a metallic taste in her mouth that was almost like a candy that had melted but the taste still lingered on her tongue. His skin crackled and sparked where he touched her when she started to pour her power into him, but she didn’t care. “This is incredibly sexy.” She finally said with a soft gasp, since it was a lot of power moving through her at once.

As much as she gave him, though, he could take, and then some, though he could tell how pure-blooded she was by how easily it went through her, how much of it she was able to hold onto in the first place. “You want sexy…” he said with a shuddering breath of his own as his thirst for power truly set in, “catch me when I’m still warm off a thunderstorm. That, I can promise you, is something you’ll never get anywhere else.”

Aura wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him in closer so that more of his body was touching hers and so that more of her energy would transfer into him quickly. She then kissed him without any warning, and she didn’t even stop when there were sparks between their lips. In fact, she moaned at the contact, even as her body trembled from the storm that it created inside of them. Her the lightning rod, and he the lightning.

The sparks began to fly through the whole car itself, and the kiss that he gave back to her was nothing like the brief one they’d shared the night before. It was intense beyond any touch she’d gotten from him yet, and he wasn’t holding back as he pulled yet more out through her. He growled slightly against her lips, and at her waist, unseen by either of them, he actually left a few pinpricks of black marks on her skin from the electric burns of his fingertips.

They sank a little into the car as the metal frame bent at her command, even though she didn’t really think that she was doing anything. It felt soft and comfortable beneath her and she kept sinking little by little as the metal slowly crept around them both. She didn’t stop kissing him, and in fact, she kissed him harder. “Mmmm…Orlando…”

Orlando growled at that and ran a hand down to her waist as he drew even the oxygen out of her lungs, it seemed like, to make her even more lightheaded than she already was. Finally, he started to lean back, but couldn’t pull away from her, and so instead he just drew her with him away from the car. He moved his kisses down to her neck, and then to her collarbone as he fell backward. With a single surge of power that seemed so bright it would leave her blind forever, he shifted, and the burst of power forced her to shift as well, both of them falling together to the ground.

The smaller, sandy-colored wolf that she was laid there, dazed, for a solid couple of minutes before she opened her eyes look around for him. Orlando?

He was laying a few feet away from her the way he’d landed, but he slowly lifted his head and looked at her. Still here.

Did it…hurt?

He shook his head. No. Not for the first time in a long time. _]He got up and went over to her, licking the side of her face once. [_Are you alright?

She got up slowly and then shook her fur off with an answering lick to the side of his face. Yeah, I’m okay. _]She brushed her fur against his and didn’t move away even when it felt like static electricity between them. [_I’ve never been so overloaded that I was forced into it other than the Fulness. That was interesting.

Yes, well, I have that effect on people. _]He looked over at the car, which had the obvious imprint of her body against the rear driver’s side door. [_Can you fix that like this?

No, but I’ll just say that I wanted to get a little more energy before I shifted. I’ll fix it later. _]She nuzzled the side of his neck. [_Come on. Let’s go.

It was a long run up the trail to the settlement, but she knew from prior experience that Orlando was more than fast enough to keep up. There was a huge double-reinforced chain link fence around the entire compound, with barbed wire on top of that. A large gate stretched across the road in front of them that had no actual lock on it, just a straight wall of chains, designed so that only an Ironborn could get through it. On the other side of the chains, there was a large group of wolves and humans standing looking their direction, with Nick standing in the middle. There were almost forty wolves standing around in either form. Some were standing close to the chains to welcome her home, but most were hanging back, eyeing Orlando suspiciously.

She looked over at them and let out a slight huff of a sigh before she looked at Orlando. [_Don’t worry. They won’t do anything to you. _]She walked up to the fence and looked up at it, amazed that it still remembered her touch even after so long. Aura rubbed her side against the chains and as she did so the metal slowly moved as though it was really just a curtain instead of a fence.

It stayed aside long enough for Orlando to slip through, but fell heavily into place behind him once he was inside, a few sparks flying from his tail to the chains. There were whispers among some of the wolves near them that he could hear, even though they were spoken silently.

Mommy, his eyes scare me…

You said Blackeyes can’t be wolves, Daddy, they’re just demons, how is he a wolf?

[_He’s holding his shape. He must be incredibly old. _]

And then there were several that were not whispers, but open communication in their direction, first from a large wolf with mostly-brown fur. [_Welcome home, Aura. _]He stepped up slowly, with Nick slightly behind him.

She barely stopped herself from openly growling at the wolf, but there was a soft growl that rumbled through her insides that at least Orlando heard since he was close enough to her. Aura also remembered her manners enough to bow to her Alpha by ducking her head low to the ground. Don’t get too many ideas. She said as she stood up straight again. We’re only here for a short time.

[The only idea I have is that I’m glad you’ve come home. _]He said with a stern look on his face. [_The rest of your family has been gone for more than a year now looking for you, but they check in often. _]Which was a direct jab at her not having checked in at all. _When next they report back to me, I will inform them of your return.

I just told you that we’re not staying long. _]She looked over at Nick and then she looked back to his father. [_You can tell my family that I’m alive.

He nodded, and looked past her to Orlando. [_My son has told us about your friend. _]His tone was not amused. [_He may remain so long as he remains outside the perimeter. I know you haven’t been away so long you’ve forgotten our laws, Aura. _]

I want your word that he will not be harmed or assaulted in any manner. If he is, I can promise you that I will not take a single step toward the Council. _]There was a time in her life when she was terrified of Nick’s father, but now she just hated him. That hatred for him made her bold, and she knew that her life was something valuable to him, even if he would probably be glad to be rid of just about every aspect of her personality. [_He’s helped us, and I won’t stand for any violence toward him.

He just sneered at her and nodded towards Orlando. [_The demon stays unharmed. Don’t worry yourself about him. _]He was saying it as though he couldn’t care less about what she wanted one way or the other. [_Come on and get inside. There’s dinner already laid out for everyone. You can tell us all about your exciting two year vacation from your life. _]He turned around haughtily and disappeared with the rest of the wolves around him.

She looked back at Orlando and then she sighed as she walked up closer to him again. I’m sorry about all of this.

[_It’s better than I’m used to, actually. _]Orlando said and seemed to mean it.

Nick saw her walking close by Orlando and didn’t like it much, so he walked up on the other side of her and brushed against her fur. _I talked pretty much everybody down. There are a few families who are still up in arms about you leaving in the first place, but my dad managed to convince them to stay quiet. _

Nick’s brush against her felt much more incredible than normal since she was actually kind of drained of her natural element, and so she walked close to him. Thanks. I think. I’m glad they didn’t rip me to shreds, anyway.

I’ll save up my ‘I told you so’s until later.

I meant what I told your father, though. I don’t want to stay here very long.

[_I know. We won’t. We’ll stay long enough to get a proper rest, resupply and get moving again. He already knows we plan to go before the Council. He’s called in the Iron Guard from the other settlements. They’ll be here in a couple of days and we’ll be ready to go. _]

[_We’re not going alone? _]She hated the idea of the guard going with her. Then she would never be left alone. There would always be someone near her, watching her every move. It made her insane just thinking about it.

[_They’ll travel with us, but at a distance. And I already told my father he’s not coming. _]He was silent, not enjoying that particular memory. _That was a fun conversation. _

We could have talked to him together. _]She brushed her fur into Nick’s again. [_I don’t care what your father thinks.

[_I know you don’t. _]He didn’t seem altogether in agreement with her opinion of things, but he knew her, and he knew her reasons for disliking his father. They were walking past buildings that, to most people, would have made them look like refugees from an impoverished third world nation. But this was their home, and they both knew that beneath the surface of the community, they were actually one of the richest groups of people in the country. Metals, even precious ones, were their particular specialty, after all.

They all went in and shared a meal as the pack always did, but it was quiet around the meal since Orlando was there. Almost as soon as he was done chewing, though, Orlando had to leave the enclosure, even though Aura wasn’t happy about it at all. Once he was gone, she felt incredibly alone inside, even with Nick there. She wandered around like a puppy who had lost all its littermates, and it was only then when she actually started to feel a little bit frightened.

She and Nick were human again as they walked around the outer edges of the compound alone, but Nick kept his distance, since she seemed to want some space at the moment. He reached down to some of the scrap metal lying around on the ground, of which there was plenty, and made a small coin out of it. “Penny for your thoughts?”

Since all of her clothes were back in the car far up the road, she was wearing some of her mother’s clothes, even though her parents were still gone out looking for her. It had been strange to see the inside of their house again, but she hadn’t had the strength to go back to her own small house she had left behind. She held her hand out for the coin, and when he dropped it into her hand she examined it closely just to distract herself from the fear she felt. “I feel trapped again. I put on a brave face for about three seconds with your father and then all it took was a few hours here to shatter it.”

“Your face still looks pretty brave to me.”

Aura sighed and then melted the coin in the palm of her hand. It then wrapped itself around her wrist in a chain so fine it looked like a web that had been woven from spider-silk. Finally she looked up at Nick, and he could see the fear and worry in her eyes. “I’m not. And the worst thing is that most everyone is mad at me, so I feel alone.”

Nick took her hand, running his thumb along the chain she’d made. “You’ve got me.” He looked at her for a moment and then started to let go of her hand, remembering what they’d talked about before. “At least I think you do.”

She held tighter to his hand as he started to let go, since she didn’t want him to pull away. Aura actually stepped in closer to him. “You’re the only one who wants me around. I know I deserve their anger and scorn for leaving, but we’re going to the Council for them.”

“We’re going to the Council for us first and foremost. This is about our future as well as the future of this pack.” He pulled her into a kiss and stopped walking. “You needed time to be apart, to be alone. No one here should be angry about that. They’ll understand that in time.”

Aura hugged him tightly and then took a deep breath of his skin as she kissed up the side of his neck. Everything was so much more comfortable when she was surrounded by metal, even if she was afraid of the wolves themselves. She kissed him back and then pulled him back to the fence, twirling them around once so she could push him back into it forcefully with a giggle. She’d done the very same thing on the night that he’d asked her to be his Mate.

As he had that night, he had a mind to take her right then and there just for the rough treatment, but he just held her against him with his arms around her waist. “Are you feeling any…um…” he put his hands on either side of her hips, looking down at her stomach meaningfully.

She had pretty much forgotten that getting pregnant had become a possibility, but as she remembered, she had a moment where she panicked. “I…I don’t feel any different…”

“It was just the once. I’m sure you’re not. I just wanted to ask in case you were feeling anything.”

Aura kept him pressed back against the fence, her arms clutched around his neck. The feel of him there with her, supporting her, especially about something like children, made her feel less frightened. Certainly less alone. Most males were the panicked ones when it came to a possible unplanned pregnancy. Nick didn’t seem worried at all. “You’re not afraid of the possibility?” She remembered asking him the same thing just after the act on the Fulness, but she couldn’t help asking him again.

He shook his head and kissed her again. “It’s what I want someday. With you. What’s there to be afraid of?”

She kissed his cheek and then his lips several times. For some reason, at that moment, that had been exactly what she’d needed to hear. Aura growled softly against his lips as the links of the fence bent to take the two of them in a little more. “You’re incredible, Nick. I don’t deserve the devotion you give.”

Nick didn’t contradict her, but only because it would have led to another fairly meaningless argument between them. “Come on. Your house is just the way you left it. I checked.” He kissed up her neck to her ear. “And this time, I think I’ll stay, if that’s alright with you.”

Aura certainly didn’t want to stay in that place by herself, and she didn’t want to let go of Nick. He actually scooped her up after she nodded and then she giggled as he carried her back to her house. Once they got to the porch, she hopped out of his arms and then pulled him with her, the door closing on its own by their command.

**************

Maggie, Nick’s mother, looked over at her Mate as they continued to walk hand in hand. They often made their own nightly patrol, especially on such a night when their two treasures had finally returned. “It looks as though he’s gotten through to her, at least.”

He wasn’t looking at her as she spoke, and just nodded once in acknowledgment. “I knew he’d be the one to track her down someday. I admit I didn’t think it would be this quick. Another few years and I would’ve suggested we start grooming Cessie or Tia for him instead. It’s still worth considering.”

“They’re both just puppies. Do you really think he would listen to us if we told him to take one of them as his Mate?”

“No time soon, woman, calm yourself.” He made a face. “But I still believe that if Aura continues with her push for complete independence, Nick’s sensibilities will return him here where he belongs. He knows his responsibilities to us too well to follow her off the edge of the world.”

“He loves her.” She sighed as she looked back the direction of Aura’s house. “He’s not going to give up on her. I don’t know when it happened, when he actually fell in love with her. You told me our son was too smart to let his emotions get mixed up with her.” He had never liked Aura, since she had always been a defiant girl, even when she was very young.

“I still believe he is.” He looked in the direction of Aura’s little shack of a house where he knew his son had gone off to earlier. “He knows what he’s doing.”

“So what is he doing right now? Other than warping that little shack?”

“He’s making sure she stays. Making sure her affections stay where they’re supposed to be.” He looked back at the fence with a snarl. “And making sure she remembers why she belongs with him, not with a demon.”

Maggie rolled her eyes. “You don’t really believe she would actually be interested in that creature, do you?”

“I don’t think we know anything about her for certain at the moment. She’s had two years to become something completely different.”

“It’s like you said. We just need her to give Nick some puppies and then we can get rid of her.” The Mating from before had seemed like a good idea, but now that she’d gone and run off, they didn’t want her around any more than Aura herself wanted to be around. If they could get some puppies after the Council accepted them, then they could wait for another female to be a true Mate to their son.

“The Shadowborn might actually be useful for that much.” He shrugged as he walked, choker necklaces clicking as he moved and rings clicking on his fingers as he fidgeted with them idly. “If she’s dallying with both of them, the demon will eventually kill her anyway. We just need to make sure of the puppies before that happens.” He looked back at the shack with a sneer of disgust. “The sooner the better. They’ll hit the Fulness on their way to Geneva. I’ll instruct the Guard to leave them alone for once, Mated or not.”

“Good. That’s good.” She nodded and then nodded back toward their own house. “Let’s go back home. It’s quiet tonight.”

As they turned around to go back to their home and let someone else walk the patrol for the night, behind them on the fence, unseen by them, there were a few small blue arcs of power from one chain link to another, and a perfectly concealed black shape in the darkness beyond the fence line where they’d been standing.

VII

The stay with the pack was longer than Aura wanted, but after a week of waiting, her parents finally made it home. She was able to see them along with her two half- brothers since no one would let her leave until she saw them, but they hadn’t physically trapped her, they’d only guilted her into staying. Orlando, however, they physically barred outside the gate except for short periods of time, and even when he was allowed in, she and Orlando weren’t left alone for a single minute. Every night for the week inside with the pack, she and Nick spent together. In fact, they spent almost every minute of it together.

This time, though, it felt like her and Nick against the world, and it actually brought them closer. Much closer. With Orlando more or less left on the outside, she was almost forced to forget him, but she had no way of removing him completely from her thoughts. Every morning when she would go out, she would look through the fence for him, and every morning he was there, watching for her. She had no idea, though, that it would be so impossible to get close to him. Between the pack, the guards, and Nick, there was a wall of people that kept her and Orlando apart. As he watched her through the fence every day, Orlando could finally see what she had been afraid of the entire time; what she had meant when she told him that she didn’t want to go back. Especially now, after she had run away, every hazel set of eyes was making sure that she wouldn’t bolt again. She was too important.

That morning, Nick had actually been the one to start bossing around some of the members of the Guard that were supposed to be going with them, since they had been the ones dragging their feet when it came to getting ready. He’d spent the last few days putting together a new car for the two of them (much easier when their entire home was essentially one big scrap heap made from every spare bit of metal that could be salvaged safely from a junkyard) and since he’d finished his own in just a few days, he was barking (sometimes literally) at the Guards to get their acts together and get ready to leave. He had gone so far as to take the car out and park it outside the gates as a place for Orlando to stay if he wanted. It was a large black car so wide that Aura could actually lie down comfortably across the back seat, and the exterior was actually one seamless piece of reinforced metal, thanks to Nick’s handiwork.

When she came out after Nick a few hours later, she was all dressed and ready for the day, and after a week of being home, she had much more metal draped over herself, bands now circling her upper arms and forearms as well as hanging off her belt in long chains that made her look, along with her tattoos and piercings, as if she were constantly on her way to some kind of punk rock concert. Instead of going to look for Nick, though, she was determined to check on Orlando. There were guards that were posted to watch her at all times, but at this point she didn’t even care if they followed her. Once she made it through the gate, she found him easily enough and she smiled weakly at him. “I decided not to wait for them to let you in.”

“Any more progress today?” He had changed into one of his other more rough-and-tumble outfits, as he called it, black jeans, boots and shirt, with a coat on over the shirt that went halfway down to his knees and was covered with pockets. However, despite his devil-may-care attire, he was sitting up in a tree and staring out into space, with a few drops of blood on the corner of his mouth.

“I never know anymore.” She watched him carefully, since she really just wanted some time alone with him. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine, why?” He turned and jumped down out of the tree, landing with the grace of their kind in a crouch a few feet from her. “Do I not look okay?”

She smirked and then walked up to him and wiped away the blood at the corner of his mouth. “You were hiding in a tree.”

“Oh, that.” He smiled sheepishly. “I um…got beaten up by some humans earlier. Thankfully they don’t run as fast as I do, but they do punch pretty hard. You should tell your Alpha that they like to go hunting in the woods off southeast, and they get pretty close to the chain line.”

Her smile faded and she just kept looking at his face to make sure he was okay. “He’s not my Alpha.”

“Sorry, figure of speech.” He smiled at her concern, but took her hand as she fussed over him. “I’m fine, really. If you’re concerned, be concerned about how many years those humans lost off their lives with the shock I gave them for hitting me.”

Aura actually laughed softly at that. “Nah. They’re like rabbits. Plenty more where they came from.”

Orlando shrugged. “My mother was human. Once.” He seemed a little deflated by the conversation, but he changed the topic quickly. “So still no clue when we’re leaving, then?”

“Sorry.” She said with an edge of guilt at the thought of his mother, since she wasn’t used to people actually caring that much about humans. Once they were wolves, it became a completely different thing, but she should have been more considerate since there were people she knew and cared about that were once human. Aura looked back and though she couldn’t see Nick, she could see the guards that were watching her with narrowed eyes. She’d touched Orlando and that had given them reason to look at her with betrayal and suspicion. “Nick keeps telling me that it will be soon, but I honestly don’t know anymore.”

“They don’t seem particularly eager to be on their way.” He said with a look back at the guards, returning the suspicious looks they were giving him. “You think they’re waiting for this Fulness to pass?” It would be in about a week, after all.

She hadn’t really thought about it that way but that made her look back and think before she looked back at him. “I guess. Maybe. Maybe they…I don’t know.” Aura bit on her bottom lip nervously. “Nick and I aren’t Mated and we’re not even on that road.” Not yet anyway, she thought. “I’m not ready to have anyone’s puppies.”

“You’re a bit young to be having a litter as of yet anyway, aren’t you? The youngest mother I’ve ever heard of was forty.”

“The purer the wolf, the easier it is.” She shrugged. “I meant that I’m not emotionally ready. Physically, with Nick, I could handle it. I think.” She raised an eyebrow and looked at him. “Anyway, how old are you?”

“You should’ve asked me that on our first date. I might’ve told you then.”

“Our first date?”

He shook his head. “Bad joke, sorry. I meant when you gave me the keys to my apartment.”

“I demand much better first dates.” She smirked, since if that had been their first date, it was actually a pretty hot one. “No, but really. How old are you?”

“Old enough to know better.” He smiled and leaned back against the tree he’d come out of. “You’re not going to stop until you have a number, are you?”

She took a few steps closer to him. “You know how old I am.”

He rolled his eyes, but then sighed. “I was born in the thirties. My mother and father moved to Spain when France was occupied by the Germans. We stayed here after the war. My father couldn’t go back to France.”

“Wow. You are old.” She giggled and then lowered her voice to a whisper. “I think it’s illegal for you to make out with someone like me.”

“Not in my country.” He grinned. “But if you want to press charges…”

She heard the guards get a little closer from the crunch of leaves and sticks behind her. Aura sighed and took a few steps back, though it pained her to do so, he could tell from the expression on her face. She mouthed ‘I’m sorry’ and then looked back, which would normally make the guards back off, but they didn’t.

“I understand.” He smiled at the guards, which distinctly did not make them happy, but he was protected by the word of the Alpha, and so they couldn’t do him any harm. “They’re worried I might get brimstone on your bronze.” For a moment, as he glared at the guards, there was an odd mixture of emotion in Orlando’s eyes that she hadn’t seen there before. Now that she finally knew how many years deep the well of his emotions ran, she had to wonder where such mixtures came from originally. There was pain, covered up by sarcasm, but underneath there was fear, covered over by anger that was never, ever shown outright. The anger of the wild animal she’d seen the first Fulness they’d known each other. “Such simple souls.”

Aura sighed and then it was like some of that anger had transferred from him to her, and suddenly she didn’t care about the guards. She stepped closer to him again. She hadn’t done anything wrong, and she didn’t even consider herself part of the pack anymore. “Well, maybe I want you to be a criminal more than I want to press charges.”

When he looked back at her the anger in him disappeared, replaced with an honest caring, made more foreign to her by the fact that he was asking nothing in return for it. When he spoke, it was in English and in low tones, barely moving his mouth so that the Guards wouldn’t hear him. “Something you know I wouldn’t mind at all. But those guards will report your every move to Nick. You should be careful.”

She whispered in English back to him, confused by what he was saying. “Careful? Haven’t I proved to you that you can’t break me?”

That made him grin, and it was a grin that the guards were certain to mistake for exactly what it was. “I haven’t tried to break you yet.”

Aura grinned as well, but the guards didn’t see anything since her back was to them. The longer she looked at him, the more she realized how much she had missed him for the entire week that she had been more or less kept in a cage. “They did it again, didn’t they? They moved in closer.”

“Yes, they did.” He said with a wider smirk. “And I’m pretty sure if you come any closer, they’re going to charge me.”

She wished she could smirk as well, but now all she could think about was that she was a prisoner in a place that she never wanted to go back to. Aura backed away slowly. “I need you, Orlando.” She whispered again in English with a look of painful disappointment on her face. “I’m not going to give them a reason to hurt you.”

“They have plenty of those already.” He sighed and nodded to her. “I’ll be here when you’re ready to go. And this time I’ll try and stay away from the indigenous population.”

Aura met his eyes and then one of her rings widened to the point of his size, and so it slipped off of her finger and into the leaves between them. It was a gift for him, from her. She held his gaze for a moment before she turned around quickly and stormed through the guards. “You all are pathetic, flea-bitten mongrels.” She knew it was an incredible insult, but she didn’t care. “He’s my friend!” She yelled in Spanish, glaring at all of them. “Who do you think any of you are??”

They didn’t answer her, but looked at her sadly as they followed her back inside the perimeter fence of the compound, hands resting on guns at their waists and glares growing deeper on their faces by the moment.

She didn’t look at any of them again as she went back in and then went back to her shack until Nick showed up. When he did, she looked up at him and then spoke in English hoping that most people wouldn’t understand if they heard what she was about to say. “They’ve done exactly what I didn’t want them to, and you’re helping them! I’m in a cage!!! Get us the hell out of here, Nick, or I’m going to do something drastic.”

“I came back to let you know we’re leaving this afternoon.” He said cautiously, staying at the door of her shack to make sure she wasn’t going to attack him if he went further in.

Aura actually crumpled to the floor in sobs, both of relief at his news and just general pain about the whole situation. No words came.

Nick went and knelt next to her, still just as cautiously, with a hand on her arm. “We’ll be past this soon, Aura. We’ll spend the Fulness on the road and then go before the Council at the end of the week. And then this will be over. It’ll be just us. Doing things our way.”

She sniffled as she tried to stop crying, but she just couldn’t believe the situation. “I didn’t want to be here this long. There are guards watching my every move. I’m trapped. We’re trapped now, don’t you see that? The guards are coming with us! They’ll probably drag us back afterward!!”

“They’re not going to drag us anywhere.” He forced her to look at him, a little roughly, perhaps, but they were a rough people in almost every regard. “You ran once. So did I. Once we have done what we came here to do, we can do it again if we want to.”

“You’re crazy to believe that.” She said as more tears ran down her cheeks onto his hand. “They’re never going to let us go. They’d rather kill us first than lose their legitimacy to rogues.”

“Then I’m crazy.” He shrugged. “Let them try to kill us. You and I are far from helpless. Besides, that’s why you want to keep Shadowboy around, isn’t it? So he can fry the competition?”

Aura looked up at him through her tear-filled eyes and then she slowly got up off of the floor. “Right. That’s who I am, Nick. No better than some scheming wolf that uses other people to get what she wants.” She pulled herself away from him so that he couldn’t touch her. “But that makes me wonder what you think I think about you. What’s my next move, Nick?”

“Okay, that’s not what I meant at all, and you know it.” He was getting mad as she accused him, but he stood up with her. “You do things your way and nobody else’s. You always have.”

“I’m not here for me, Nick. I’m here for you, can’t you see that?? I left this place! I never wanted to come back!! I’m here for you!!” She pushed violently past him and then burst out of her house, the walls humming and rattling with her energy. Pieces of scrap metal flew up and shot to random places like arrows and bullets as she stormed through, and though she wasn’t paying attention, she silently dared the guards to get close to her.

All the guards did indeed give her a wide berth, but they still followed after her at a distance. There were several wolves out and about in the community at their daily chores, and they all gave her one look and then went back about their affairs. The guards followed her out to the car that Nick had built, and when she got in, they took up positions on either side of it far off the road, just leaning as they watched her fume.

“Don’t turn around.” She heard a voice from the back seat that sounded fairly groggy. “They’ll know I’m back here if you do, and I doubt the doors would stay intact very long after that.”

She sighed as she sunk down into the seat and rested her head low against the glass of the window next to her. Tears still were streaming down her face, but she was hurt as much as she was angry. “This was a mistake, coming here.”

“Which do you mean? Spain or the car?” She could hear Orlando groan a little as he rubbed his face, waking up a little more so he could talk to her.

“Spain.” She said through a sniffle, looking out the window at the guard with a glare she hoped the man could feel.

“So then leave.” He said as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “I could even jumpstart the car for you. Though I imagine you could probably make a key too, so I guess that rules that suggestion out.”

“There are guards all around this car right now. They’d rip it to shreds before I even got down the road.”

“You’re more powerful than they are.” He said with his voice finally cleared. “They’ve been guarding me all week too. I’ve had one-sided conversations with almost every one of them. Not one of them is as powerful as you are. They’re all second or third generation at most. You and Nick and the other central family children are the only ones that could ever come close to matching each other.”

“I’ve missed you.” She said abruptly, since she didn’t care about talking about the other families and the pack.

“I don’t think you’d do very well at missing me.” She could hear him move a little in the seat, and she felt the back of the seat give way as he pulled the lever for it from behind her, letting her lay the seat back. “I understand you Ironborn are pretty accurate shooters, and with good reason.”

One of the guards looked her way when the seat went back, but it was nothing unusual, and they were getting bored of watching her cry, so they were looking other directions. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know.” He put a hand up to take hers gently. “I missed you too.”

Aura squeezed his firmly and then held on tight enough that it was clear she was not going to let go. “I got myself into a horrible mess.”

“What kind of mess?”

“Putting myself back into this whole thing. Once you mentioned that the Fulness was coming up, all I could think about while I was waiting for Nick to show up was that somehow he was going to try and get me pregnant. I mean, he’s never pressured me, but…” She just sighed. “It was easy to fall back into everything we were before this whole last week. Except that he actually was staying at my house.”

“And he will be again, from the way he tells it.”

“He will what?”

“Be going back to your apartment. Happily ever after, all that jazz.”

Aura let go of his hand and then kept both of her hands in her lap. “So you think I’m just using you too.”

“That’s not what I said at all.” His hand still rested where it had been. “I seem to remember volunteering to come along. You didn’t trick me or manipulate me into this.”

“Yes, but you don’t think it means anything.”

“Not to sound like I’m repeating you, but I don’t know what you mean.”

“You think that I couldn’t possibly want to be with you.”

That silenced him for a while, and his fingers at her side drummed once as she heard him sigh. “I think you would be crazy to want to, yes. Most of this pack agrees with me.”

“I don’t know how many times I have to say that I don’t care what they think for anyone to believe me.” She sighed and then turned onto her side on the chair so that she was facing the direction of the window again.

“I believe you.” He said quietly, wanting her to know he meant it. “I was just saying that in this particular instance, I agree with your pack. You would be crazy. That being said, I think you’re crazy enough for just about anything.”

She sniffled as she tried to keep her tears away. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t even think it’s possible.”

“What matters is what you believe is possible.” He said as he lifted his hand to wipe away one of her tears, moving completely blindly to do so, so it was a bit awkward. “Because you are the one who will make it happen. If you believe it’s possible to do everything you are capable of by birth with the Council and then have your own life afterward, then you will be the one to make that work. If you believe you can survive being around a Shadowborn all the time,” he rested his hand on the side of the seat, since he couldn’t find her hand again, “then you’ve got my full encouragement to have a go.”

Aura flipped over to her other side but before she could take his hand in hers again, his wandering hand went over her chest and it actually made her laugh softly. “Hey.”

“Hey, that was your fault entirely. I take no credit for that one.”

“You better be careful. I have metal…almost everywhere.”

“I’m…gonna skip right past the part where you explain precisely what that means and say that I’m the walking sparkplug here. Your almost anywheres should probably be more careful of me instead of the other way around.”

“I wish I could get back into that seat with you.”

Orlando smiled, and caressed her hand. She could feel the usual power from him, but it was weak. He’d been away from civilization and most power supplies for quite some time. “Has anyone ever told you that you have some very dangerous wishes?”

“You feel so…distant.” She didn’t want to say weak, since she didn’t think he was weak at all. She put one hand on the door next to her, solid as it was with metal and then she squeezed tighter to his hand with her other hand. “Take as much as you want.”

“I’m alright.” He squeezed her hand back reassuringly, but she could still feel herself giving him power even if he wasn’t purposefully taking it. It was just his nature to be a black hole and soak it up if it was in the vicinity. “I’ll plug myself into the car charger once we’re on the road and I’ll be fine.”

“Would you just accept my help instead of acting all male and trying to pretend like you’re okay?” She growled softly afterwards as she held tighter to his hand.

“I’m not acting male, sweetheart, that feature comes built-in.” Even so, he did take a little more from her, though not much. “Are you feeling a little better?”

“Yes, I’m feeling a lot better.” She smiled gently. “Thanks.”

“Any time.” He laid there in silence for a moment, then squeezed her hand tightly. “You’re going to be great. Whatever happens, wherever you go, whatever you choose to want,” he emphasized with another squeeze of her hand, “you’re going to be great.”

Aura sighed loudly but she didn’t let go of his hand. “How do you know? I mean, we don’t even know each other very well. I might be a horrible person.”

“A horrible person would never have been able to help me the way you did the day we met. She wouldn’t have been able to actually draw and then tattoo my brothers and me and understand the way we were. Us against the storm.”

“I…“ She let go of his hand to lift up her chair and when she looked out, all of the guards were sitting on the ground, bored as ever by the girl in the car. Aura climbed into the back seat, which they thought nothing of, and then she laid down directly on top of him. “How do you seem to understand me so easily?”

“I…didn’t know I did.” He said with a smile, surprised at her boldness, to say the least, but certainly not complaining.

Aura giggled and then kissed the side of his neck and then his lips. She was surprised at how much she had missed being able to do so. “Mmm…”

As confident as Orlando almost always was, the situation they were currently in seemed to make him just the slightest bit nervous, though he didn’t lack for enthusiasm as he returned the kiss.

“Sorry.” She said with a whisper. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” She grabbed onto the front seat to pull herself back up there.

Orlando pulled her back, hoping the guards hadn’t seen his hand for the split second it was above the window line. “No, no, it’s not you.” He kissed her again once he had her back down with him. “I just…don’t find myself in this situation terribly often.”

“Like…how often?” She was starting to wonder if he had any experience at all, not that it mattered, really, but she wasn’t going to attack the guy if he hadn’t had any experience. That was almost cruel.

“Like…almost never.”

Aura rested her head on his shoulder and just kissed the side of his neck sporadically. “I’m not pressuring you or anything. I just want to be close to you.”

“And I…have no problems with that.” He massaged her back as he held her, and his fingers really were magical, as they sapped every bit of tension from her muscles, telling every one of her nerves to relax. “There just aren’t many people who can stay this close to me and…well…live.” She could feel why, too. Even as he was making her muscles relax, there was an instinct inside of her that was telling her she was losing herself more quickly than she should, that he was drawing power from her like a desert drinking up water. But he was controlling it, or trying to at least.

She scooted down a little and kicked off her shoes so that her feet could connect with the metal of the door. There wasn’t much cloth or padding in the car, since none of them really cared for it. The metal was the important part. Once her feet were touching the door, she could breathe a little easier, since she had a source of energy that was constantly giving her strength. He was a lot taller than her, though, so scooting down made her even more awkwardly placed on his body. “Well, I’m not dying. Not even close.”

“Good. That’s not the plan.” He ran his fingers through her hair as she got comfortable and just sighed. “Why did you trust me? That day in the tattoo shop. You know what I am.”

Aura actually liked the feel of his hands in her hair, and so she just held tighter to his body. “You can tell a lot about a person by what they ask for in a tattoo. In some ways, it’s when people are at their most honest, since nobody is going to lie about something they’re getting permanently etched into their skin. You can tell a lot from how they respond to their own story and what they tell you about it.”

“So I should be telling a lot about you by these marks all over you?” He moved her shirt aside a little to run his fingers over one tattoo on the back of her shoulder of claw marks.

She giggled against his midsection, since her face was kind of low on his body. “Actually, yes.” She blushed a little but she wasn’t really that embarrassed. “I actually get pretty violent sometimes, even if it’s just for play.”

“It’s a shame I’m not a wolf more often, then.” He said as he replaced her shirt where it had been. “I think I could stand to see you violent a little more often.”

“Oh, really?” Aura slid down his body a little more. “In what way?”

The particular way she was going wasn’t quite what he’d had in mind for violence, so he reached down and grabbed her arms before she went any further, laughing slightly. “Not…that way, I don’t think. Not in a car with this little suspension, anyway.” He pulled her up into a kiss. “I’ve got a rule about firsts. I can only do one a day, that’s my quota.”

“What was today’s?”

“Being woken up by a beautiful woman.”

She blushed and then kissed him passionately, but she didn’t stop herself from grinding into him. “You’re sweet.”

“No I’m not.” He kissed her again, with a few shocks of his power to her lips in the midst of the kiss. “I’m bitter and sour.”

“Are you sure you can’t bend your rule for one day?” Aura inquired with a mischievous grin.

“We’re going to be leaving soon.” He said with another kiss, as though to apologize for bringing the topic back to unpleasant matters. “Let’s save that first for another day.”

Aura sighed and then realized that he was probably right. She reached out for the front seat again. “I should get out.”

Orlando sighed and kissed her neck. “Sorry to remind you. I’ll be here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Aura kissed him deeply for so long that even she was gasping a little as the kiss broke. Her hand brushed across him in a dangerous place and teased him for a moment as she smirked down at him. “I can’t wait to see what would happen if we…”

He grabbed her hand almost as though she were about to strike him, his reflexes certainly as sharp as ever. “Have you ever stuck a fork in a microwave?” His eyes looked up for a moment as if he was considering what he’d said.

“No, but I’ve got a pretty good imagination for what would happen.” Her smile was scandalous, and she flipped her hair out of her face with a slight giggle. “The great thing about that example is that nothing really happens to the fork.”

Orlando grinned. “Then clearly you’ve never been the fork in question.”

She kissed down his chest, which was conveniently bare at the moment. “I’ll be whatever you want me to be.”

He sat up just slightly, which was as much as he could afford, so that he could look her in the eye as he raised her chin. “Then be yourself. Nothing more or less.”

Aura then moved up his body and then kissed him again as her hips played dangerous games with his by being a little too forward. “I think I am being myself.”

Orlando grinned at that. “I want you to be sure.”

She sighed and then she let up significantly. “What if I don’t know who I am?”

“Then there’s only one way to find out. Be who you think you are until it feels right.”

“You won’t let me.” She teased, trying to get back into her playful mood and to encourage him into a playful mood as well.

He smiled up at her and kissed her lightly. “We’ll have time. Somewhere no one will catch us, since the suspension on this thing sucks.”

“I don’t like being told no.” She said with a very light giggle.

Orlando chuckled at that. “Well, that’s two characteristics of the real you that we’re sure of. You like to be violent and you don’t like to be told no. That’s a start.”

“Well, you’re the one half naked, back here. Makes me feel overdressed with my shirt on.”

“Then maybe you are.” He grinned at her and ran his fingers along her waist just under her shirt, sparking and shocking all the way.

She giggled and then kissed the side of his neck once before she looked up to check on where the guards were. She didn’t see the guards, but she did see Nick coming up the road toward the car. Quickly. “Shit.” She hissed as she grabbed onto the seat she was supposed to be in and somehow managed to get herself in it without popping up to window level, since there was nothing between the seats to block her. Aura flipped over to face the door and closed her eyes tight so it would look like she was sleeping and unaware of anyone in the backseat. “Pretend to sleep!” She said in a harsh whisper.

He knew a hiss like that when he heard one, and so he turned to face the back seat and curled up in the fetal position for good measure, since he fit better that way. His two bags were on the floor in front of the spacious back seat.

Nick got up to the car and got in quickly, then sighed as he reached over to touch her shoulder. “Aura, wake up.” He buckled his seat belt in a hurry across his lap and reached to start up the car. It growled like an angry wolf as it came to life, shaking the whole car with obvious power behind the engine.

Aura opened her eyes and then turned slowly to look over at him, confused. “What now, Nick?”

“Fuck this place, that’s what.” He hit the gas as soon as the engine was fully turned over and threw it into gear without touching the gear shift. As he gunned it down the road, she could see five wolves shift behind them and start running like they were dogs trying to catch a car on the freeway, but Nick was driving too fast for them to keep up for long.

She sat up and pulled up her seat, pretending like she looked down under her seat where she had supposedly put her shoes, but apparently they had “slid” underneath to the back. She gasped loudly when she saw Orlando sleeping in the back. “What…happened?? Did you know he was sleeping in here?”

“Yeah, I saw him on the way by. You awake back there, Florida?” He shouted louder than he needed to.

“I am now, Half-dime.” Orlando said as he got up, and Aura could actually see his half-awake performance out of the corner of her eye. The guy deserved an Emmy at least. “What’s with the pedal to your metal?”

“We’re leaving. It’s a fairly simple concept.” Nick didn’t look back, just kept his eyes on the dirt road as he drifted around corners until he got them back to the main road.

“Good gods,” she said as she put her seat completely upright again. “at least explain what the hell is going on.”

He didn’t explain for a long while, though, making her repeat the question until she was shouting at him and they finally hit asphalt and he really revved the motor into higher gears. “You said you wanted out!” He said almost angrily, but it was just because he was running on high adrenaline at the moment. “That’s where we are. Out.”

“I don’t…I don’t understand…” She was so confused since it was so abrupt. “You just decided to leave? Just like that?”

“Just like that.” He was going faster with every passing second, on roads that were not designed for speed. “Hey AC/DC, can you do anything about cops?”

“I’m not a Heartborn, Magneto.” He said with the same dripping condescension in his voice. “I can’t hear them coming, but I’m pretty sure this thing can outrun anything put together on a government budget.”

Aura was staring at Nick, still not really sure how she should even respond. “They’re going to hunt us down, you know that, right?”

Nick sighed heavily, both hands on the steering wheel and his eyes still fixed on the road angrily. “Two years of hunting you and they couldn’t find you. They know where we’re going, so they’ll be waiting for us outside Geneva, but until then, we’ll be able to keep to ourselves.” Aura knew him well enough to be able to tell when he was coming up with things as he went along, which was exactly what he was doing at the moment, but he seemed fairly confident in their chances. “When they do finally find us again, we’ll remind them that in Geneva, until you and I make it otherwise, an Ironborn has no rights and no defense against other wolves. They need to back off and let us do what they created us to do.”

She leaned across and then put her hand on his arm gently as her expression softened into one of gratefulness. “Thank you, Nick. I know it wasn’t what you wanted.”

He shook his head, still snarling and curling his lip somewhat at the entire situation. “No, it wasn’t. But that’s how things work sometimes.”

Aura sighed and then moved away her hand, since he seemed to be just as angry at her as he was at everything else. She looked out the window and then watched the blur of everything they were flying past. “I can go out there ahead of you. I’ll wait in Geneva for you until you’re ready.”

He looked at her in disbelief for a moment, the anger changing direction on his face to focus back at her instead of out at everything else they were speeding away from. “What is it going to take for you to get it, Aura?” He actually growled at her, completely heedless of Orlando in the back seat listening to their conversation. “I’m in this…with you. And that’s the end of it for me. This is all I have or want.” He finally looked back at the road and swerved them back onto it, eyes fixed ahead and fingers deep in grooves that his grip had carved in the steel steering wheel.

VIII

Aura sank down lower into the seat, since she felt like the worst person in the world. She turned so that she was only facing the window and pressed her forehead to the glass. “I’m sorry, Nick. I’m sorry for everything that you’ve had to sacrifice for me.”

She could feel the tension in him ease over the next few minutes, feel his mood calm through the rest of the metal in the car that she was pressed up against. Finally, he took a deep breath and sighed, though he was obviously still upset. “I’d do it again. And more.”

“Why? What is it about me that makes you want to do this?” She had her own reasons for bolting, her own reasons for wanting to live independent of the pack. But he actually enjoyed the pack and the life it provided. He loved his father and the path the Alpha had carved out for him.

He sighed in frustration and shook his head. “After thirty years, Aura, I hope that’s the last time you plan on asking me that stupid question.”

“I’m just a stupid girl who only cares about herself.” She wasn’t trying to be hard on herself so that he would feel bad for her, she knew the truth about herself. “You are so sure about what you want. You’re always sure.”

“I know who you are.” When he said it, it was in a tone that went right through her to the bottom of everything that she’d always been, everything they had been to each other their entire lives growing up.

She sunk even lower in the chair and closed her eyes. “I hope that who I am won’t always make you so mad.”

“I’m not mad at you.”

Aura actually laughed at that. “Yes you are.”

“I just want this over with so we can get back to our lives the way they were supposed to be.”

“Why can’t we make something different? Why does it have to be the way it was supposed to be?”

“I mean just us making a life together. That’s the way it was always supposed to be. Doesn’t matter where.” He flew past about nine cars on the wrong side of the road, barely swerving them back to the safe side before they rammed into a large van head-on, but he didn’t even look phased.

When they stopped in a small town for lunch hours later, Orlando seemed to go off on his own for a little while and she laid herself out on the hood of the car with her food next to her in a bag, untouched. Nick seemed to be calmer now than he was before, but her head was just spinning.

Nick, however, was starving, and was tearing into his food hungrily, despite the fact that he was a great deal calmer. “If they were close on our trail at all, we would’ve seen them by now.” He said as he looked back at the road they’d pulled off of to get lunch.

“I know.” She said quietly, pushing her food toward him so he could eat it since her stomach really couldn’t take anything at the moment. Slowly she turned to face him and she watched him carefully. “Cessie sure has grown up.” She couldn’t believe how jealous she had gotten over the young wolf, barely eighteen, but definitely a woman in body. “I was jealous of her.” She’d never been jealous of anyone, really. Except for the people on the outside.

That actually made him laugh. “Jealous? Of Cessie? Why?”

“Because your parents clearly want her to replace me.” She sighed and then looked down at the car instead of up at him. “Her mother’s fair skin has made her into a beauty.”

“No one is replacing you.” His mood had soured instantly as she said so, and he didn’t touch her food even though she pushed it toward him. She could hold onto it for later. ”Not like they could in the first place.”

Aura reached out and touched the side of his leg, since he was sitting up on the hood and she was lying down. “You were incredible. You are incredible. Thank you for getting me out of there.”

“I thought they were going to come with us.” He said sadly, and she could see his own sense of betrayal by their family, the pack that they had belonged to all their lives. “I thought once we told them we were going to the Council that things would be different and they would do as we said. I still don’t understand why they didn’t. They didn’t even seem half excited that we were going.”

“It’s my fault, Nick.” She pushed the bag of food between them out of the way and then she scooted closer to him and she rested her head on his thigh. “You hooked yourself with me and you lost credibility by doing so.” She wrapped her arms around his leg just to hold tightly to him. “I was the disappointment and you weren’t supposed to fall in love with me.”

“You never disappointed me.” He leaned down and kissed her shoulder, then leaned back against the windshield again.

“We need to find a place to take our time.” Aura said as she looked out away from the roadside rest stop into the trees, as though a place for them to stay was going to materialize before her eyes. “I don’t want to be too close to Geneva for the Fulness. We’re much weaker than they are in our wolves, and we wouldn’t stand a chance if we had to run.”

Orlando had been coming up to the car from behind them in time to hear that, and stopped, just looking at the two of them for a moment planning the Fulness, then turned and walked away again, going to a bench nearby to eat his food. They were planning things that didn’t involve him. He was just there as a shenanigan-deterrent. Nothing more.

“I think that’s probably a good idea. Plus it’ll let us get a little further off the track on our way there and keep the Iron Guard off our trail.” Nick said, matter-of-factly.

She sighed but she didn’t let go of her grip on his leg. “Can we just have fun for the Fulness? Just forget about everything for three days?”

“We should be able to find somewhere we can do that.” He rubbed at her back for a moment, and then leaned forward to kiss her shoulder again, getting up. “I’ve gotta run inside real quick before we get on the road again. I’ll be out in a few.”

Aura sat up when he got off the car and she sighed as she jumped off as well, wondering where Orlando had gone off to.

He wasn’t far away, just eating the wrap he’d gotten as he watched the people coming and going from the little café where they’d stopped. He’d left his contacts in his bag the entire time they’d been on the road, and so he’d gotten more than his share of strange looks for his very odd eyes, but he knew they were on the move, so he didn’t let it get to him.

She went and sat next to him even though he didn’t seem interested in talking. “I wondered where you went off to.”

He scooted over a little to give her space to sit down when she approached. “I wasn’t planning on going far. And I know you and Nick had some things to talk about. I figured me not being in the back seat for a while would help.”

“What things?” She was a little confused by that. “I like it when you’re around, and anyway, I have nothing to hide from you.”

“I know [_you _]like it when I’m around.” He said with a half smile. “And it’s okay that Nick doesn’t. I’d be a little uncomfortable if he was as fond of me as you are.” He nodded off towards the car as he took another bite. “It just seemed like there was a lot going on there and I didn’t want to intrude more than I already have, that’s all. What’s the plan?”

“You’re not intruding. You’re a part of this too. We’re all in this together, at this point.” She rested her head on his shoulder, since she figured it was a safe action for friends. “I was just telling him that we should find somewhere to stay for the Fulness. Since we’re all not really equipped to fight anyone from the Council should things go south.”

“No, we’re not.” He took another bite and sighed before turning to her. “You should know that his parents want puppies out of you. As far as they’re concerned, that’s the only use you have left to offer. That’s why they were stalling back at the compound. They wanted to keep you and Nick together for the Fullness for a better chance of you getting pregnant.”

She lifted her head up at that and then she looked up into his eyes. “How do you know that?”

“They like walking out by the fence line, away from the rest of the compound buildings. Except they seemed to forget they put the dog out for the night.”

Aura thought about what he said before she looked the direction that Nick had gone. “What were they going to do if they got what they wanted?”

“Depends on how things went with the Council.” He sighed and looked back at the road. “Nick’s parents are like the rest of the Council, that’s why they want a place on it for your people. They want power and control, nothing else. If you were chosen for the Council seat, I’m sure they would jump when you said jump. But they know that’s not likely.” He looked over at her with a slight smile. “There’s no way you’ll be picked for the Council seat out of the two of you. You’re not cut out for it. And believe me when I tell you that’s a compliment. It’ll be Nick if it’s at all.”

“So…they basically don’t care if I live or die.” She couldn’t smile at all, really, and she just kept watching where Nick had gone into the shop that they had stopped at. “Does he know?”

“I don’t think so. And I didn’t want to say so in front of him. I don’t think he would believe they actually said so anyway.”

She nodded and then got up slowly. “We should probably get back to the car. Get ready to go.”

He got up with her, taking the rest of his food with him. “I’m sorry I brought you down. I just thought you should know.”

“Thanks.” She said softly and then she turned to give him a hug, something that Nick saw when he came out of the shop. She let go of it and then kept walking to the car, her eyes on the ground the whole time.

Nick didn’t say anything as he approached the car and got in the driver’s seat, but when he got in, he took her hand across the spacious front seat. “You all set back there?” He said to the rear-view mirror.

“Mhm.” Orlando said through a mouthful of food.

Nick looked back over at her, speaking a little more quietly. “You alright?”

Aura nodded but she couldn’t look up at Nick. “We should probably just get on the road.” The news that Orlando had given her hadn’t come as a shock to her, but there was something extremely depressing about finding out that something she’d always only assumed was true.

Nick looked back at Orlando for a moment and then over at her suspiciously. He wasn’t stupid. He knew that something had happened that he wasn’t privy to, but he didn’t pry, just put the car back in gear and got back on the road again as she asked.

**************

Since they wanted to keep their distance from the Council until they were ready, they stayed about a two hour drive away from Geneva in a little inn that was out in the country. That way they could just go out all night and come back to the inn looking a little like they had partied too hard and just needed to sleep it off. After several days of just falling into the boring routine of taking walks and going into town to people-watch, the day before the first night of the Fulness was finally upon them.

After their midday meal she went out to sit by the lake that was far down one of the walking paths near the inn. She sat there skipping rocks for almost an hour until she looked up and saw Nick coming down the path toward her. Not once had they been left alone long enough (which she had done on purpose) to really talk about anything, even though she knew that he wouldn’t give up until he knew what had happened that day that had made her so down ever since.

Rather than actually going up to sit next to her, though, he went and sat behind her on the pebbles of the shore and put his arms around her waist just to hold her.

Aura melted somewhat in his embrace, and she leaned back into him. It felt good to be held, and to feel secure in his arms. “It’s been a long week, hasn’t it?”

“Yes, it has.” The metal on his fingers slid off to wrap in a single loop around their hands, contouring to her skin as he took a deep breath of her scent. “And it’s nowhere near done yet.”

She held one of her arms against his and then she leaned back even more so that she could kiss the side of his neck. He knew her so well, and he felt so good when he held her. “I…I’ve been so distant because I heard something that you’re not going to want to hear.”

He didn’t have to ask where she’d heard it from, whatever it was. “What’s that?”

She played with the ring he’d made around their hands before she spoke again. “Your parents were stalling before we left so that the Fulness would be…fruitful.”

That just confused him, and he turned to face her even though they couldn’t exactly make eye contact the way they were sitting. “That doesn’t make any sense. We’re not Mated yet.”

“It does make sense, especially with the way they were pushing Cessie. They can still reach you. If you and I have puppies, then they can get rid of me and Cessie would raise them the way the pack wants.”

“That’s completely ridiculous.” He said as his grip loosened on her slightly. “Cessie can’t even raise herself yet, much less anybody else. And if we have puppies, you’re going to be their mother. No one else.”

“I’m replaceable, Nick. We both are, really. It was just an inconvenience to do so, but now it’s a necessity. They just want our puppies. And you.”

“We’re both the first seventh generation Ironborn ever created, Aura.” As far as they knew, anyway. “Just because I was born a few months before you doesn’t mean I’m any more useful to them than you are.”

She slowly turned herself around in his embrace, which was slightly awkward, but she hugged herself to him anyway. “You can’t tell me you don’t see it.”

He shook his head. “I don’t understand why they would think you’re expendable and I’m not. My parents have done nothing but encourage me to be with you, to find you, to be here for you. Even after you left. We’ve been in this together from day one.”

She shrugged. “They didn’t know that I would turn out like this.”

“They just want you safe.” He said with the tone he always used when he was making apologies for their pack and his family in particular. “That’s all they’ve ever wanted, but I know that’s not how you see it, and that’s fine. But they never wished any harm to you, even after you were gone.”

She sighed, defeat obvious in the emotion behind the exhalation of her breath. “I’m never going back, Nick. No matter what the Council says. If they accept us, that’s fine, but I’m never going back to that pack.”

“If that’s what you want.” He said with a nod and a kiss to her cheek. “Then that’s the way it’ll be.”

Aura looked up into his eyes and then she kissed him deeply. “We’d be rivals.”

“We’d be in different places. That doesn’t make us rivals.”

“The Council would give you and me legitimacy, but we’re not with the pack anymore. They’ll want what we have. It makes us rivals.”

“If they give us legitimacy, then that will extend to all our kind. No matter how much my father might want to, he’s not of pure enough breeding to sit on the Council. They’ll be protected under Council laws and have the chance to have their grievances heard in Geneva.” For wolves that weren’t protected under the laws of the Council, any pack was subject only to its own strength. If a Fireborn pack were to come through their community in Spain and melt it to the ground, no Ironborn would be able to bring their case to the Council for justice. The same with Orlando and all the injustices the world had committed against him. He wasn’t protected under Council laws, and so his brothers’ deaths remained unavenged.

Aura nodded and then kissed him again gently. “I’m just…I’m glad that you’re not like your father.”

“He knows I’m not like him.” He said with a sigh. “I’m not what they want me to be, Aura. Whether they know that or not is their problem. But I’m not.”

She scooted up further into his lap and then she broke the binding his metal had on both of their wrists to wrap her own metal around his neck as she kissed him. “I want Ironborn puppies. You know I do. I just don’t want anyone to plan them for me. Or take them away from me.”

“No one’s going to take them from us.” He said as he kissed her, holding her in tightly against him. “As for planning, there will have to be a little bit of that, but it’s planning by us, not by anybody else.”

“Did you have any plans for this Fulness?”

“Just to get off the beaten track where the Guard won’t find us. And I planned to talk to you about plans.” He smiled slightly and kissed her again.

Aura raised an eyebrow. “You planned to talk to me about plans?”

“Trying to be funny. Apparently failing miserably.”

They stayed there by the lake for a good solid hour just talking and spending time together before they got up and decided to walk around. She wanted both of them and they both wanted her, and sometimes being in wolf form made it all too easy to give in to natural impulses. Just that moment, she wasn’t willing to risk finding out which impulse was more natural than the other. When nighttime actually hit, she shifted alone by the lake.

**************

Orlando was on the other side of the lake from her at the time, and she was already a wolf when the Fulness hit, so she could hear the beginnings of the pain that he went through as he shifted. It echoed across the water between them like thunder in her mind, just the sound of far-off screams that finally settled down as the change took him and he ran off in the opposite direction to spend the night under the trees.

She slowly made her way around the lake toward the direction where she’d seen him run off, but she just kept her walk and pace casual as she looked for him. Orlando? Are you okay?

It took her almost an hour to find him again after she’d felt him shift, and the only reason she actually heard him was because he was shouting yet again, but not at her. She could hear him growling and barking in her mind, and she could feel from his emotions that he wasn’t just threatening something, he was in the process of ripping its throat out with his teeth.

Aura was slightly hesitant to find him once she could feel his violence, but she wasn’t exactly a weakling even though she was indeed a small wolf. Orlando? Please tell me you caught some dinner.

He didn’t respond, but she saw him in the middle of the fight as she approached. He was locked in against another wolf, but she could hear nothing from the animal in her mind. There was no sign of humanity or of intelligence in the way it fought above that of an animal, only the hungry expression of a predator. Every look was mirrored in Orlando’s eyes, but there was a lethality behind his dark eyes that made him look a hundred times more dangerous. As she approached, the hungry wolf finally managed to get under Orlando’s guard and get its jaws around his throat, but Orlando fell back almost willingly with the wolf’s head clamped between his front paws.

As soon as the electricity started arcing over the wolf’s body, the fight was over, with a few whimpers from the now-convulsing animal that was realizing too quickly it had no means of escape. It lay helpless on the ground next to Orlando as he clamped his own jaws on the back of its neck and held it until its muscles no longer twitched from the power shooting through him. Orlando had never even drawn blood, and the fight was over.

When she came within sight of what was actually going on, she had become more or less frozen where she stood next to a tree that was a good distance away from both Orlando and his victim. She wasn’t frightened in some ways, but in others, she was terrified. In her pack they learned quickly as puppies that they had to fight to survive. Throughout her life, Aura had seen death, and she had seen some pretty terrible fights. Nick’s father, after all, hadn’t become the Alpha without fighting his way to the top. Death didn’t frighten her. But Aura was used to death that was exclusive to her pack, with metal and weaponry, and that didn’t involve lightning or electricity of any kind. I didn’t know there were other wolves around here.

Orlando stood over his kill for a moment to calm down before he answered. Wolves are everywhere. Just like humans. And just like us. _]He backed up a little, almost respectfully giving the body some distance. [_This one hadn’t eaten in a while, and we were in his territory. I tried to outrun him, but he was too fast for me to get away from him.

I’m lucky, I guess, that he didn’t find me first. I can fight, but I’m small.

He looked down at the dead wolf for a few more moments to make sure it wasn’t getting up before he looked up the hill at her. [_You’ve never had to kill before, have you? _]There was almost pity in his voice as he asked the question, but it wasn’t condescension, just a sadness without any obvious explanation.

[_Not a wolf, no. _]Aura said simply as her eyes remained glued to the dead creature in front of her.

He motioned back at the body with his snout. [_Killing them isn’t all that different from taking down a mountain lion or a bear. The problem with wolves is that they make you hesitate just because they might be a very quiet person, or a Lunatic that goes feral during the Fulness. But once you’re sure they’re not, they’re just animals. So are humans, for that matter. _]He said with a mental shrug. [_You’ll have to, someday. It’s as unavoidable as the Fulness. _]

I don’t know if it’s unavoidable. _]Their pack had a great respect for the natural wolves of the world, because they looked at them very much like perhaps some humans looked at primates. Somehow, in the ancient world, the two worlds had crossed and created creatures like her and Orlando. But now, they were distinct and different. How could she look at a natural wolf and not feel a little bit of kinship with it when there were some ways they were almost exactly the same? [_And there’s no saying that I’ll have to kill one someday.

Orlando didn’t contradict her, but it was clear he didn’t agree either, so he didn’t continue the conversation. Where’s Nick?

He wanted to prove to me that there was no plan that he was a part of to impregnate me. So he’s out running on his own tonight.

[_I’m glad he wasn’t a part of that. I never thought he was. _]He started walking, seeming too uncomfortable with the quiet to be standing still for long. The lake was on their right as they went, with the moonlight illuminating it with a glow that was the night’s answer to noonday brilliance. [_This close to Geneva, I’m surprised there isn’t anyone else out here tonight. Maybe they all stay indoors around here. _]Though he couldn’t imagine staying cooped up for the Fulness. He’d probably burn down the house he was staying in.

They probably have their own areas to run in. I can’t imagine that they don’t take every precaution to keep their beloved Council members safe from wild wolves like us.

[_Is that what we are? _]She could feel him smile ever so slightly as he asked. [_Wild? I could’ve sworn I was domesticated. _]

She looked over at him and then brushed her fur against his gently and yet playfully. I don’t think you’re very domesticated.

[_That’s probably because I’m not. _]He looked around the foliage beneath the trees with a sigh, turning east towards Geneva as if he could glare at the Council across the hours of road they still had to travel. [_It’s ironic, my brothers used to say. The Council despises my kind for being solitary and dangerous creatures, but it’s the perspective they encourage that makes us that way. _]

Aura leaned in and licked the side of his face gently. The Council isn’t here right now and you’re not being solitary with me here. Forget them.

[Sorry. _]He returned the lick to her face and kept walking with her. _The Fulness always reminds me of these things.

I don’t want you to feel like you’re obligated to come with us. I don’t want you to get hurt in any way. Physically or emotionally.

Well, that’s one of the benefits of being me. _]He said with a sad smile. [_There’s very little they could do to me that hasn’t already been done. Whatever it is, odds are I’ve had worse. _]He nudged her again, a shock of static electricity leaping to her fur in the process. [_Don’t worry about me.

She almost yelped in surprise, but instead she went in for more as she nuzzled her face into the side of his neck. Aura took in a deep breath of the musky smell of him in his fur. [Sometimes I wish that I wasn’t as clearheaded during the Fulness. _]They had discovered within their own pack that their purity as an Ironborn made a great deal of difference over their control during the Fulness. _Then you can almost do whatever you want and no one can hold you accountable, really.

He nodded, and she could tell from the heavy emotion in his words that he really understood what she was talking about. [_I was like that when I was younger. Not for the best reasons, but I was. The pain of the change drove me crazy all three nights. _]He went down just within the tree line near the water’s edge and sat down in a mostly-clear patch just to look out over the water. [_My parents would lock me up in a kennel every night of the Fulness while they and my brothers went out and ran. I can’t even say I got mad at them for it. It was probably for the best that they did. _]

Aura sat down next to him and licked the side of his face again. I’m sorry.

That just made him laugh. [_You are most definitely not my mother. You don’t need to be sorry for something they did. _]

Even his barking laughter was deep, and it made her snuggle into him even more. Good thing. I don’t want to be your mother.

He lifted a paw and brushed at the fur on the back of her shoulder for a moment, finally laughing again as he found what he was looking for. So they are still there. I always wondered. _]He ran his claws lightly down the tattoo of the claw marks. [_Accurate size too. I’m impressed.

She giggled, and they came out as soft yips. Yours is still there too. It’s just that to really see them clearly you’d have to shave a wolf bald. And that’s just embarrassing. _]She looked into his eyes and then licked the side of his muzzle, which was as close to lips as they got. [_I’m glad you’re impressed by what you see, though.

In their wolf form, neither of them could actually take in power. That was a part of the danger of every Fulness for him, since he was always so thirsty for it in the first place. But that also meant that the entire time they were wolves, their power was naturally working on the things around them, sometimes out of pure instinct, as when he’d killed the wolf, or just out of nature, with the small shocks and sparks that were passing back and forth between them. He wished at the moment that he could really feel the steady strength of her power running through him as he had before, but he knew that wouldn’t be possible until morning came and they were released from the wolf again. You’ve impressed me in just about every way since I met you.

Really? _]That was actually surprising to her, since she didn’t think of herself as that impressive. [_Just because I can draw?

Because you’re strong enough to choose freedom over safety. I don’t know if I could make that kind of choice the way you have.

Aura leaned in again and rested her head against his. I find you impressive too, you know. Every time I learn more about you, I fall harder for you.

He just smiled, nuzzling her face for a moment before he responded. Is that your way of telling me I should stop talking?

No way. Don’t stop doing anything. _]She whimpered softly in a way that was certainly not from pain, but longing. [_I’m glad you came into the shop. I’ve loved getting to know you. Having a chance to get close to you.

That sounds an awful lot like a prelude to goodbye.

[I hope it isn’t. _]She licked his face several more times. _I want so much more.

It was a unique experience of his life to spend most of the first Fulness night in the close company of another wolf. Most of the full moons of his life had been spent running with his brothers or in a cage isolated from the rest of the world, and so having her close by was an unexpected comfort. Eventually, they both fell asleep snuggled together, and he was the first to wake up, with the sun coming over the lake and shining right in his eyes.

The sunrise was always a huge relief to him, as he felt the night slowly let go of him. He shifted and for a few moments, he was lying naked in the grass with her fur still pressed back up against him. Eventually she shifted as well, and he just smiled at the fact that the change held no pain or relief for her. She didn’t even stir as it happened. He was glad, for her sake, that she was just as comfortable in either form. As he readjusted her back against him, he wondered what that kind of ease would be like, even if he knew for an absolute certainty that he would never find out for himself.

Aura was very much a snuggler when she was given the opportunity, and she just did it naturally, even while sleeping. She curled into him, even in her human form, and her arms held tightly to him. He was warm, and that was the only thing her body really registered.

Her slight move woke him, and just for a moment, he looked over the shoulder of her arm that was wrapped around him and down her back. With one hand, he traced the claw mark tattoo on her shoulder, fitting his fingers into the artfully rendered scratches with a smile, then kissed her shoulder and settled back into sleep.

**************

Several hours later, she actually woke up and realized that she was, first of all, still with Orlando, and second of all, naked. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for their kind to be naked, but curled up with someone at the same time was a different thing entirely. She didn’t let go, though, and instead her fingers traced along his shoulder as she leaned in to kiss the side of his neck. They both felt weak from the Fulness, and so she knew they would have to separate soon just to recharge, but she enjoyed the moment anyway.

The slight movement woke him up, light sleeper that he was, and he woke up like any other wild animal disturbed in his rest, with every muscle tensing and his hands instantly gripping her like she was a threat, but his hold on her softened after a moment, and he sighed, letting out the breath he’d sucked in in panic. “Hey. Sorry.”

Aura answered his apology with a kiss, since he had nothing to apologize for. They were beasts, after all. They were often faced with threats.

“You sleep alright?” He asked weakly, unable to even move as his muscles relaxed, not because he actually felt relaxed, but because he just didn’t have the energy to move at the moment.

“I love to cuddle, so yes, I slept wonderfully.” Their night had been incredibly peaceful all in all. All they did was snuggle and talk, and honestly, it was turning into a wonderful Fulness. “Come on, let’s get you back to a power source.”

He nodded slowly and got up after she did, walking through the woods like escapees from some kind of tattooed and pierced nudist colony. They first got to her bag of clothes and then to his, both of which had been tied up in a tree away from the forest’s natural denizens for the night. His just contained a bathrobe that looked like he’d stolen it from a hotel he’d once stayed in, dark fuzzy blue with black singe marks all over it.

She smiled at the singe marks and ran her fingers over them gently. Aura didn’t push her affections further, though, since it was obvious that he was not only exhausted, but he often seemed unsure of her no matter how affectionate she was with him. The longer they walked, the further apart they got. “I guess I’ll see you tonight.”

“I guess so.” The truth was that he wanted to get closer to her, but he knew she needed to go find Nick and see how his night had gone. “I’ll see you in the same place, if you can find it again.” He grinned over at her as he headed back toward the hotel.

Aura watched him for a moment and then she felt nervous that maybe he didn’t mean it. “Will you really be there?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because you don’t know what you want?” She said with the lilt of her own question, since she was always left confused by him. Maybe she wasn’t the only one who was so often filled with doubt.

“No,” he said as he shook his head with half a laugh, “no, that’s one thing I’m definitely not confused about.” He smiled as he said so and headed off toward their room without answering her question whatsoever.

Aura sighed and then went off running to find Nick. He always found the best places to recharge after a Fulness, and she definitely needed it after hanging around Orlando for so long.

There was a children’s playground nearby that was unoccupied in the early morning hour except for Nick, who was lying down in the center of the merry-go-round with his hands behind his head. It was spinning slowly, even though there was obviously no one around to have given him a push, and it would have been an eerie sight if it hadn’t been so comical. His bag was hanging off the handles near him, but apparently he hadn’t yet seen the need to get dressed.

She jumped up onto the merry-go-round and then tossed off her shirt just so that her fully exposed back could touch all the metal possible. Aura laid down in the middle of one of the sections and then moaned from the feeling of her body soaking in the energy. “Nice spot.”

He hadn’t noticed her coming up, but he definitely sat up when she threw off her shirt. “It’s not as nice as your bed back home, but it’ll do.” The iron had an imprint of his shoulders from where he’d been laying in it for the moment, which he made a mental note to fix when they left, otherwise such things would hit the tabloids quickly once found by humans. “How’d your night go?”

“It was very uneventful, actually. I sat with Orlando and we talked. It’s a very different experience [_not _]to be causing trouble.” She laughed softly and then the metal behind her shifted to let her sink in a little more, but she didn’t care. She would fix it later.

That dimmed his smile quite a bit, but she wasn’t looking at him at the moment, so he didn’t feel she would notice. “There’s a group of Oceanborn on the north end of the lake you’ll want to steer clear of. They’re peaceful, but they saw me close by and warned me to keep my distance.”

Aura stuck her fingers through the metal and then she wiggled her fingers so that it would ripple just like water toward Nick. “It was weird without you around. I’ve gotten used to sharing the Fulness with you.”

“After just once?” He smiled as he looked over at her, sending the ripples back at her more slowly, so they would act a little like a massage chair beneath her back.

“I guess so.” She laughed softly but she enjoyed the massage he was giving her. “Do you like your Fulnesses alone?”

“Not really. I never did.”

“You didn’t have to go spend it alone, you know.”

“I know.” He turned on his side to face her. “But I want you to know I’m not here for that. I’m here for you.”

Aura sent more ripples his way, and then one of the bars meant for holding onto melted into a snake of pliable metal, and she wrapped it around his arm in a way that was a caress more than anything else. “I believe you.”

“I’m glad.” He rippled the metal under her until it rolled her closer to him, then kissed her as he put an arm around her shoulders.

She kissed him back gently and she snuggled into him, but the feel of the metal was ultimately lulling her into a very comfortable sleep. “Just a couple of days and we’ll be in the presence of the Council.”

Aura could feel him nod against her hair, and his other hand reached up to hold her more tightly to him. He had never once treated her as though she was breakable or fragile in any way, and the way he held her was no exception. “Are you frightened?”

“Yes, I am.” She sighed against his skin, but she had no reason to lie about it. Especially not to Nick. “There’s a chance they might kill us. Or let us be killed without retribution.”

“They’ll have a hard time with the ‘without retribution’ part, especially with the Guard all around us.” He kissed the side of her head apologetically. “I know you don’t like them, but they’re necessary sometimes. And this entire plan is about letting the Council know that they can’t act against us with impunity anymore. There’s too many of us, and we’re too strong for them to just brush aside.”

“Mhm.” The tighter he held her and the more the metal crept up around them, the more she realized how tired she actually was. “We’ll be protected.”

He knew the sleepy tone of her voice, and finally just wrapped the metal up around them completely to hide them and his bag from prying eyes. Passersby would just think the playground was under renovations or something of the sort. “I’ll protect you.” His voice resonated inside their metal shell and vibrated through her, humming every bit of her to sleep.

Aura smiled against his skin, and she knew he could feel it, but she didn’t say much else as she held on to him. There was no reason to doubt Nick. There never had been, really, which was something she was starting to realize she’d always known.

IX

Geneva was far from the largest or most metropolitan city in Europe, but the fact that it was such a natural mixing point of cultures and geography had made it the natural meeting place of the Council since before the Renaissance. Stoneborn enjoyed the hills above the city to the north, Lac Leman was home to more Oceanborn than the human occupants of the city were ever aware of, and the color green was not unknown to even the most densely-built areas, leaving no shortage of accommodation for Forestborn. It was a city where, if the truth were known, fully one in five people walking on two legs down the street also walked on four from time to time. The only reason why the humans never actually suspected was because there were simply so many wolves present that it was easy to find a friendly furry face in case a momentary lapse in caution needed to be explained away.

As they came into the city and found a place to stay, Orlando was conscious of all the eyes on them as newcomers or obvious tourists, and he was glad he’d had the forethought to put his contacts in before they’d come into town. With them, he looked more like a normal mortal with brown eyes than what he really was. He knew on sight that the hotel receptionist was a Forestborn, that the man in the lobby reading a newspaper was a Stoneborn, and the woman pushing the laundry cart down the hallway was a very young Oceanborn. He gave Nick and Aura a quiet warning to be wary as they went to their room, but kept his voice down. It was easier for them to pass as humans than it was for him.

Once they were in their rooms, Aura was pacing almost as soon as the door closed behind her. She was worried for all of them, including Orlando, but it was hard to think about Orlando and his safety when they were actually so close to approaching the Council. As she paced she toyed with the bangles she had around her wrists, and they jingled in a way that should have made her feel a little more cheerful, but she was really just scared. “Okay, so we’re here. Now what?”

“The Council will start in session again tomorrow.” Nick said as he put his bag and Aura’s on one bed, reciting the facts that he’d been taught almost since birth. “No Council sits during the Fulness, or the day before and after, but they’ll resume tomorrow morning. I’ll call my father and let him know that we’re here and ready to present ourselves. We have one friend, and only one friend,” he said a little ominously, “in the appointments office for the Council. He’ll get us a time to present ourselves. We just have to find out when and be ready to make an entrance.”

“Don’t call your father. Just don’t.” She said as she fell into the other bed with a loud sigh. “We ran away from there, remember? Or did you just make it look like we ran away?” She wasn’t exactly excited to be there, and her bitter and frightened tone made it even more obvious.

He didn’t answer her tone with a confrontation of his own, just spoke softly back to her with the patience of having grown up with her in his voice. “No one just barges in on the Council, Aura. We need to play by their rules right now, and we need my dad’s contacts to do that.”

She turned onto her side and face away from him. “Fine. Whatever.” She sighed and then buried her face into the pillow, desperately missing her bed back home.

Nick just sighed and went around to the other side of her so he could face her, even though she really didn’t want to see him at the moment. “I’m going to go make the call from somewhere other than here so they don’t know where we’re staying. I’ll be back in a bit.”

Aura looked up at him and then grabbed his hand for a moment and the bangles on her wrist brushed his arm. “Hurry back.”

He set the bangles jingling once before letting go of her hand. “I will.” He looked at Orlando without speaking on the way out the door, and Orlando just nodded back, agreeing to keep her safe without needing to say the words themselves. When Nick was gone, Orlando just went to his bag and took out his fire-hazard self-charger, wrapping it in its familiar place around his ankle and plugging it in before he laid down on the floor, electricity arcing all over his body from time to time as the lights flickered at the new draw on power.

It was three hours before Nick returned, and when he did, the force with which he slammed and locked the door woke both of them from their naps in a hurry, and the sheer quantity of profanity he was muttering under his breath would have woken them if the slamming hadn’t.

She actually jumped up as though she had been jolted by Orlando’s electricity, and then she looked over at Nick. “What happened? What’s wrong?”

“I tried to shake them.” He said with apologies and anger written all over his face as he came up to her on the bed with both hands in the air like a criminal. “I tried to lead them off, but they were just…” He was interrupted by the sound of the door falling inward off its hinges, which had suddenly decided not to work, as a few members of the Iron Guard came striding into the door.

Nick had gotten out of the entryway, but Orlando had a clear view of the new arrivals, and acted out of instinct, stepping towards the men with one hand out, palm up as if he were about to ask the men for spare change. Instead, a single small arc of electricity jumped from his hand into the chest of first one man, then another, then another, until all three of the guards fell to the floor clutching their chests and spasming uncontrollably, all their power and brute force useless.

Nick’s father came around the corner next, having seen the flashes of lightning, and his was a face Orlando knew, so he hesitated to continue his attack long enough for the man to start yelling. “What the hell is this?!?!? You were supposed to be here for protection!”

“I am.” Orlando said with a deep growl, as lightning flickered back and forth between his fingertips. “But I’m not here for you. I’m here for her.” He nodded towards Aura without looking away from the Alpha, as the men on the ground finally stopped convulsing and started trying to catch their breath.

Aura had jumped off the bed once the door came off the hinges and she was standing between both Orlando and Nick, glaring at her former Alpha by the door. Aura growled in instinct, even though she wasn’t in her wolf. “Get. Out.”

The Alpha’s mouth opened to yell back at her, infuriated beyond belief or restraint by the attack on his men, but Orlando shot a bolt of electricity at the light bulb directly above his head, making the bulb explode and dimming the other lights in the room for a moment as the powerful wolf flinched. “You heard the lady.”

He still hesitated a moment, glaring at Aura and then at Nick, who turned around with a conflicted, but resolute expression. “I told you to back off, Father. Make the appointment and we will be there, but this is our affair. This is not Spain, and this is not your place.”

The much-larger man lifted a many-ringed hand to point accusingly at Nick. “I am your…” A shock of electricity leapt from Orlando’s fingers and struck the rings, making the Alpha shake the sting out of his hand with a cry and a growl, glaring back at Orlando with murder in his eyes, but Orlando just shook his head.

“And you heard the five-cent piece. Out.”

Finally, fingers still stinging, he backed up to the door with a final disappointed glare at his son, and the members of the Guard picked themselves up off the floor and followed, each with their own murderous glances back at Orlando on the way.

Her own glare softened as she looked back at Orlando with a weak smile. She stepped a little closer to him and then reached out to put her hand on the side of his arm. The bangles hanging from her arm connected with his skin and gave him a jolt of her own power. “Thank you.”

He just nodded and glared back at the door for a moment to make sure it was clear before looking back at her with a very slight and very wicked smile. “It’s why you brought me along, right?”

Nick, meanwhile, had gone to the door and lifted it up without touching it, bolting the hinges back in place before housekeeping could walk by and notice what had happened after all the yelling.

She smiled at Orlando and then let her hand linger a little longer. “It’s about time someone gave them a jolt anyway.”

“We’re more susceptible to it, aren’t we?” Nick said from near the door as he came back towards them. “Your power, I mean. Are we more or less susceptible than other wolves?” The question had an underlying assumption in it that apparently Nick had made a long time ago, but which hadn’t completely registered as such to Aura, that being the assumption that Orlando had used his power on other wolves with the intent to harm.

“More.” Orlando said without hesitation, confirming the assumption once and for all. “Especially all the jewelry you all love so much. It makes you a hundred times more conductive, and that much easier a target.”

Aura looked down at all the thin hoops around her wrist and then back to Nick. Slowly, and with hesitation, she lifted up her hand from Orlando’s arm, but not because she was scared. For Nick’s benefit. “We all know that there are wolves that are more or less susceptible to our powers. That’s not news.”

“Oceanborn are even worse, if it’s any consolation.” Orlando said with a shrug. “I tend to be a little like dropping a hair dryer in the bathtub, and it tends not to end well for the bathtub.”

“I was only asking because I was wondering how effective he’ll be against the rest of the fighters the Council has, if it comes to that.” Nick said as he came back up to stand near Aura.

“Effective enough.” Orlando said as he shook his head. “I’m going to need you watching my back more than you’ll need to worry about me doing damage in a fight. I can stop just about every heart in a room with one shot, but that’s not exactly plan A. And Council fighters probably aren’t quite as submissive as your father’s.” He nodded back to the door where he knew the Guard was just setting up a perimeter around the building.

Aura was quiet as she thought for a moment and then she looked back up at Orlando. “What if I had a way for you to hit every target without killing them, if we need it?”

He looked down at her curiously. “What do you mean?”

Aura finally looked over at Nick and then she smirked as she ran her fingers along the jewelry around her wrists. “Can I use you as a target?”

Nick looked at her quizzically for a moment, then at Orlando with a silent ‘watch it’ in his eyes, but then went to stand on the far end of the room near the door he’d just put back on its hinges, arms crossed over his chest.

She plucked her finger through one bangle and it came undone at the tiny seam where it had been soldered together. She then stretched it out to be a precisely thin, sharp strip of metal and then held her opposite hand out behind her for Orlando to take. “Gimme a jump.”

As soon as he took her hand, he could feel the way his power would move through the silver she was holding. His power reached out through her almost without needing the slight push he gave it to do so. Aura shivered, but she tried not to reveal that she actually liked feeling the jolt run through her. Once the metal dart hummed in her fingers, she threw it directly at Nick’s shoulder.

It spiked right through his shoulder the way she’d told it to, and he immediately fell back against the wall next to the door in a twitching mess, but to his credit, he didn’t fall to the ground. The mix of the electrical jolt to his system and the bitter-but-oh-so-sweet pain of the silver piercing his shoulder was enough to send all his senses swimming, but he finally pulled it out with a gasp of relief. “That’ll wake up a guy.” He shook himself off, still not quite steady on his feet.

“That’ll kill a guy. Quickly. I didn’t give you that much.” Orlando said modestly.

Aura rushed up to Nick, though she was smirking as she helped him stay stable on his feet. “I didn’t think a little jolt would hurt too much.” She took the spike from his fingers and then wiped it off and wrapped it around his fingers as she kept grinning. “You handled it well.”

Nick was still blinking wide-eyed to clear the buzz in his muscles, but he finally was able to stand on his own. “Just try not to spark off too quickly. We’re here to present ourselves as equals, not rivals or threats.”

“I want violence in there even less than you do, believe it or not.” Orlando said as he went and knelt next to the outlet to plug himself back in. “They might look down on you, but they want me and everyone like me dead on basic principles. The second I ‘spark off’ at anybody, I’m a dead wolf anywhere within Council law.” He shrugged as he looked back up at them. “Not like I’m not already anyway, but killing people tends to piss off their friends, so yeah. Bottom line? I’ll keep my sparks to myself unless absolutely necessary.”

When Aura looked back at him after that statement, there was clearly an expression that only Orlando could see. One that almost looked disappointed that he would keep his sparks to himself. Eventually she took her jewelry back from Nick and wrapped it around her wrist again. “We’ll be fine. Right?”

“Of course we will.” Nick stepped up and kissed her, then went to the window to look out at the parking lot. He sighed when he saw several cars that hadn’t been there before, each of them with one or two Guard members in them looking suspicious and dangerous. “The Council is going to know we’re in town way before tomorrow. My father doesn’t know the meaning of the word inconspicuous.”

“Your father doesn’t know the meaning of a lot of words.” She said with another sigh. “But that doesn’t mean that we do anything, right? We just…stay here. Wait until tomorrow morning. Sleep, possibly?”

Nick nodded and looked down at the air conditioning unit under his hands, then pulled the sheet metal housing off of it with a single jerk and tossed it on the bed. He then went around to the two tables in the room and all but one of the lamps, stripping the metal from them and piling all of it on the bed. When he’d gathered everything he could, he molded it all together and shaped into a bed-sized sheet. At the head of it, he let the bands on his wrists and his rings flow off to make a kind of impromptu precious-metals pillow on his side.

From where he was kneeling on the floor, seeing Nick making their bed, Orlando seemed to have thought better of staying on the floor, and unplugged himself, but didn’t unwrap the cord from his ankle. “If you two see the lights go a little crazy, try not to be concerned. I won’t completely short the place. I don’t think.” He walked toward the bathroom and smiled back at both of them with one hand on the door frame. “See you in the morning.”

Aura watched him the entire walk to the bathroom and then when the door finally closed, she sighed and then got up on the sheet, feeling much more comfortable than she had sleeping on just the bed earlier. “Thanks for this. I feel a little more relaxed this way.”

“I was going to go around and try to salvage some more around town, but then I caught some of the Guards tailing me.” He smoothed out his side and tossed his shirt aside as they heard the water start running in the bathroom. That made him pause for a moment, but then he just shook his head and got onto the bed with her to relax.

She sighed and then pulled on the edge of the sheet so that it would curl around her a little. “I hate having them here. As if we weren’t under enough pressure.”

“They’ll keep their distance and come when they’re needed.” He curled up his own side over him, and laid down on his stomach, with some of the sheet coming up and molding to the side of his face, gold and silver mixing seamlessly with the rest of the sheet against his cheek. “Orlando scared the hell out of them rightly enough. You can be sure that story’s going to spread in a hurry.”

“Good.” She said sternly, though she wasn’t looking at Nick since she was facing the opposite direction. “I wish they would just go away completely. We can do this on our own. It’s not for them, anyway. Certainly not for your father.”

He put out a hand and laid it on her shoulder with a silent plea for her to listen. “This is for them. It’s for all of us. They all want us to succeed here, and they’re all willing to do whatever it takes to help that happen. That includes staying out of our way when we ask them to.” The water stopped in the other room, and as promised, the single light in the room dimmed a few times as though in panic, before settling back at almost-normal brightness.

Aura sighed and then finally turned toward Nick. She couldn’t focus on thinking about Orlando. It was great of Orlando to come, and she really did have feelings for him, but the day to come was something that she and Nick had been raised to face. All her life she had been told that her moment would come and that she was essential to the very future of the Ironborn. It was crashing over her and she was crying because she was so terrified. “What are we doing? This is insane.”

Some of the metal of the sheet around them slid off and wrapped around Nick’s thumb before he used it to scrape away some of her tears with more force than was necessary. “This is insane.” He agreed with a nod. “And we’re both crazy enough to get it done. We can do this.”

She reached out for him and then wrapped her arms tightly around him as she cried into his chest. “What if they say no?”

There was a dangerous pause after she asked the question, during which he just held her tightly to him, wrapping them up as always in the various pieces of metal around them. “We won’t give them that option.”

Aura sniffled as she felt the comfort of his arms and the sheet around them. “I would be so lost without you.” And it was true. Nick was confident about the trial that they were about to face, and he was the only one in the world who could have any inkling of exactly what she was feeling and thinking.

“Are you kidding? Of the two of us, you’re the only one that can read a map.”

She laughed softly against his skin and then she tucked her head under his chin. “You know what I mean.”

He kissed her cheek and settled more onto his back as he held her. “I love you, Aura. Get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.”

She sniffled again as she felt her stomach clench in fear at the reminder, but she didn’t say anything. Aura just held even tighter to Nick and her fingers dug into his skin. Orlando had protected her from her past, but he couldn’t stand there with her tomorrow, asking for her kind. He couldn’t be there with her in this or so many other things. Only Nick could.

**************

Being all wrapped up in a metal sheet during the night really helped Aura to sleep through without waking too many times, and when she actually did wake up, Nick also woke and comforted her. Just before sunrise, Aura found she couldn’t sleep any longer, so she got up and uncurled the sheet on her end to get out and head to the bathroom.

She yawned and rubbed at her eyes as she walked in, and she had completely forgotten that Orlando had taken up residence in there the night before. The splash from the bathtub when she turned on the light reminded her sharply, though, as did the fact that the light bulb in the room exploded at Orlando’s rude awakening, scattering glass across the sink and the floor. Sputtering a little, Orlando sat up in the tub, quite naked, and she could see that he’d been sleeping with several folded towels under his head to keep his head out of the water, and with his cord wrapped around his submerged ankle, the other end plugged into the wall outlet over the sink. “Good morning to you too.” He said as he wiped at his eyes.

Aura just kind of stood there in the dark afterwards, trying not to move too much since she didn’t want to step on broken glass. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking…”

“It’s okay. Sorry about the light. Here, one sec.” He got up out of the tub, with a great deal more blue sparking energy resonating between him and the water than she’d ever seen from him before. It made him look like something out of a nightmare, honestly. He unwrapped the cord from his ankle and yanked it from the wall to drape it over the shower curtain rod, then used the bath mat on the floor to sweep up the shards of broken light bulb. When he had them all gathered up in a corner behind the toilet, he left the mat there and grabbed a towel to dry himself off with. “Here, I’ll get out of your way.”

“It’s okay. I normally just like to hop right into the shower once I wake up to really get myself awake.” She sighed. “I figured I should get ready for the biggest day of my life.”

Orlando put a hand on her waist as he went past her, and power leapt into her that was more overwhelming than anything she’d ever felt from him. It wasn’t actually a jolt of electricity, but just the pure sharing of power between wolves. He’d been soaking in it all night, in a completely insulated environment so that he wouldn’t lose a single drop of power, and it was obvious in the cascade of power she felt in him. “You’re going to be great.” He let the touch linger just for a moment, then slipped past her out the door, drying himself off as he went.

Aura sighed and trembled, but more than that, she ached for him to stay. Forgetting who she was while with Orlando seemed like a much better option than going through what she and Nick had to go through. As much as she wanted to say everything she thought and felt, she remained quiet and just hopped into the shower. Once she came back out, wrapped in a towel, she saw that Nick was already awake. Both Nick and Orlando were sitting on the separate beds, not even facing the same direction until she came out with a towel. She noticed when Nick stood up that he had something draped over his arm, and she stared at his arm with a surprised expression for a moment before she spoke. “Are those…robes?” Many prestigious and high-brow wolves had a set of robes that suited their element in some way, but they only ever wore them to incredibly important or formal events. Like a meeting with the Council.

Nick nodded and walked over to her after putting his own down on the dresser, then held hers up so she could see it. Hers came in several pieces, a sleeveless dress that was cinched at the waist by a belt of pure gold with a coat/shawl over it that was made of several pieces of silk, held together by steel chains so fine only an Ironborn could have made them. The silky material of both was made with a shimmer to it that seemed to change colors based on how the light was hitting it, from sea-green to blue to darker gray. It was flashy and bold, but it looked supremely dangerous at the same time. “There is a necklace and arm-bands to go with it, and you can change them however you want, of course.”

She was mostly obscured from Orlando’s view by Nick’s body, but she didn’t really care who saw her body. Aura dropped the towel so that Nick could help her get her robes on correctly. “It’s beautiful.”

When she was dressed, she looked like she had an intentional fashion statement to make, but she was just on the edge of acceptable limits, as though she were going to an exceptionally fancy party with incredibly rich people. Nick, on the other hand, when he was dressed, looked more than a little strange for modern company. His ‘robes’ consisted of black pants hung with chains in layers down the outside of the legs and a smooth buttoned shirt of steel gray. Over the shirt went a long coat the same color as Aura’s dress that came down almost to his knees, made with the same pattern of chain-links as hers. A large golden chain hung from one shoulder of his shirt to the other, making him look like a noble from the fifteenth century instead of a dangerous Ironborn wolf from the twenty-first. But she had never seen him look quite as at home as he did in the outfit. For once, he looked as powerful as she knew him to be, and he radiated the strength that she’d come to expect from him all their shared lives.

Aura smiled when she helped him adjust the last piece of his own outfit, then she put on her armbands and held out her necklace for him to put on for her. Once she lifted up her hair and he leaned in to drape the necklace over her skin, she smiled brighter. “We look like we belong.”

“That’s because we do.” He said with a kiss to her shoulder.

“When do we go?”

“We need to be there by noon.” Which was easy enough, since it was only nine in the morning. “Plenty of time. The Guard has breakfast for us outside, and my father’s gone to wait for us and for the Council’s actions somewhere other than here.” He followed up quickly.

She nodded and then leaned in to take his hand, holding it tightly. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”

He squeezed her hand tightly, and put a finger of his free hand under her chin, raising it up a little with a caress from the ring on his finger, whispering so that only she could hear him, even though Orlando was some kind of unnoticed blur in the corner of her eye across the room. “You are the strongest Ironborn that’s ever lived. I know it, our entire pack knows it. And the Council will know it. We’re not alone in this.”

Aura looked up into his eyes and then nodded slowly before she whispered back in English, just to emphasize her point by switching the language. “I couldn’t be strong without you.”

He stepped in to kiss her once, their outfits clinking against each other in several places before he pulled away and took her hand. “Are you ready to go, Fire Hazard?”

As Nick spoke to him, Aura’s attention was drawn to Orlando for the first time since she’d short-circuited him in the bathtub, and she could see that he was dressed, after a fashion, in robes of his own. He was wearing black pants and boots, and a tight black t-shirt under a long black sleeveless coat. He had on black leather gloves with the fingers cut off, and on the whole, it wasn’t obvious whether he was about to graduate from college or get on the back of a motorcycle.

She wanted to stare at Orlando longer after her attention had been drawn back to him, but she couldn’t get distracted by the war going on inside of her. She really couldn’t think about the fact that she was more or less in love with two men at once. There was something going on that was much bigger than that. Aura did meet his eyes and once Orlando nodded that he was ready, she turned sharply while still holding Nick’s hand to head for the door. Whatever was going to happen was waiting for her and Nick, and they had no reason to put it off any longer.

They were escorted across town by several cars filled with members of the Iron Guard, but they were allowed at least to drive in Nick’s car alone. Soon they arrived in front of the University library of Geneva, established five hundred years before, and the entrance to the Council’s chambers ever since. As soon as they stepped out of the car, they were getting some strange looks, but only from the mortals in the vicinity. They could have sworn that half the people milling around the plaza outside the library just looked at them with knowing and wary eyes, knowing where they were going, but not recognizing the robes they were wearing.

There were several informal Earthborn guards that looked as though they were just sitting in the sun on the steps up to the library, all of whom gave them wary looks as they ascended, making comments into earpieces they were wearing, but not approaching them. Nick saw them as they passed, and met their eyes without fear as he passed, with Aura’s hand in his.

Orlando, however, was a different matter, and a few of the Earthborn guards looked well and truly alarmed as he passed, though still none of them moved.

Once they were inside, they were finally approached by a pair of wolves, a Skyborn female and an Earthborn male. Both the wolves were dressed in robes that were obviously more decorated than the guards on the outside, but they didn’t look as though they were of the highest order. Meaning, probably, that they weren’t as pure as some of the other wolves that were deeper inside, and certainly not as pure as the Council members themselves. “Hello.” The Skyborn wolf said with a smile that was as warm as the breeze that rustled through their hair when she spoke. Skyborn were known for being a particularly friendly race of wolf, but mainly because they usually didn’t have too many cares in the world. Their personality was normally as light as they air they lived on. “We don’t see very many of you around here.”

“I hope that’s about to change.” Nick said with a warm smile. “We’re expected at noon.”

The woman looked back and once she received confirmation from a guard that they were indeed expected, she looked back at Nick. “We’ll lead you in, then. Where are you from?” She was definitely the nicer one of the two of them, since the man didn’t seem interested in talking to either Nick or Aura at all.

“Just outside of Seville, Spain. And you? That accent isn’t local to Geneva, unless I’m mistaken.” Nick was working hard to keep his English as fluid as possible.

“I’m from Berlin, Germany.” She was still smiling brightly, but that was typical for her. She looked over at the quiet woman at his side and then back at him. “Are you both from the same place?”

“Yes, we are. We’re here on behalf of our pack.” From his tone, it sounded like he was warming up for their speech in front of the Council itself.

“Usually we get wolves wandering in here looking for a Mate, not ones that come already Mated. That’s interesting.” The Council had many uses, but one of their primary concerns had always been pure lineage. It was the reason why so many that were several generations pure came to the Council, so that they could be matched with someone else to ensure that the strength of their race would continue to grow.

Nick shrugged. “Our people have been making their own decisions on those matters for a long time now.”

She giggled as though she just realized what they actually were, even though it was obvious that they were Ironborn. “Oh, right. That makes sense.” Friendly as they were, Skyborn were also known for being a little behind in thinking things through. “You don’t look Turned, though.” The woman looked longer at his eyes as she looked back at him while they walked. “I don’t see any remnants of your humanity.”

“We have none to be seen.” He said proudly, and squeezed Aura’s hand tightly, glad that she was there with him. He hadn’t told her, but he had been urged to make this trip alone before he’d found her.

“Hm. Interesting.” The Skyborn said quietly, and then seemed to be satisfied enough with the information she’d gotten from them to just lead them along. They took a long path through the back corridors of the library that twisted generally down into the ground, past hallways and offices and meeting rooms for smaller administrative offices of the Council members. Everyone they passed looked at them as though they were Martians, not just another kind of wolf, and more than one lip curled in disgust as they were watched along the way. All three of them responded to such expressions with flat and proud looks, not quite begging those they passed for a fight, but making it obvious that they were well aware one was possible and didn’t mind the idea.

Eventually they got to the doors that led to where the Council was meeting, and she knocked once, then two more times. There was a pause and then a woman came and opened the door. The woman was dressed in incredibly beautiful and regal-looking purple robes that clung to her figure and made it obvious that her eyes matched the color perfectly. Her violet eyes fluttered between the Skyborn and the Earthborn and then she settled her gaze on Nick. “Yes?”

Nick’s eyes narrowed a little, since he was instantly wary. He’d never been around a Heartborn before, but he’d been told a great deal about them, and he knew they were just as dangerous as Orlando behind them. “Nickel Ortiz and Aura Herrero.”

Her eyes flicked back and forth between the two of them, since her purpose as a Guardian of the Council was to make sure that no harm would come to those she served. When her momentary inspection was over, she nodded and both the Skyborn and Earthborn stepped away from them as the Heartborn opened the doors wider. “Come in. They’re expecting you.” No one wished them luck or even said goodbye, not even their smiling, friendly guide. The purple-eyed beauty looked past Nick and Aura to the one trailing behind them, though, and she narrowed her eyes. “And you are?”

“Orlando De Luca.” Orlando said with a very slight nod. “Friend of my Ironborn companions and their personal guardian, permitted, I believe, under the fourth article of Council attendance protocols.”

“I only asked who you are. I know the articles.” She glared at him but then motioned for them all to pass. When Orlando passed, though, she ran her finger across his arm. Once she touched someone, it added depth to the connection and gave her more control. “Keep your jolts to yourself.”

He just nodded to her as he went by, but he kept his hands at his sides as he passed her, though his look lingered on her as he did. She was a rarity, though not nearly as rare as he was, but Heartborn had to be extremely pure-blooded on both sides to be born. The fact that the Council would keep her told him something about them that he hadn’t known before. They might prize strength in numbers, but they recognized power no matter where it came from. Which meant they would recognize his own. That was both good for them and bad for them at the same time.

The Council Chamber itself was surrounded on all sides by desks and guard-posts where a number of wolves in official-looking clothing were sitting or standing watching over the proceedings, but the twelve Councilors themselves were seated in a half-circle of thrones at the head of the room with a few doors behind them leading who knew where. The two Fireborn sat on their far left in blinding red and white robes, followed by the Stoneborn, Forestborn, Oceanborn, Earthborn and Skyborn on the far right. The Fireborn and Stoneborn in particular were looking at them with a sneer, and all those who saw Orlando got an instantly defensive look on their faces.

Aura didn’t look around much, though, since she had her eyes trained on the two in the middle. There was an Oceanborn male and a Stoneborn female sitting in the two center seats, the two current leaders of the Council. There was a row of less-official-looking chairs behind the thrones of the Council members, but few were filled. They were obviously for the Mates or partners of the Council members. Both the chair behind the Oceanborn male and the Stoneborn female were empty.

They made their way to the center of the room, and Aura could tell when Orlando stopped walking with them, allowing Aura to make her approach with Nick at her side alone. “We are here to appeal for a seat on this Council.” She said quietly, but firmly, since she knew that there was no point in pleasantries. The Council’s time was precious. “We are of pure Ironborn heritage seven generations deep in our blood. As pureborn wolves, we’ve come to claim our place so that we may represent our people beside you.”

There was silence for a moment after Aura’s annunciation of their purpose there, before it was broken by the Skyborn man to their far right, who started giggling, softly at first, then more loudly. No one else looked amused in the slightest. “You’ve come a very long way to tell a very bad joke, Ironborn.”

“It is not a joke.” Aura said with a voice that was so calm she even surprised herself. What surprised her more was that she heard history tumbling out of her own mouth. History that she had hated having to listen to when she was younger, but which had apparently stuck anyway, somehow. “No more than your own seats in this assembly, Councilor. When this Council was established, it was to be an assembly of all wolf breeds of significant population across Europe, led by the most powerful and purest born of all elements with numbers sufficient for representation. Both Nickel and I are seventh-generation Ironborn. That fulfills your requirement for purity.” She almost spat the word, but only Nick and Orlando could feel the full force of the sarcastic punch she put behind it. “And our pack has worked several hundred years to bring such an honor to our kind.”

“There are no seventh-generation Ironborn.” The Forestborn male answered, looking down at them in boredom as he played with a vine that was growing up around his arm, its roots in the floor around the throne behind him, where a woman had the same vine wrapped through her fingers. “Your kind are the mules of this world. You have your uses and your value, but it only goes so far, and does not extend to the sanctity of this chamber.”

Aura squeezed tighter to Nick’s hand as her blood started to boil. The metal in her robes started to jingle a little in answer to her anger, though she wasn’t even moving. “There are seventh-generation Ironborn. Or have your eyes been obscured by your weeds? We are standing right in front of you. We have recorded lineage, and our eyes obviously tell the tale. We are not Turned, nor has anyone in either of our bloodlines been Turned for centuries. We have earned our place among you.”

“Present your records, then.” The Oceanborn man said as he motioned to a wolf at the side of the room who came forward to Nick.

Nick produced a document folder from the inside of his robes and handed it over without breaking eye contact with the Oceanborn, who seemed to actually be listening to them. “All of the bloodlines have their own particular qualities, Councilors. All are created in their own way. The only surprise of our appearance here should not be that we are the seventh generation of our kind, but that it took this long for us to present ourselves. But all metals of quality take time and work to produce.”

The Stoneborn woman that sat next to the Oceanborn was obviously the second-in-command, and she looked the most severe of all of them. She barely glanced at the paperwork next to her before looking back at the two Ironborn pups in front of her. She was almost surprised they weren’t still in diapers. “Are you two Mated?”

“No.” He said without inflection as to whether it was a good or bad thing.

“Are you the only two of your purity?”

“We are the eldest. There are others. But our families have found that there are many more with each successive generation, and there is a substantial sixth generation too young yet to have children.”

She looked over at Aura again and then met eyes with her. “So the continuance of your kind depends on you.”

Aura didn’t break eye contact but then she nodded. Nick could feel her trembling a little through their handhold, but she didn’t show her fear otherwise. “Yes, for the moment, to continue a level of purity that is required by the Council, it would depend on me.”

“And yet,” the Stoneborn continued, her voice as cold as her glare, “you come to us not Mated and even without proof that you can continue your line. No pups to show for anything. Just two wolves for an entire race?”

Aura tried very hard not to glare at the woman, and managed somehow to answer calmly. “Our existence is proof that our kind is capable of producing eligible wolves to sit on this Council. Further Ironborn will be born either to us or to the others of our pack who follow our ways in time. After all, I do not need to remind you that a Council seat is not passed down from mother to child. The present is our concern.”

The Stoneborn woman looked over to their leader, with whom, while he was not her Mate, she was very much on intimate terms. They had a lot of worries and concerns in common, and they didn’t have to worry about the pressures from other wolves when they were together. However, they kept their intimacies very private so that it did not interfere with their work. In this case, as in all others, her bored look was an obvious deferment to his authority, and the entire room waited on his pronouncement as his deep blue eyes looked over the pair in front of him.

“This is not a matter for a single afternoon’s consideration.” He said with a finality that rang through everyone in the chamber. “We will need to meet privately to review the proof you’ve brought of your lineage, and to discuss its implications if we find it to be accurate. In the meantime,” he moved on his seat and lifted a hand to beckon to the both of them, “come here. Let us have a look at you.”

Aura felt confused by that, since it made her feel like she wasn’t even a person. She was being examined like a pet or something. But she moved forward anyway, as close as the Oceanborn wanted. When they had climbed to the highest step closest to the Oceanborn, he stood up, deep blue robes flowing around him like the water over which he had complete control. He stepped forward and looked in her eyes intently. She’d never been close to an Oceanborn before, and the vibrancy of the blue in his eyes was like looking down on the open sea at midday. “Most interesting.”

She was captivated by his eyes, and she couldn’t help but comment on his as well. “As are yours.”

“Tell me,” he said softly, but in the silent chamber it was still easy to hear him, “how exactly was a pack of pure Ironborn able to keep itself hidden for seven generations of breeding without our knowledge?”

Aura’s eyes looked away from his for a moment before she regained her confidence and looked back. “You weren’t exactly looking, were you?”

“No, I suppose we weren’t.” He nodded at her with a slight smile, then gave Nick a cursory glance before he went to sit down again. “I have one final question for the two of you before I ask that you leave us for the day.”

She stepped back closer to Nick again and then nodded. She couldn’t possibly say no to a question asked by the Council.

“If you wish only to come and claim a place here alongside us,” he nodded at Orlando behind them, “then why do you bring a Shadowborn as your guard? None of their kind has entered this chamber since this Council was formed.” Which explained why so many of those around the chamber looked like they were trying to stab Orlando’s eyes out with their glares.

Aura finally looked back at Orlando and she watched him for a moment before she looked back at the Oceanborn. “He’s my friend, and he knows what it’s like to be an outcast. He is here as our friend and by his own choice as one of our guardians. We are not generally given a warm, peaceful reception no matter where we go and as you have mentioned,” she said with a nod toward the Stoneborn, “Nickel and I are the only two pure enough to sit among you. We have to be sure of our own safety.”

“Of course.” The Oceanborn said with the same neutral tone he had used the entire conversation. “That will be all for today. We have heard your petition and will give it its due consideration. In the meantime, it is the will of this Council that the two of you remain in Geneva until we give our judgment on the matter.”

She gave them a nod, as Nick did, and then they both did the same for all the Council members before they turned and headed back toward the door. She was still holding tightly to his hand as though it was the only thing keeping her upright. Aura wanted nothing more than to get out of there and away from the fierce Council members.

**************

Once they were out of the building and had nodded their farewells to the friendly Skyborn that had shown them in, they started back toward Nick’s car with Orlando close behind them. Orlando whispered once they were well away from the library. “Keep walking and don’t look back. They already have Skyborn set to follow you. Just act normal.”

Normal? Nothing was going to be normal ever again, she thought with a feeling of both anxiety and bitterness. The Stoneborn had clearly disliked them, and no one else seemed to care enough to chime in, really. Not to support them. Not even the one Council member that they were told might support them. Instead of looking at Orlando, she looked over at Nick. “Do you think we did okay?”

“It went better than I expected, actually.” He said as they got back in the car. “Though I didn’t expect they would send anyone to follow us. How do you know?” He looked back at Orlando.

“I’ve been hunted before, Rusty.” He said quietly, not looking around, just closing and locking the door behind him. “You haven’t.”

“Hunted?” She bit her bottom lip as her body trembled a little more. Now she was a bit more willing to show her fear. “We’re being hunted by them?”

“They’ll probably just follow you to see who else you brought with you. I’m sure they already know about the rest of the Guard, but I showed up. They’ll want to know if you have more demon friends where I came from.” He shook his head and sighed as he leaned back against the seat. “I didn’t know that. What he said about that chamber. I shouldn’t have volunteered to go with you. Now they’re just on the defensive.”

Aura looked back for a moment and offered him a consoling, but firm glance. “It’s okay. I told them the truth. Nothing we said in there was a lie.”

“I hope the truth matters to them, then.” Orlando said with a sigh. “It’s probably just best to go back to the hotel and wait. They could be a few days making their decision.”

She nodded and then looked over at Nick, since she wasn’t sure how he was taking everything that had just happened. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” He put the car in gear and drove off as soon as they were all inside, trying not to look around to tell the difference between the cars that were carrying members of the Guard and those that were set to follow them from the Council. “I had hoped we would have at least one friendly voice of the lot of them.”

Aura didn’t say anything else as they went back to the hotel, and she didn’t look around when they arrived either. She was just as concerned about the people around them, and honestly, she felt that at the moment she preferred ignorance as to whether they were in fact being hunted or not. Nick wanted to go speak to some of their guards before they went up to the room, and so she walked with Orlando into the building on their own. Her voice wasn’t a whisper, but it was quiet as she walked into the lobby. “I think maybe you should stay in a different room until this is all over. Maybe the room next to ours. Nick and I have to appear as united as we can.” She felt horrible saying it, but she agreed to go into this. She had to commit herself completely.

“If that’s what you want.” He said with a nod. “You did well in there, Aura. Almost all of those Council members are over two hundred years old.”

She sighed heavily and then stopped at the door of the room that she and Nick shared. Aura leaned back against the door and finally looked up at Orlando. “I’m glad you were there, no matter what they thought about it.”

“I’m here to help. Though I hope you won’t need it.” He leaned against the wall next to her, looking back down the hall towards the front desk, where he’d have to go to check out a new room. “I could feel how much they hated me. The Heartborn there by the entrance made sure of that.”

Aura reached out and touched his hand gently with her fingertips. “Who cares about what they think of you? They don’t even know you. I do. You’re wonderful.”

“I’m glad you think so. Even if you’re the only one that does.” He squeezed her hand and then started off down to the front desk to get his room.

She watched him go with a sigh, since she wanted so badly to go after him and cheer him up even more, but she couldn’t. Aura couldn’t risk being seen with him because it could undermine everything that her and Nick were working for. She pulled the card out of her pocket and then went into her own room, hurrying herself before she changed her mind and ran after Orlando anyway.

It was a half hour before Nick got back, and the rest of the night was spent surprisingly quietly there in the hotel. The next day went by quietly as well. As did the next.

And the next.

And the next.

X

When Aura woke up one morning and there still was no message for them to meet with the Council, she decided to go for a swim. Sure, there were spies for the Council everywhere, not to mention their own Guard watching them, but she was tired of being cooped up in their room waiting for an answer that seemed like it would never come. Since it was four in the morning and most sane people were still sleeping, there was no one else in the pool or really anyone to be seen around the hotel except for the person behind the check-in desk. It felt good to have a chance to expend some of her pent-up energy.

It wasn’t long before Nick came down and found her, dressed in a bathing suit with a towel already draped over his shoulders. “You know, I used to actually believe it when our parents told us we would rust if we did this too often.”

Aura had just paused from her laps to take a breather, and she jumped at the sound of his voice, but then she laughed both at the rush of adrenaline from being scared and at what he had reminded her of. “I always told my parents that gold doesn’t rust. And that I wouldn’t even allow myself to tarnish.” She smiled up at him, feeling at least a little lighter with all the endorphins running through her body from the exercise.

“And so you haven’t.” He sat on the aluminum railing that led down into the pool and slid down into the water with her, shivering once, since it was cold. “You only ever get better. As true gold does.”

She smiled at him and then she moved closer to him. “It’s four in the morning. What in the world are you doing awake?”

“You were gone when I woke up. I got up to go find you and the Guard pointed me here.” He dunked himself once and ran his hands back over his hair. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not much good without you. Never have been, really.”

Aura smirked and then got close enough to him that she ran her fingers down his arms. “I was going crazy being stuck in the room all day and night. Even the wallpaper was getting on my nerves. I just had to use up some energy.”

“I think today we ought to get out and let ourselves be seen a little more. All this staying indoors might make them think we’re weak, and we need them to know the truth about us, not lies.” He said with a smile.

She snaked around to get behind him, and she wrapped her arms around his neck as she pressed her body into his back. “Okay. We’ll get out. I’m all for getting out, since they apparently think they’re going to intimidate us by putting off a decision that they know the answer to already.”

“There’s no other decision they can legally make. Unless they decide to make a few new laws before they call us back.”

Aura leaned in further to whisper into his ear. “I’ve realized a lot throughout all of this.” She kissed the side of his neck once before she continued. “This is huge. All of it.” Aura put her elbows on his shoulders so that she could run her fingers through his hair. “If we want this to work, we have to stick together. On everything.”

“And you think I’m going to have some kind of problem with that?” He got them over to the stepladder leading up out of the pool and leaned her back against the metal steps as he turned his head to look back up at her.

She actually giggled when he did that, and then she kissed his neck again. “You might. After I do this.” Aura pushed a little off the ladder and then pushed Nick under the water, dunking him thoroughly.

He didn’t have time to take a breath, and although they wouldn’t rust in water, they did sink much quicker than other beings might have, and so he had to work a little harder to get back up to the surface, sputtering his way up to get a breath. “Oh alright, that’s it…” And the contest was on to see who could keep who under most often.

Aura squeaked and squealed as she tried to get away from him, but he grabbed her by the foot and pulled her under before she could get out of his reach. Once she finally got back up, she threw herself at him again, taking them both under at the same time.

At one point, they’d both had a good enough breath before they went under that neither of them was exactly panicking to get back up, and so he pulled her in close as they sank straight to the bottom. He landed on his back against the tile and kissed her, with no sign of letting go, but in the midst of the kiss, he gave her what breath he’d been able to hold.

She hugged herself tighter to him and ran her fingers all along every part of him that she could reach. Being with him was the only way she could feel relaxed and confident, the only way she felt stable, and the only way she knew they could succeed.

After a moment’s peace, though, panic set in, and he had to push them back up to the surface quickly, gasping in a breath. “Okay, that was fun, but not doing that again.”

“What, scared of a little danger?”

“If I was scared of a little danger, I certainly wouldn’t be touching you, would I?”

She giggled at that. “I’m not [_that _]dangerous. Come on, now.”

“You are, actually. Just hopefully not to me.” He kissed her again and stepped up on the ladder. “You ready to get out of here?”

“Where are we going?”

“Does it matter?” He helped her up out of the pool with a single pull and hardly any effort, then nodded at the window, where there was a rather nice view of the city since the hotel was up on a hill. “This is Geneva. We’re going to be spending a lot of time here soon, if this goes the way we want it to. We should get to know the city.”

She grabbed his towel since she hadn’t brought one and then gave him a teasing grin. “Fine, fine. Let’s go get dressed, then.”

It wasn’t long before they were both starting to notice the various ways in which they were being followed around the city. There were a number of their guards lurking about at a distance, but they could also identify a few other wolves that seemed to turn up everywhere they went as well. “This must be what celebrities feel like. Except more cameras and less hateful glances.”

Aura was already getting far too irritated with the way they were being treated, and once when a guard was moving to follow them around a corner, she picked up the lid to a sewer drain with her power and brought it slightly up over the lip so that it would create an uneven surface, which tripped up the Council guard/stalker. “At least I’m bitchy enough to fill the role.”

“I don’t think anybody was worried about you filling that role.” He said with a grin and a sympathetic smile back at the not-so-incognito-Council guard. He wasn’t harmed, it was just their way of letting him know that they knew that he was back there. Even after the man tripped, though, he kept getting closer, which was one thing that none of the other guards had done so far. They’d all tried to make it look as though they just happened to be close by. This one was actually approaching and making eye contact, but he was too far away for them to see his eye color.

“I’ve had enough of this waiting.” She said with an annoyed sigh. “We should go back there and demand an answer.”

“That wouldn’t do you much good.” The man said as he came up to them, even though she’d spoken low enough that she thought only Nick could hear her. When he got closer, they could see that his eyes were an unearthly light blue, almost white. A Skyborn. “They haven’t finished deliberating yet, but it won’t be much longer, I should expect.”

Aura stepped closer to Nick and instead of just linking arms with him, she took his hand and held tightly. “Can you at least tell us what in the world is taking so long?” Her irritation was obvious, and she directed it at the guard since he was the closest to the Council members that she could get at the moment.

“You’re attempting to change five hundred years of tradition, that’s what.” He looked back and forth between the two of them and then put out a hand for one of them to take, he didn’t really care which. “My name is Cameron Wade. I work for Councilor Teresa, the Lady of the Oceanborn.”

Aura was the one who ended up taking his hand, and she did so with a little bit of force so that he would know she meant business. “It’s nice to finally talk to someone who knows what is going on.”

“Don’t go that far.” He shook Nick’s hand afterwards, then nodded off towards one side-street and started walking that direction with them. “I just run errands. Right now my errand is to fetch you.”

Aura was often surprised by how curious she was when it came to actually conversing with other wolves, but she enjoyed it nonetheless. It reminded her, often, that the world was bigger than what her pack had wanted her to believe. It was once so easy to feel like the world revolved around her because her pack had raised her to feel that important. The longer she spent with other wolves, the more she realized how insignificant she actually was, and it made her actually want to make some kind of a difference. “What’s it like? Living with all different kinds of wolves?” She didn’t want to talk about the Council, since it was clear that no matter what they asked he probably wouldn’t have an answer.

“I could ask you the same question about what it’s like not to.” He shrugged. “My family has worked for Council members since it was founded. I’ve never even been outside of Switzerland.” Which was saying something, since Geneva was right on the edge of the country. “You have travel working for you, that’s one point some have brought up in your defense. Not many Council members actually come from outside Geneva anymore. Some of the purest families in the world have estates nearby, and there’s very little reason to leave.”

“Very little reason to leave?” She shook her head in complete disagreement. “Isn’t it their job to bring wolves together? To seek out their own and help them? Certainly they haven’t forgotten what they can do with their position.”

“They work through others. The Council is just the principal seat of lawmaking and tribunal justice.” He looked over at the two of them with a very slight smile, obviously trying to be happy despite the tense situation. “They travel when they need to, but that doesn’t happen often.”

“I see.” She said with a bit of irritation in her voice again. She looked over at Nick and then back at their guide. “Are you taking us to them so that they can tell us their decision?”

“I’m not taking you to them. I’m taking you to see Teresa. She wanted to speak to you. Privately.”

Aura looked around and it was easy to see that there were still people watching and following. “There’s nothing private about this place.”

“You don’t know how things work in Geneva, Lady Ironborn.” He said ominously, then looked around at the other eyes around them with a furtive glance. They were walking through an outdoor cafe, with patrons coming and going and waiters with trays full of food. But just as they made their way between the tables, Aura and Nick could feel the slightest stirring of a breeze at their feet. The next moment, it leapt into a gale that knocked every tray from every waiter’s hand and sent every stray napkin and tablecloth into the air, with a great deal of food along with it. In the midst of the chaos, Cameron grabbed both their hands and started running through the sudden maelstrom and into a nearby shoe-shop.

Once inside the shop, they were hidden from all the eyes that had been watching them, including the ones that were supposedly on their side. She was grinning about the whole experience, though she probably should have been scared. It was hard to scare Aura, though, truth be told. She looked over at the Skyborn as she kept grinning and then mouthed her words. “That was awesome!”

“Glad you’re having fun.” He seemed to be having fun himself, but at the same time, he seemed to think it somehow unusual that she was enjoying it as much as she was. “This way.” He headed back through the shop with a wave at the owner, and headed up the stairs. The next few twists and turns were so fast that it was actually hard to follow, but he’d obviously run the halls a thousand times before, and eventually they came out in a kind of attic that seemed to run across the top of all the shops on the block. At the end of the attic, they took a staircase down a few flights, completely without windows, and came out in a basement room with a huge pool sunk into the floor. The room was lit only by lights that were coming up from under the water, and Cameron stopped at the entrance to the room. “I’ll wait for you here.”

Aura was slightly confused, but then she pulled Nick’s hand and stepped forward cautiously, since she wasn’t exactly sure what the Councilwoman could possibly want from the two of them.

Nick saw the Councilwoman first when they stepped up to the side of the pool. She was underwater, apparently asleep along the bottom, but the lights were so bright he could barely make out what she actually looked like. At the slightest bit of interference in her room, Teresa woke and surfaced, but didn’t get out of the water. She went over to the steps in the pool and sat on the very top one where everything from the waist down was still in water, then turned her attention to her guests, even with water running down her face. Her deep blue eyes were absolutely gorgeous, enough to take the breath away from anyone who dared to get lost in the depth of them. Not to mention Teresa herself was especially beautiful, even for one of their kind. But obviously young. “You made it unscathed. Cameron is excellent at distractions.” She said with a grin.

Nick nodded to her and stepped up a little closer so that they weren’t speaking across the entire pool. “He seems to have a talent for it, Councilor.”

Teresa sighed as she finally got up out of the water and grabbed a towel. The freedom she had with her body, the fact that she acted like their presence didn’t even matter was really shocking for Aura. They had several Turned wolves in their pack, and so there was always a modicum of human modesty that hung about, if not very much. While Aura had never been ashamed of her body, she wasn’t exactly oblivious when people were around and able to see. Teresa started to talk as she continued to dry off. “They’re going to reject your request, young ones.” She was older than they were, but only by a couple of decades. By most wolf standards even fifty was still incredibly young. “They see and understand the evidence you’ve provided them, but they’ll reject you on the grounds that your kind originated from the Turned.”

“Every kind could have originated from the Turned.” Nick said with an insulted snarl. “I’d love to see them try and prove otherwise.”

“The problem with that is that while they cannot prove otherwise, you can’t prove it true either.” She sighed and then finally pulled on her robes and looked over at them. “I’m telling you so that you’ll be able to keep yourselves composed when they decide to actually receive you. When we were all dismissed this morning, the decision had already been made. I was the only one who tried to speak against it, but no one listens to me. Not yet, anyway.”

“Why?” He said as he tried to restrain the anger he was feeling at the moment, though he was obviously having a hard time doing so. “Why would you speak up for us and nobody else would?”

“Because I once loved someone like you.” She turned away and poured herself a glass of water from the pitcher sitting on a table nearby. “I lived in a pack that was exclusively Oceanborn. It was the hope of my pack that someday the Council would take one of us and make the pack royal and powerful, but I never thought it would be me.”

Teresa shrugged and then she continued with her explanation. “There was a human city near where I lived, and many wolves from my pack liked to go there and cause trouble because they hated the humans so much.” She stopped to guzzle down her entire glass. Each gulp comforted her and offered a little bit of protection from the pain that the story brought back into her thoughts. “He was the son of a jeweler, and so he was in the shop when he was attacked, late at night.” She set down the glass and then slowly turned around again. “He woke up Ironborn and somehow, when I went into town a few months later, we ended up finding each other during a Fulness. I showed him kindness. I taught him a lot of things. And while I started out his teacher, I ended up falling in love with him.”

“You…” that kind of thing was not only completely outside of anything his own pack had ever taught him about Mating outside his own kind, but it was against everything he’d heard about other wolves as well. “What happened?”

Distractions were what kept her from completely falling apart when she talked about the man she had loved, though crying about it also helped her to feel better, and so the tears came, as they always did. Tears came easily to the Oceanborn, but neither Nick nor Aura had known enough of them yet to realize how little emotional provocation it took. They streamed down her face quickly as she looked back up at the two standing before her. “About a year after I met him, we went through a Mating ceremony on our own. Not long after that, I found out I was pregnant, and so I ran away with him, but we didn’t run far enough.”

She sighed as she walked to the pool’s stairs again and then stepped in on the first one so that the water was at least at her ankles. Comforting her, soothing her. “My pack was furious when they found out I ran away, but they didn’t know why. They knew that Coren, the Oceanborn Speaker of the Council you talked with a few days ago, was looking for an Oceanborn Mate, despite his intimacies with Alina, the Stoneborn you saw at his side. Council members are not allowed to Mate with each other. It does not evenly distribute the power we hold. Anyway,” she continued with a sigh, “they knew that I was the best bet for him, so they wanted me back. The fighters of my pack found me with my litter of four, one Ironborn among them, during a Fulness just a few months after they were born. I wasn’t enough to stop them. They killed all of my puppies and then they put Philip on trial to expose me. It wasn’t a trial, really. Since we had no witnesses, our Mating was deemed illegitimate. They killed him for creating puppies with a Pure because we were not properly Mated. It was the way of my pack. After that, I was kept under careful watch, and while Coren did not take me as his Mate, they brought me into the Council. None of them know about my past.”

Nick was caught at what she was saying, because while her past made her sympathetic to the two of them, it also reminded him of his own pack. It was what they would have done to him had he gone and Mated with someone other than Aura, a wolf of another element. “I’m sorry for your loss. Of your Mate and of your children.”

She looked back and forth between the two of them and especially at Aura. Her Ironborn pup had been a girl, after all. But eventually, she had to look away. It was painful to look at them for too long. It made the empty part of her ache even more for Philip. She would never be the same again without her Mate, never be as strong as she could have been, but since they were so young and Mated for such a short time, she had survived even after Philip had been killed. “I accepted the position not for my pack, but because I knew that I could make a difference here. Not at first, but someday.” She sighed. “I know this makes you angry. But you cannot let them see that they have any power over you. Emotional or otherwise. There will come a day when your kind is recognized. Now you need to focus on staying safe, do you understand me?”

“Staying safe?” He stepped a little closer to her, his fingers unconsciously curling into fists at his sides.

Teresa looked up and met his eyes. “Don’t cause trouble here. There are thousands of wolves here that wouldn’t even give your family the kindness of collecting your carcass. Warn your father to be on guard. Move, if you have to. One flinch from Alina alone could crush the both of you. She’s two hundred years old, and most of them are at least over a hundred. Go home. Strengthen your pack. Mate. Have babies. Wait for the right time.”

“Our pack has already been waiting since the first Council was formed!” Nick said as his temper got the best of him and he stepped up to the edge of the pool itself, with his toes just barely over the water. “Longer than any of them have been alive, we’ve been working for this. And now you’re telling us just to go home and wait longer?”

“Yes. That’s what I’m saying.” Teresa said calmly, not reacting to his anger. “Are you willing to see everything your pack has worked for unravel because you’ve provoked the Council into action?”

He snarled a little at what she was saying, but mostly just because she was making sense. Teresa looked over at Aura, surprised that she hadn’t said anything the whole time. “You understand what I’m saying, don’t you?”

Aura hadn’t spoken because she was so insulted that for once in her life, she didn’t have a single word to say. She’d thought she didn’t care about the part that she needed to play for her pack, for her kind. But that was only because she’d thought that they couldn’t be denied and that they didn’t need her. But even with her, the Council wasn’t going to recognize them. It didn’t make any sense! Not only that, it infuriated her past words and patience. She did care. She cared more than she ever thought it was possible for her to care. “I understand what you are saying.” It didn’t mean she agreed or even that she cared enough to listen, but she understood.

Teresa nodded and then looked back at Nick. “Take care of each other, first and foremost. There’s this hole inside of you that can never be filled when the one you love is gone. Don’t let that happen.”

The softening of the conversation brought down Nick’s temper, but only enough that he could be polite again. He seemed to remember finally that they were speaking to a Council member after all, and not just some beautiful Oceanborn in a beach towel. He nodded low enough that it could be considered a fairly respectful attempt at a bow, then met her eyes again. “Thank you for warning us, Councilor. We won’t forget the risk you took doing so.”

She nodded and then stepped out of the water. “Go now. They can’t find you here.”

He looked her over a few more times, then turned to go with Aura back out the way they’d come in. They found Cameron there waiting patiently, and as soon as they’d opened the doors, he was almost flying up the stairs, leading them back up to the street level.

They were led to a sweets shop where they were instructed to stay for a little while and then to come out with something to look as though they were shopping. Then Cameron disappeared just as quickly as he had come. Aura stood there staring at chocolates, not sure how to respond. “This can’t really be happening.”

Nick looked over the sweets with the same disinterest, since none of them appealed to him in the slightest at the moment. “They’ve got no right to say no to us. They’ve made their laws and now they’re just being hypocrites with their own ways.”

Just as she was about to buy something as they had been told, one of their own guards stumbled in, since everyone was obviously still looking for them. The guard came up to them and grabbed Aura’s arm. “The Council has been looking for you both. Come on.”

Nick stepped up and hit the man’s arm so hard everyone in the shop could hear the bones crack. The man dropped his grip and held his arm close to his chest, though he did no more than growl at the pain of it, to his credit. Nick stood there glaring at the man. “We will attend the Council at our own discretion. You know better than to put your hands on her.”

Aura took Nick’s hand so that he wouldn’t get tempted to hit the man again. “Let’s just go. Come on.”

They stepped back out onto the street, and it was like they were some kind of flash-mob center, every pair of eyes turning toward them at once. They got back to their car safely enough, and headed back to the motel to pick up Orlando. When Nick pulled in, the gear-shift slammed into park angrily even without him touching it, and he got out. “I’ll go see to my father and see you back here in a bit, alright? We should get this over with as quickly as possible.”

“Okay.” She said sadly, since the anger was still just at a simmer. “I’ll get Orlando and we’ll wait for you.”

She got inside and went to the room Orlando was supposed to be in, but even though the lock responded immediately to her power and clicked open for her, he wasn’t in his room. She was more than a little nervous when he was actually gone, and so she sped up her pace to find him. “Orlando?” She called out nervously, obviously worried. “Orlando!”

“If you’re looking for the demon…” a voice said from behind her, as one of the Guards appeared outside the door, “he ran into town after you once he heard that you’d gone missing over the radio. Nobody’s seen him since.”

“Nobody…“ She ran past the guard to get outside the hotel, even though she had no idea where she would start looking.

As she got outside, though, she saw Orlando being thrown out the back of a van onto the pavement by a number of guards, some of them the ones that he’d shocked into oblivion a few days before. He laid there on the pavement for a moment before he managed to get up to his hands and knees. She could tell he’d been cut severely all over his previously-perfect robes, but it made him look as though he actually deserved the title of a demon instead of just being called one.

Aura rushed up to him and went to her knees beside him, though she was afraid to touch him since she didn’t want to hurt him further. “Orlando! Are you alright?”

He got up slowly, with her help, but with a great deal of difficulty. “I’m always alright. Where did you go?”

She looked around but then she decided that it was best to keep the truth quiet, even though she would have told Orlando if there wasn’t a danger of being heard. “Nick and I were shopping.”

“Shopping? And for that you had to drop completely off the radar?”

She nodded and then continued to look over him to make sure that he wasn’t bleeding profusely or seriously injured. “It…was a dare. I dared Nick to see if he could get us away from prying eyes.”

“Apparently he succeeded.” He sighed. “The Council messenger came right after you disappeared. I don’t get the impression that it’s a good idea to keep them waiting. I’ll run inside and get changed.”

Aura tugged on his hand before he pulled away. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine. I’ve been a lot worse.” He was taking off his robe and what was left of his shirt as he went. “Where’s Nick?”

“He went to talk to his father. We’re supposed to meet him at the car.”

When he got into his room, he made short work of changing, but she could see the cuts and scratches all over his torso that her Guards had added in the last few hours. He grabbed a towel and wetted it in the sink to wash off some of the blood, and seemed to have had far too much practice doing so. All the scratches were starting to scab over, but they still looked like someone had just flogged him to open his back.

She took the towel from him after only a few moments and made sure the water was nice and cold before she took on the task of cleaning him up. “I’m sorry.” The door was locked behind them, so she knew that she would at least hear it if someone entered the room. It made her feel safe enough to tell him the truth. “One of the council members wanted to speak to us privately.” She said in the lowest voice she could manage. “We didn’t really have much choice.”

That sounded much more like the truth than what she’d told him previously, and he turned to look at her as he leaned both his hands on the sink in front of him. “What did they want to talk about?”

Aura sighed as she dipped the towel in water again and she wiped at his skin as tenderly as she could. “She wanted to warn us. That they’re going to reject us.”

“On what grounds?” He sounded almost as outraged as she was, though not quite as surprised.

“That our race comes from the Turned. It makes us pretty much fucked no matter how pure we get.” She said with a slight growl, but she continued to focus on being gentle with Orlando’s wounds. That, at least, kept her from flying off the handle when the Council hadn’t even given them the official answer yet.

“Well, if that’s how it is, then what’s the use in warning you about it?” She finished cleaning him up and he turned around, looking at the bloodied towel and sighing. It looked like a vampire had used it for a napkin after dinner. “Thank you.”

She set the towel down and then leaned a little on the sink, looking away from him. “Because we’ve put ourselves on their radar. They’ll be looking for any excuse to come in and wipe us out.”

He was alarmed by that, to say the least, and shook his head. “Why would they? If they’re just rejecting you, why would they want to kill you as well?”

“I’m not saying that they do, but they definitely see us as a threat that needs to be monitored. We created an entire pack of Ironborn under their noses. They don’t want anyone to think they’re not in control.”

“It won’t be that easy for them to be rid of you. There are hundreds of you. That’s not the kind of genocide that just happens in a single attack.”

She waved her hand and then straightened up. “They’re not going to attack us. She just wanted us to be on guard.” She tugged on his arm a little bit and nodded toward the door. “We have to go. Come on.”

He was still pulling on a black coat on his way out the door, and he seemed to be already out in the hall before he remembered that he’d forgotten to put a shirt on, but he didn’t go back.

When they got outside, Nick was already waiting for them in the car, with his father nearby in his own van looking more furious than normal. Nick did not appear to have calmed down in the slightest. On the contrary, there were actual marks from his hand in the metal of the steering wheel.

Aura got into the car next to Nick and she put her hand on his arm before she leaned in and kissed his cheek. She stayed close to him to whisper into his ear, which gave plenty of appearance to the guards that things were normal. “We can’t let them get to us. I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere. Let’s just get through this.”

Nick nodded silently, and tried to smooth out the steering wheel so it didn’t look so mangled, then set off at a fairly calm pace toward the library.

When they walked into the library, no one made conversation with them, nor did anyone really show them the way. She held tightly to Nick’s hand as she did before, but this time she was giving him her power so that he would know she was there to support him every step of the way.

They made their way to the outer chambers of the Council, where they were met by the same Heartborn as before, and Nick did his best not to glare as he greeted her. “We’ve been summoned by the Council. We are at the Council’s service.”

The woman nodded and then let them in, but not all the Council was gathered. Only one wolf of each kind was represented, and although it wasn’t clear from appearance, the fact that Teresa wasn’t there was proof that only the Elder of each pair was seated there.

He looked around exaggeratedly, to make it obvious he’d noticed the difference, and looked at the two in the center, Coren and Alina, without letting go of Aura’s hand. “Distinguished Councilors.”

Alina was the one who spoke first, since she was especially eager to get the mutts out of her city. “We’ve come to a decision.”

“We are glad to hear it.” He said, somehow without growling, though he did squeeze Aura’s hand a little more tightly.

“Due to the flawed seeds that your supposed purity comes from, we cannot accept your lineage, or your appeal for seats among the Council.” She sat up at little straighter as she finished speaking, silently daring the pups to make a move toward them in retaliation.

He looked up at each one of them in turn, knowing that a group that size wasn’t likely to be swayed by logic, but he had to try anyway. He wasn’t responding in anger, or at least he was trying not to. “Is there any member of this Council that would claim only wolves for ancestors? Unable to speak, to reason, to meet and make decisions with each other as we are now? We may be both human and wolf, but the human half has always been the dominant one, which is the reason you are all sitting here in your skin instead of in your fur.”

“Your kind was turned by the bite. Ours by the element.” It was the belief of many wolf packs that the more common and more powerful subsets of their kind had been changed at some point in ancient history as the direct result of the energies they all constantly needed to survive. Even so, Nick’s parents had always made certain to point out that it was unclear which came first, the legend of their origins or the Council that had circulated the legend in the first place. “As such, yours is a completely different kind of power.” Alina said with a bored tone. “The answer is no. Simple as that. There is no more discussion on the matter. You and your pack, guards, and whoever else is lingering about have a day to clear out before we cannot promise your protection from the other wolves that live here.”

“You made no such promise in the first place.” Aura snapped. She knew her next statement probably should have been gentler, apologizing for her outburst, but instead she followed it with a barely perceptible shrug of one shoulder. “We came anyway.” Aura looked back and forth between the different Council members after she spoke, but when no one seemed to have an answer to that statement, she looked at Coren, since he had at least seemed to be the one to grant their audience and review their claim in the first place. “We have done everything the way that we were supposed to. Everything according to your laws, your ways. How can you deny us this?”

“Our laws protect all those who come naturally to our world. By your own declaration, you did not. You were planned, as thoroughly as the children of the modern age grown in a test tube.” He sat back against the seat with a sigh, just as bored as his companion.

“Did your parents not Mate and plan to have children? Hope to? Pray to the Gods?”

“We are finished here, Ironborn.” He said to the both of them with a final nod. “Return to your homeland and see to yourselves. Your lives and your affairs are not the concern of this Council.”

She then nodded at Coren and then looked at Nick. “Let’s go. Clearly there is nothing for us here.”

Nick couldn’t keep himself from glaring at Coren and Alina one last time as they turned around, walking past Orlando. For a final moment before he followed Nick and Aura, Orlando raised his dark eyes to the six council members present, sliding from one to the next until he’d taken a good look at all of them. Then he turned and followed just behind Aura out the door.

XI

Aura was quiet the entire way back to the hotel where they were staying, even though it was only Nick and Orlando in the car with her. She still didn’t even say anything until she and Nick got back to the room, and as she slammed and locked the door behind her, she growled softly. “We need to retaliate.”

“Retaliate?” Nick was more than a little incredulous, and almost lost his balance, he turned around so fast. “This is the Council we’re talking about. They’re not just a pack. They have armies. Standing troops that are trained and organized to fight. There’s no retaliating against that.”

“We…we deserve a place! We can’t just sit here and do nothing! All the work of our families, all the generations. . . You told me this was for every Ironborn. There are more of us out there. We can fight them!” Aura screamed, honestly not caring at the moment who might hear her.

It was about the last thing he would have expected from her, the woman who just a few months ago had wanted nothing more than to run her own tattoo shop in England. “This is for all of us, Aura. This was. But we can’t go up against that. Every other Ironborn outside our pack lives only for themselves.”

“That’s because the world has taught them that they have to. But they don’t have to. We can do this. Hundreds of years ago no one believed that an Ironborn could be pure enough to be a part of the Council, and yet here we are. We were made to defy the odds, Nick. Don’t give up now!”

Nick just got quieter in response to her anger, amazed by it more than he could even say. “You’re talking about war, Aura. You’re talking about a war of wolves. That hasn’t happened since the sixteenth century. Since the Fireborn took their seat on the Council.”

“Look at them now, Nick. There are few people that aren’t afraid of a Fireborn. The Council doesn’t want to change because they get everything they want the way things are. If we want to be involved, we have to prove to them that we deserve it. They’ve seen the papers, they know the truth, and they had their chance to give it to us. Now we just have to take it.” She went up to him and grabbed both of his hands. “No one will listen to me without you. I ran away. Now that the Council rejected us, I’m nothing. You are the most important person. The only one who can do this for our people.”

She was putting a war on his shoulders, and that was a little more than he was willing to handle at the moment. The raising up of their people, he had been prepared for. But an uprising…that was something else altogether. “You heard Teresa. In time, when there are more pureborn from our pack, when there are more of us all gathered in one place, maybe then…”

“Long after we’re dead.” She said in frustration, but she dropped his hands. “Fine. You’re right. I heard her. We’ll just wait.” She sighed and then walked toward the door, but it unlocked and flew open on its own. “I’ll come back later. I need to take a walk. Or something.”

He kept his mouth shut until she got to the door, then blurted out, “Are you sure?”

She grabbed onto the frame of the door and then she looked back, confused, but still angry. “Sure about what? The fact that we’ll be dead when it happens?”

“Sure that you’ll come back this time.” He said just as quietly.

Her expression actually softened at that, and then she came back inside and slowly up to him. “You really think I’m going to leave? For good?”

“I had to ask.” He paused, but didn’t look away from her. “As you said, you’ve done what my father always wanted us to do. You never wanted anything more than that before.”

Aura sighed and then went up to him and hugged him as tightly as she could. “I’m sorry, Nick.”

That just confused him, but he hugged her back just as tightly. “For what?”

“I’m sorry that everything I’ve done has hurt you.” She sighed against his chest. “That you think all I’m going to do is walk away.”

“We’ve both been told about what we’d do all our lives.” Which included going before the Council, being Mated to each other, living and preparing to possibly be Council members themselves one day. “It shouldn’t be such a surprise that it hasn’t turned out quite the way they told us it would be.” He kissed her cheek, and then let her go. “I’ll be here when you get back. I just…wanted to make sure.”

Aura didn’t give him a kiss on the cheek, instead she kissed him on his lips and then she kept kissing him over and over again. All of her passion that had been wrapped up in anger and rebellion and everything else was being thrown into every kiss.

In the midst of the kiss, they heard a soft and polite knock on the door, which wasn’t followed by an announcement of room service or the tramp of heavy iron boots as would have been the case with any of their family guard. She was breathing heavily when she finally pulled away from his lips, and she looked back at the door as though she was seriously considering not answering it.

“Go on. I’m sure he’s got questions about what we’re doing next.” He didn’t need to ask who was on the other side of the door any more than she did, and he stepped away, for once not acting insanely jealous of her friendship with their Shadowborn enforcer. The man had done what he’d said he’d do, and Nick respected him for that much.

Aura kissed him once more and then went to the door, opening it slowly to look up at Orlando. “Hi.”

“Hi.” His eyes flicked past her to look at Nick, but it was hard to tell exactly what he was looking at just because his eyes were so dark. “I wanted to stop by and see how you were.”

She stepped out into the hall and closed the door quietly behind her. “I’m okay.” She said in a whisper, not sure how else to respond, since she was feeling so many emotions at once. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, honestly.”

“They gave you a day to leave the city. Maybe that’s enough time to see this Councilor of yours and talk something out…”

Aura stepped up on her toes to put her hand out over his lips to silence him, and then she shook her head as her hand dropped away from his mouth. It was still too dangerous to talk about. “Nick was right. We just need to wait, I suppose.”

“You think his father is really in the mood to do that?” He asked as he looked around for the father in question, just to be sure.

“He’s not in any place to start a war either.” She said in the quietest of whispers she could produce. She shook her head again and then lowered herself off the tip of her toes. “I guess it’s not a bad thing we’re not as special as everyone thought we were. I can lead a normal life. More or less.”

The look on his face was truly sad as he walked back toward the door to his room. “You sound so excited.”

She leaned back into the wall directly across from his door and sighed. “No one needs me. It’s both liberating and confusing. I’ve lived my whole life thinking I had a specific purpose, and now I just need to figure out what’s left. It’s difficult, but maybe instead of being needed, I can just be wanted.”

“So that’s it?” He said with a little surprise in his voice. “You face the worst fears of your life, come here, they say no, and it’s all over? Just like that?”

It was too dangerous to talk about it in the open, so she pushed him back into his room and she closed the door behind them both. “What are we supposed to do? Just one of those wolves in the Council could kill most of us with a thought.”

“It’s been decades since almost any of those pussycats in there has ever been in an actual fight for their life.” He said with thick revulsion in his voice that she’d never heard from him before. “They have servants whose job it is to die for them. They may be old and powerful, but they’re also lazy and complacent. Not to mention they look bored out of their skulls.” There was a certain school of thought among wolves with which Aura had been familiar back in her life before she ran away from the pack, which stated that wolves were really not meant to live the completely civilized life of humans. That there was a part of them, a very important part, that needed to be wild every once in a while just to keep their sanity and their health. Apparently it was a belief that Orlando had come to on his own.

“No one is going to rally behind me, Orlando. Even if I agree with you. I left them when they needed me. And Nick doesn’t agree with it. At all. It’s…just not going to happen.”

He didn’t approach her, because it seemed as though, through everything that had happened, she’d gotten closer to Nick, and if that was the choice she was making, then he’d back off and respect it as he’d done before. “They know you now, Aura. You can call me paranoid if you want to, but I don’t think this is going to end with them just sending you home without a pretty chair.”

“I’m not like you, Orlando.” She sighed as she leaned back against his door. “I don’t have your power.”

“No, you don’t. And thank whatever gods are listening for that.” He stepped up to her and took her hand, raising it up to trace his fingers along her rings. “All I can do is destroy. That and pay an electric bill with my pinky.” He kissed one of her rings, still holding her hand. “You can create. You can make whatever you want. Shape the world as you want it. You just have to know what you want first.”

She didn’t pull away, especially since his tender kisses were incredibly soothing. “Is it so much to want to find love and have a family? Maybe with a tattoo parlor in my garage?”

“Yeah, I think it is, actually. I don’t think anybody would want to get a tattoo done in a garage. Not the most sanitary environment.”

Aura wanted to laugh, but it was hard to with everything that had happened. She still held on to his hand, but she looked away. “What would you want?”

“What do you mean? If I was an incredibly powerful Ironborn woman with a talent for body art?”

That got a slight chuckle from her. “No. What would you, Orlando, want from the world?”

That was an actual serious question leveled in his direction, and those were usually top on his list of things he wanted to avoid. He backed away slightly with a shrug. “Most of the time, I just want it to leave me the hell alone. Past that, I’m not sure, honestly.”

Once he let go of her hand and backed away from her, she avoided eye contact even more. The ‘leave me the hell alone’ stuck out particularly in her mind, since she was a part of the world, after all. She turned the knob behind her and then opened the door a crack. “Okay. I’m sorry.” She then actually turned around to face his door.

“I didn’t mean you.” He stepped up and leaned into the corner between the wall and the door, facing her.

“You just don’t want to talk to me about anything. The minute I ask, you’re backing away. It’s not easy for anyone to think about the future, you know.”

“You asked me what I wanted, and I meant what I said.” He pushed the door closed with a sigh. “I don’t have the dreams you do about the future. A house, white picket fence, two and a half puppies. All I ever wanted was for my brothers to have that kind of life. But that didn’t happen.”

Aura finally turned her face to look back up at Orlando. “And you don’t think they wanted that life for you too?”

His look darkened, and he looked away once before meeting her eyes again. “What they wanted matters just about as much now as what I wanted for them, doesn’t it?”

“No.” She shook her head. “You’re still alive. Death is horrible and painful, but the living have to go on past it.”

He took in a deep breath, until it seemed like his chest was about to explode, and sighed it out again slowly. “I don’t know how to go on past anything. All I know how to do is survive.”

She looked over at him and into his dark eyes. Aura reached out, since he was near enough to touch, and she caressed the side of his face. “Imagine that you don’t ever have to worry about survival again. No one is chasing after you. Not a single soul. What do you want waiting for you?”

Orlando lifted his hand and took hers, letting his power flow through her fingers to complete the circuit through her again for the first time in a long time. “Maybe a hot tattoo artist.” He said with a tentative smile.

Aura laughed softly and then squeezed his hand gently. “You know one of those?”

“Just one.”

“Huh.” She looked around the room behind her. “Is she hiding? I’d like to meet her.”

“I don’t blame you. I’m pretty glad I did.”

When she pushed her power back into him, there were sparks again between their hands, but she didn’t even flinch. “Are you really being serious? You’d want the picket fence and the house with me inside?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure in our case, it’d be a chain-link fence, but that’s pretty close, yeah.”

She moved closer to him to give him a hug, a tight one where she could feel the hum of his power all over her body. “Why me?”

“You really need to ask?” His hands rested on her waist, then slowly moved around her back to squeeze her tighter against him.

Aura kept hugging him back, and she enjoyed the feeling of his arms wrapped around her. “What am I supposed to do?” She whispered into his chest. “You feel so exciting, so right, and…“

“Worry about getting out of Geneva first.” He was still humming with power, since he hadn’t had the chance to use much of it since the night earlier that week that he’d spent completely draining the building’s power supply, and so the current of power running through her was almost like a drug holding her up, injected into every one of her veins at once.

She nodded, but she could hardly think with every nerve in her body firing endorphins through her. “Mhm.”

They stayed that way for a long time, until he started drawing from her instead of the other way around, his nature finally taking over by instinct.

Finally she had to pull away slowly, since it was either that or find a supply of metal. If she did that, then she knew she’d be tempted and he would just turn her down again. “Maybe I should go…”

“If you want to.” But he took his time letting her go.

“I don’t, really. That’s the problem.” It was a problem for so many reasons.

“Why is that a problem?”

“Cause every time I try to get really close to you, you say no. Which I totally respect,” She followed quickly. “I just don’t want to be pushy, so that’s why it’s the problem.”

He looked at her for a moment, then took a step towards her and pushed her the rest of the way across the small hallway, shoving her up against the opposite wall next to the bathroom a little more roughly than was absolutely necessary. He pressed her into the wall with both hands still resting on her waist, and they finally slipped under her shirt to send sparks directly into her skin. His lips were so close to hers that there were actually small sparks jumping back and forth between them.

She moaned and then kissed him back with even more passion, almost wishing that he’d been rougher. She wasn’t from a pack that was ever known for being gentle, after all. Her own hands went under his shirt and her fingers dug into his back enough to leave indentations in his skin.

“Giving me more tattoos already?”

Aura pulled her hands back slowly, though not without difficulty. She was breathing rapidly as she did so, since she was losing control so quickly. “I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t say I minded.” He said with a grin as he kissed her again. When it broke, he looked her up and down with a slow sigh. “You sure you’re okay with this?”

She nodded and then pulled off her shirt, her heart still pounding against her ribs. Nick was familiar and sure, and so that was why she didn’t want to let him go. But Orlando was thrilling and new, and so she couldn’t resist a single spark. “I’ve wanted you for so long…” Aura admitted softly, though she realized that she was a horrible person for having wanted both him and Nick for months.

The added contact drove him a little crazier, and it was easy enough to shrug off the jacket he’d been wearing, since he hadn’t been wearing a shirt in the first place. Aura kissed him hungrily as he continued to caress her skin, but it didn’t take long before she realized that the sparks were starting to hurt because she didn’t have the strength to sustain being so close to him. Not after being in Geneva for a week where most of the buildings were constructed by Stoneborn, and most everything was tailored to every other kind of wolf. She gasped a few times as she kissed him. “I…I need time…to…”

He took a few moments to pull away, since he really and truly didn’t want to, and kissed her one more time before he backed up a step and sighed. “I…understand.” He gulped a few times, and tried to pull his hands away from her, but it was becoming physically difficult.

Despite the increasing pain she was feeling, she caressed the side of his face and neck. “There’s not much to sustain me here in Geneva. Not enough, anyway.” She then kissed him once more and then had to step back out of his grasp. “Soon. Soon I’ll be able to show you just how much I want you.” Several fantasies were cycling through her thoughts, and she found it hard to feel guilty when her skin was still buzzing with Orlando’s touch.

Orlando stepped back to make it easier for her. “It’ll be easier when you get back home. I know. It’s alright.”

“I’m sorry.” She really looked hurt and saddened, but her body was already screaming out for more energy. She was still breathing heavily as she grabbed her shirt off the floor and pulled it back on. “Soon.” Aura met his eyes for a moment and then turned quickly and walked out before she decided to really test her body’s limits. It felt so good just to touch the doorknob that she stood outside of his room for a moment holding onto it. When she finally let go and started walking down the hall, she heard someone walking behind her.

It was Nick’s father, and for once, he wasn’t accompanied by his Mate or a squad of goons. He looked angry, but that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for him, and certainly nothing odd for the current circumstance. “Before you start screaming for my head on a pike, I was hoping I could have a word.”

She was a bit too weakened to argue, so she just nodded with a glare. “Fine. A word.”

“You know me well enough to know that I will never accept this as an end.” He said frankly. “We have all come too far and done too much to accept this.”

It was, not surprising, but a little disturbing to her that she was actually in agreement with Nick’s father about anything. “I tried to tell Nick that, but he was the rational one. We have to accept this. How can we possibly fight even the smallest of armies from here?”

“We can’t, not here. But there are many kinds of destruction that don’t involve fighting.” He looked at Orlando’s door and spoke quietly, wanting to make sure they weren’t heard. “How is he?”

Aura nearly growled at him. “After you let your freaks wail on him?”

“They’ve been properly chastised, and instructed to let him be. He’ll no longer be touched.”

“I helped him out. I’m sure he’ll be fine.” She looked back towards Orlando’s door. “Since when do you care about him, anyway?”

“There’s something we’ve found out since we’ve been here waiting for you,” he couldn’t resist some small barb thrown in her direction, “that changes certain things about this situation. It makes them worse for us by a great deal, but possibly better for us, with the right strategy.”

She looked around. “Is it safe to talk here?”

“Our people are all around the hotel, and we’ve rented all the rooms on this side of the building.” He said with a casual shrug. As the Alpha of a pack filled with natural metal-detectors, it wasn’t surprising he’d be so offhanded about such an expense.

“Well, then explain what the hell you mean.”

“Lightborn are real.” He dropped the news a little too easily as he leaned against the wall opposite Orlando’s door. “The Council has several of them as servants. That’s how they maintain their power beyond any question of challenge.”

Aura actually did growl as she took a step closer to him. He could kill her, easily, but she was too angered by what he’d said to think rationally for a moment. What did he think she was, a puppy listening to bedtime stories? “You’re lying. Everyone knows they’re a myth.”

He shook his head. “I’ve lied to you in the past, Aura, you and I both know that. But not this time. They exist.”

“So, what, you want to use Orlando as bait? What the hell is wrong with you? I would never do that!” She was still whispering, but it was a harsh whisper.

“Not as bait.” He said back to her condescendingly. “You have to understand. He is real. Lightborn are real. What else is real of the legends that we’ve heard?” He said insistently. “Almost every wolf like Orlando goes their entire life without meeting a Lightborn. I’ve never met a Shadowborn who has, or who admitted to doing so, at least. But here it is.” He sighed. “Their two bloodlines are created as opposing halves of the other.”

“Okay. I understand that. So? You wouldn’t tell me this unless it was going to benefit you.” Aura said with another growl, desperate for him to get to his point so that she wouldn’t have to continue conversing with him.

“If the legends are true, then the Lightborn need Orlando as much as Orlando needs them.” He let that sink in for a moment. “Which means they would be taken away from the Council.”

She didn’t want to think about Orlando needing anyone except her, but what if he could find what he really needed…what he really wanted, in someone else? “Why don’t you approach him about it? I don’t control him.”

“He is not here for me. He is here for you.”

“He’s my friend.” Aura said quickly, and a little too defensively.

“Which is why he’s here for you.”

Aura sighed and then turned away from Nick’s father to head back down to Nick’s room. “I’m not asking him to make such a sacrifice for us.”

“What sacrifice? To have all the power he could ever want? To wrap himself up in it as easily as we wrap ourselves in steel when we go to bed at night? What sacrifice is that?”

“To go into there, into a hostile place, just because you want a Lightborn on our side.”

“And you don’t?”

She just kept walking for a moment before she turned and glared the short distance down the hallway at him. “You gave up on us already? On your son?”

“My son is strong enough to continue on with this in his own way and on his own terms. I trust him completely to make those decisions and to set those terms. And if you wish to help him, as I think you do, then I’m giving you a way to do it.”

“Now you’re using me. Using me to get to Orlando. Using me to get to your son. I am not your property!” She said in a little more than a whisper, but she kept her voice as low as her anger would allow.

“I don’t consider you my property.” He said without getting even the slightest bit angry. “But I know you, Aura. That is what you hate most about me. You love my son, and I know that whatever else you do, you will help him.”

Aura growled softly again but then she turned back around and stormed straight into Nick’s room, since she couldn’t possibly stay outside in the hallway with his father any longer.

Nick was in the process of packing up their things on the far side of the room, and looked over when she came in. “Hey.” She seemed pissed, but he wasn’t sure why, so he figured the fewer words the better.

The sheet that he had made when they first arrived was still on the bed, and she fell onto it in the middle as it bent to wrap a little more securely around her. “Hey.” She said with a sigh at the feel of the metal against her skin. To get closer to it, she stripped quickly. “I hate your dad, just in case I’ve not mentioned that recently.”

He just sighed as he put away their dress robes, which he was looking at wistfully. “What’d he do now?”

For some reason she held back on explaining what his father had told her. She thought that the fewer people that knew about the Lightborn, the less likely it would be that she would lose Orlando to one. “Just…the usual, I guess. Thanks for packing.” she said gently, “I just feel really out of it tonight.”

“Get some rest. It’s been a long day.” He wasn’t making eye contact with her, and he was clearly deep in his own thoughts, and had been for some time.

She sat up slowly. “Are you okay?”

“I’ll be alright. Like you said, just a long day.”

“That’s not why.” She said simply, since she knew his tone and expression for just about every emotion that went through him.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said.” He finished folding another piece of the outfit and put it away in the suitcase, leaning on it with a sigh. “There are a hundred ways of getting the word out to all the Ironborn out there, but none of them are ways that the Council wouldn’t know about. We need a way of reaching them without the Council knowing.”

Aura looked up at him and almost cut herself on the metal that had wrapped around her shoulders, she was so surprised by what he was saying. “Wait, now you want to gather people? I thought you just wanted to…”

“We came here to make our claim before the Council. A claim we both know and which they know is valid.” He looked over at her and leaned on the bag he’d been packing, his eyes strong and fierce as she had so often seen them in the past. “And my tail’s never been much good at being tucked between my legs.”

She held eye contact with him for a few moments and then nodded. “Mine either.”

“I just don’t know how.” He said with a sigh, looking back down at the bag in front of him. “But we need more. There aren’t enough of us. We need to find the others scattered around Europe. I know there have to be thousands of us, I just…”

Aura thought for a moment, and then shook her head as she looked up at him, smiling weakly as she just appreciated the sight of him. “Don’t look now, Nick, but you’re starting to sound like a fighter for the cause. Or maybe a general. That would work too.”

Nick rolled his eyes at her light-hearted twist on things, then went back to packing. “Right. General Nickel Ortiz. Has a ring to it, I suppose.”

Aura stared at him for a moment as the smile fled from her face, and her jaw dropped open. “Nickel.”

He looked up, one eyebrow furrowed since she was calling him by his full name. “What, am I in trouble now?”

“No, no, nickel!” She looked down and pulled off a bracelet that had been around her wrist. She formed it meticulously into a coin and tossed it to him. “Money.”

He caught it, then looked down at her. “What about it?”

“Who on the Council tracks currency? And it goes everywhere. If we can get our hands on pieces from every country, only one of our kind would know the difference. Metal that has been tampered with by another Ironborn.”

He had a look on his face that should have had a light bulb over it. “With messages hidden within them that only one of our kind would ever find.”

She smiled weakly and then settled back into the sheet, since she really felt so drained that she needed it against her skin. “They’ll come looking for us.”

Aura could see the gears behind his eyes turning against each other. “We would need to be ready for all of them. The camp might be overrun.” He said afterward, his mind already churning to figure out how it would all be organized.

The top of the sheet folded up into a pillow and she wrapped herself up a little more. “I don’t think it will be a difficult task if you ask a bunch of Ironborn wolves to find more metal so the pack can expand to accommodate. You know everyone is itching to do that anyway.”

Nick pushed the suitcase aside and climbed up on the bed with her, climbing over her to look down and kiss her. “You’re a bit of a genius, have I ever told you that?”

She giggled and then she kissed him back gently. There was one thing that his father did get right. “You know, I’d do just about anything for you.”

“After today, yes, I most definitely know that for a sealed fact.”

Aura was the only one not clothed in that situation, but she wrapped the metal a bit more around him anyway. “Now, can we get some sleep?”

“I hope so. I’m exhausted.” He kissed her gently, and looked a little surprise. “And apparently so are you.”

“Mhm.” She snuggled closer because her body was so hungry for power that she was pulling it both from him and the metal around them. “Sleep well, General.”

XII

Coren and Alina were alone in the Council room for the moment, though the others were on their way. For once, the entire chamber was empty aside from the two of them, since the meeting they were about to hold was under terms of the highest solemnity and not for the general record of the public. Such meetings were rare for the present Council, since they had presided over a time of general peace for so long, but they were still necessary from time to time. The recent visit of the Ironborn had certainly given them little choice.

He looked up at Alina with a sigh. “I had thought this kind of action could be postponed for another lifetime. Preferably one besides our own.”

Alina took his hand from where she sat and then caressed along the lines in his palm. “We have to preserve the peace. This will do that.”

He shook his head as he looked up to the ceiling, where there were carvings of moons and men and wolves hundreds of years old, done by the first masters of the Council, Stoneborn who had built the Council chambers and the very thrones they were sitting on. “Their strength was in their isolation from other Ironborn. And their weakness is in the same. I wonder if they themselves even realize it.”

“Probably not. They don’t seem to realize much else outside of their own opinion of themselves.” She sighed and then got up from her chair to get them both something to drink. When she got to the back table, she grabbed the two specially made stone cups and then filled them with water. It was a way that his element and hers could coexist, and a way that she could feel closer to him. She got up to him and handed him his cup. “This is the right thing to do.”

He held the cup for a moment and caressed the stone before he took it from her with a grateful nod, sipping at it slowly to enjoy it. “Gregor will take some convincing. So will Isela. And Teresa is certain to be against it, as usual.” His Oceanborn counterpart had been nothing but an antagonistic force to him ever since she joined the Council. He wondered if, in some way, she was still getting her own kind of revenge on him for not taking her as his Mate.

“Ultimately it is up to you and me. No matter what they think. We were chosen for these positions, and we will lead as we were meant to do.” She took another drink and then with her wetted lips, she leaned in and kissed him, her slate grey eyes looking into his dark blue ones only after she started to pull away from his lips. “And Teresa will continue to be bitter and jealous. As she should be, honestly.”

“If there were a point to her being contrary about everything, I wouldn’t mind it so much. But she seems to just enjoy argument for its own sake. She should’ve been born to the Sky, not the Ocean.” He pulled her down for a second kiss before he let her go, since he could hear some of the other Council members approaching down the stone halls. “Here’s to a long night ahead.”

Alina went and took her seat, looking bored as usual once the hall filled with the wolves that made up the rest of the Council. Once the door closed, the older of the Skyborn pair, Isela, was the first to speak. “Is there a reason why we are here at such a late hour?”

“No, Isela. We’ve not seen enough of each other in the last six decades, and I wished for the mere honor of your presence this evening.” Coren gave her a dry stare and then stood up, going to the edge of the high ledge they were seated on and turning to face them all so that he could see everyone at once to make his proposal. Coming from him, they all knew it wasn’t so much a proposal as a command, but legally speaking, such things were handed down from the Council as a whole, and therefore had to be ratified, even if that ratification was only a formality. “Our Ironborn friends have been even busier in the last few centuries than they led us to believe. The final reports have been received by our agents working out of Madrid, and there are at least five settlements of pure Ironborn scattered through Spain, the largest of which is the home of the Alpha, who they report is here in Geneva. These settlements altogether total almost four thousand Ironborn. All living in the same place, with the same mindset, working toward the same goals. Namely the pollution of this Council’s autonomy.”

Teresa was the next to speak, and she had her arms crossed as she did, her expression severe. “The pollution?”

Coren turned toward her with an expression that was as bored as hers was severe. “Your hearing is as keen as ever, Teresa.”

“So then what are you proposing, Coren?” Teresa said sharply, since it was obvious she was about to disagree with whatever reason he had called them there for.

“Those members of the pack that have come here must not be allowed to return and incite animosity towards this Council for the just decision that has been reached by all of us regarding their acceptance.” He emphasized all of them, even though Teresa had objected anyway. “Further, the pieces of the pack left behind in Spain constitute a clear and present danger to the peace of the realm if they are left to their own devices, with their ideals of Ironborn purity. They will need to be eliminated as well.”

“So you are proposing that we just outright murder four thousand wolves?!”

“I am proposing that we do our duty as Council members to keep the peace.” He snapped back at her, then turned back to the others. “In further evidence of this, I have asked the Watcher of the Council Gate to speak to us this evening as well.” He turned around and faced the door. “You may come in now, Zara.” He didn’t speak any louder than he had before, but he knew she’d be able to hear him anyway.

The Heartborn wolf came into the room and bowed to the gathered Council, her beautiful purple eyes looking around the room afterward. She knew that she wasn’t to speak until she had been spoken to, and so she was silent as she entered.

“Tell the rest of the Council what you observed from the two Ironborn and the Shadowborn as they were leaving today after hearing our decision.”

Zara spoke softly, but everyone could feel her words as well as hear them anyway. They could feel her concern and panic as though it was their own. “They did not accept the word of the Council. The female was planning to start an uprising. They plan to gain a place by force.”

Coren let her words sink in for a moment, looking from one face to another as the Council members turned to each other with their own quiet reactions to the news. No one questioned Zara’s words. She had been sworn to the Council since she was a child, and she was bound by the most sacred oaths to a life of pure honesty before them. The moment she uttered a false word, she knew her life was forfeit. But as a wolf and as a woman, she lived and breathed the feelings and emotions of others. If she had heard the Ironborn woman plotting to rise up against them, then it was true.

His eyes came to rest on Teresa last, as the whispers began to die down. “Are you suggesting we allow the Ironborn to have their way, Teresa?”

Teresa didn’t answer immediately, but then her eyes flicked over to Zara once before she looked back at Coren. “All her power allows her to do is feel and see what someone is thinking at any particular moment. If what happened to them had happened to you, wouldn’t you feel angry? Wouldn’t you want to take the position you felt was rightfully yours by force? There’s no proof that Aura even spoke to anyone else about her anger or her emotions. There’s no proof that they will do anything but go home and wait for a time when they feel the Council will be more sympathetic to them.”

“More sympathetic?” He said as he took an angry step closer to her. “Time changes all things, but it does not change what we are. In a thousand years, fire will still burn, trees will still rise, water will still flow and iron will still rust. Nothing that they can do and no amount of sympathy for their nature will change what they are or make them any more deserving of a place in this hall.”

He looked back at Zara for a moment, then at Teresa. “As for proof of further plans, that will of course be obtained. But we are fast approaching the point at which more blood will be shed by waiting than by action. It is my proposal that upon verification of any further plans against this Council or plan of opposing the edict handed down earlier today, the Ironborn pack be removed as a threat to the realm in order to preserve the peace of those within it.” He went back to the center of the half-circle, looking at the far end away from Teresa. “What is the Council’s voice on the matter?”

Both of the Fireborn nodded, eager for a fight, as always. Melting metal would be plenty of fun for the both of them. The Forestborn male nodded, but the Forestborn female shook her head with her eyes on the floor. She hated any kind of confrontation. Isela, the Skyborn female, also shook her head, but her male counterpart reluctantly nodded. Both Alina and the male Stoneborn agreed, and it was almost not even necessary to ask the Earthborn, since they both hated Ironborn wolves more than anyone else in the room. They nodded almost violently, and Teresa, of course, shook her head just as violently.

Coren dismissed Zara once the vote was taken, and nodded his head once solemnly. “Nine move forward and three are reluctant. The Council’s voice moves forward with this matter with a clear majority. Out of consideration for hearts unaccustomed or unwilling to commit violence even in necessity, those who have shown their protest on this matter may return to their homes, while the rest of us begin plans for what must be done.” He returned to his seat with a look of perfect neutrality on his face that he’d spent most of his life perfecting. His complete dispassion was the reason why he had earned the principal seat on the Council, and it was the only means by which he kept himself from throwing a victorious look at Teresa as he sat back down.

Isela and the Forestborn female didn’t hesitate to get up and leave, especially not the young Forestborn, who almost ran out of the room to get back to her home. Teresa, however, lingered. “You know,” She said as she walked out slowly. “It seems amazing to me that if a Turned becomes Oceanborn or Skyborn, they are still welcome in more places than even a seventh generation Ironborn.” She stopped at the doorway and then looked back to Coren and Alina. “You underestimate them. And we all will suffer for your oversight.”

When the door was closed behind her, Coren sighed and looked over at the two Fireborn on the far end of the circle. “Is it just me, or does she get more ominous with every passing Fulness?”

They both shrugged and then Alina spoke up. “We should send the majority of our forces out to the packs in Spain so that they’re ready by the time word gets back about the death of the few. We can handle the ones that are already here.”

“I have a force off the coast of Portugal.” Coren continued, nodding at the Fireborn again. “And your men have been in Ireland all summer, yes?”

“They have, and been bored stiff.” The younger male Councilor replied. “I’ll have them moving within the hour. They won’t ask questions if I promise them a hunt.”

The female Earthborn sounded all too eager when she spoke, mainly because she was so young and excited to be involved in just about every cause. “We can handle the Alpha’s pack.” Their part of things was definitely the fullest and the most robust, mainly because Earthborn were the most common of all wolves.

He looked to Alina for her approval or refusal on that, since it was normally a good idea to keep the Earthborn happy, but he wanted to make sure Alina had a chance to give her good graces as well, harsh as they were. Alina nodded and then looked toward her own counterpart, also a younger male. “And you’ll lead our own, yes?”

“Gladly. Most of our people are engaged in Turkey at the moment, but what fighters we have at the ready will be in motion before morning.” The Skyborn and the Forestborn didn’t say very much as the discussion of the attack plans went on, because they normally acted as support for the others when it came to actual violence, but before long, there was a consensus as to the plan of attack, and the Council members were leaving the chambers by ones and twos, all heading off to a long night spent in preparation for the next week of bloodshed.

Finally, he and Alina were left in the chamber by themselves as the Fireborn left, and he let out a long sigh, heading to the table behind their thrones and pouring a glass of water over his own head to douse himself before he rubbed at his eyes.

She went up to him and ran her hand through his hair before she ran her fingertips along the side of his soaked face. “It will all work out. You know it will.”

“I know. It’s just tedious.” He pushed his hair back and sighed, feeling infinitely better once he was soaking wet. “But that went about as expected.”

Alina pushed him back to the wall right by the table and then she took the pitcher and dumped the rest of the water on top of him just as she went in for a kiss. He smiled at her roughness, and at the water running down over his shoulders, but then put a hand up to her neck and reversed them, shoving her back up against the stone with a slow and forceful kiss. “Apparently it was a long night for both of us.”

She smiled as the wall shifted and groaned behind her, but she was in complete control. “Everything went almost exactly as we hoped. And soon the world will be rid of those mongrels.”

Coren would have been more than willing to ignore the existence of the rest of the world for a while there with her, but there was still one more duty left to perform for the night before everything could be discarded until daybreak. “Wait for me in my room tonight. I have to go see to the unfortunates before I join you.”

Alina kissed him once more with a soft growl as if she was making a silent promise to him with the kiss, and then she pushed past him to go wait in his room. It had been several days since they’d been close to each other, since they weren’t allowed intimacy as Council members when there was a decision to be made over any extended length of time. It was to show that they cared about the matters they were given to consider, even if they really didn’t.

Once she left in the direction of his rooms, Coren went through one of the doors behind the central thrones and down several very long staircases to halls that were as far below the Council chamber as the Council chamber was below the rest of the city. He was stopped along the way, as per tradition, by one guardian wolf of every legitimate bloodline at regular intervals. Last of all he passed the Oceanborn guard, which was the lowest as a position of honor because Coren currently held the ruling seat of the Council. In the hall beyond, there were twelve cells, but at the moment, only three of them were filled.

He passed two of the occupied cells, sealed tightly with a door of solid stone, and looked in through the peephole of one at the wolf lying on the floor at the far end, apparently asleep. The room was flooded with light from the ceiling and three walls, a condition he knew the wolf inside did not enjoy. But if he didn’t want it to continue, he should learn better manners. The second cell was similar, since that particular wolf had been taken under similar circumstances and was just about as cooperative.

The third occupied cell, however, was dark, like the rest of the hall aside from a few dim lights and what little spilled out from the two brightened cells. It was nicely apportioned with a comfortable bed and a bookshelf on one side, and instead of being sealed off, there were bars across the opening of the cell that he could see through and a latched door. The woman inside was asleep, and so he stepped up and knocked on the bars a few times lightly. “Candra, dear, I’m sorry to wake you, but I promised I would come back when a decision had been made.”

She woke up at the sound of his voice and then sat up slowly, looking across her room at her master. In the darkness it seemed like only she was the source of light with a slight glow to her skin. Even her yellow eyes had a light of their own. Candra got up gracefully and then walked across the small room to get closer to Coren. “What is the decision, Master?”

“The first attack will be tonight, with more over the next few days.” He stepped up to the bars and laid a hand on one, not looking away from her eyes, since even he had to admit he was entranced by them every time he saw her. “We don’t expect to meet much resistance worth worrying about, but should we need you, we want you to be ready.”

Candra nodded and stepped up to the bars, putting her hands on them, closer to Coren’s. “How are you, Master? Can I help you?” If he was going to be fighting, she knew that he could use some of her power and support.

“I am well, Candra. And I thank you for your support.” He turned one hand over slowly, bracing himself for what was coming, even though he’d been around Candra most of her life.

She took his hand as gently as she could through the bars, barely touching his palm, but her power was so intense that there was really no way for her to be gentle about it. The energy of the light that was her enemy more often than her friend jumped through the touch and into Coren’s body, ripping through his veins and energizing him in moments in a way that would have taken hours for his own element to provide.

His other hand tightened around the bars so that he could hold himself upright, and after only a few heartbeats, he had to pull his hand away. He hadn’t been too dearly in need of her assistance in the first place, but he never passed up an opportunity to feel as powerful as only a Lightborn could make another wolf feel. Even in the almost-darkness that she preferred, Candra’s strength was nearly limitless. “Thank you, my dear.” He shakily took the bars with both hands again as he regained his composure. “Is there anything that I can get you in the meantime?”

Candra looked toward her bookcase and then up into her master’s dark blue eyes as though she was a child pleading for a new toy. “Can I have some more books? I’ve read all of these already.”

He smiled and stepped away. “I’ll see to it that your collection is renewed immediately.”

She nodded and bowed. “Thank you, Master.” She moved backward toward her bed again where she still had a book laid out on the floor next to it, as though she had been reading just when she had fallen asleep. “You are very kind to me.”

“I have no reason or desire to be otherwise.” He returned her smile just as kindly, and for a moment, he had to remind himself of her place in things. He could not allow himself to grow genuinely fond of her, though she made it difficult not to be. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you. Sleep well, Candra. We will send for you if we have need of you.”

Candra nodded again and then sat back down on her bed, drawing her blanket up with her. The darkness was enough that she could keep her human form, but every tiny bit of light kept her filled with energy constantly. She could sleep a little easier since she had given some of it to her master, though. He took care of her, kept her safe, and gave her a home in the darkness. As she tucked herself back under her blankets and closed her golden eyes, she smiled and said a silent prayer of gratitude for her master’s kindness to her, then slipped peacefully back to sleep.

XIII

With the ultimatum of the Council for them to leave Geneva within a day, it seemed all those who had been watching them subtly the day before had lost all subtlety once the sun rose. There were Skyborn and Earthborn posted all around the hotel Nick and Aura were staying in, watching them as though they were being dared to make a single move out of line. They got their bags out to the car in the morning, and Nick spent a long time staring down some of the Earthborn just past the parking lot as everyone else got into their cars and got ready to leave. But the Earthborn didn’t back down. In fact, more kept gathering, as if they all wanted a little piece of Nick’s glares.

Somehow he managed to remember Teresa’s warning and his own caution from the day before, that starting a fight there in Geneva would do no one any good. With that in mind, he finally got into the driver’s seat and headed out, behind several of the Guard’s cars and with several more behind him like some kind of presidential motorcade.

Aura was watching out the window as they drove, the words of Nick’s father still ringing in her head as they got further and further away from the Council. At least twenty minutes had passed before she said a single word. “Do either of you really believe in the existence of a Lightborn?”

Neither of them answered at first, partially because they were waiting for the other to answer and partially because the question was so completely random, even for Aura. Orlando finally broke the silence first. “Is this kind of like I Spy, except with fairy tales?”

Aura finally turned and then looked back at Orlando. “You exist. Who’s to say they don’t?”

“Yeah, but I’ve at least met others of my kind, rare as I might be. I know I exist. And Heartborn. But Lightborn are kind of in the same category with honest lawyers and OCD Skyborn. No one’s ever seen one that I know of.”

She turned around in the chair so that she was facing the backseat and then she met Orlando’s eyes. “What if someone told you that they had seen one?”

The topic was getting more serious rapidly, and Orlando wasn’t sure how he felt about it. “I…would probably call them a liar and then ask where.”

“Don’t you wonder what it would be like? If you met one?”

“Of course I do.” He especially had a reason to wonder about it. They were supposed to be his racial soulmates, after all. “Why are you asking me this now?”

She shrugged and then sighed as she finally looked away. “I don’t know, I was just…“ Just then the window beside her seat shattered and a stone landed loudly where her feet would have been had she not been contorted in the seat to talk to Orlando. She screamed as Nick slammed on the brakes, especially since her legs were covered with shards of window. “What the…“

The car came to a screeching halt, drifting sideways on the road as more stones came pelting through every window of the car in a storm from both sides of the road. Nick jerked the car hard to one side, intentionally flipping it over as Orlando dove into the front seat to try and cover Aura with his own body, but in the process he just got wrapped around the front seat as the car turned up on the driver’s side.

As it continued to roll, all three of them collided in what had once been Aura’s seat, and the entire car folded in around them in a cocoon of steel, but they could still hear the rocks raining down on them from all sides.

It was more like she was protecting Orlando’s body than he was protecting hers, since she was helping Nick keep the car in a solid ball. “Everyone okay??”

“Peachy.” Orlando said as he finally managed to squeeze himself more or less upright. “I didn’t see ‘em, how many?”

“I didn’t see either.” Nick said hastily, still busy re-forming the car into a makeshift fortress, all the while cursing under his breath. He had worked hard on that car.

“There was a van behind us.” Aura gasped as she went to work helping Nick without a second though. “I didn’t even think that it would…they would…” She was more angry than she was scared. “We can’t just sit here and block what they throw at us. We’re barely out of Geneva, more people will come. Let’s throw something back.”

“Just let me out and point. I throw faster than they do.” Orlando was seething with anger already, and the fact that he’d gotten as angry as he was as fast as he did was something she hadn’t seen from him yet. When he’d attacked the Guards that broke into their room, he’d been acting out of instinct. This was feral rage, something completely different.

“We don’t know what other kinds…”

“Just let me out!!!” Orlando screamed over the cacophony of the stones still raining down on the car, though it seemed to be slowing down.

She grabbed onto Orlando as the car started ripping apart violently around them to free them. “Remember the barbs?” She was thinking of the way that she had shown Nick what they could do before they even went to see the Council.

“Just keep a hand on me and throw, you can have all you want.” He growled as he stood up, dodging a few of the stones that were still flying towards them. He saw where they were flying, though, and reached out a hand the way the stones had come.

The noise from before had been nothing compared to the crack that shattered the air around them. It threatened to snap their eardrums and leave them deaf forever. It was so loud that the world went silent for a moment, apparently just to compensate, as a flash of pure power left Orlando’s fingers and shot off the road into the fields where their attackers had been waiting. The stones stopped flying after he’d sent a few shots off into the distance and some of the attacking wolves had seen their fellows go down, and they were quickly being rushed by what looked like more than a hundred fighters, wolves and human alike.

Aura held on to one of Orlando’s arms and then started ripping at pieces of the car as though it was dough, pliable in the baker’s hands. She created spears in a single thought and electrified them with Orlando’s power even distracted as he was. She hurled them at some Fireborn she could see off in the distance, but as soon as she hit a few, there was fire raining down on them as well. A flaming ball of grass and branches hit her in the shoulder, and she screamed in pain as it lit her shirt on fire.

Nick grabbed her to him to put the fire out with his own body, and whipped the remains of two car doors up around both of them as body armor. He took what had once been a large piece of the back seat, making it into a huge flail, and advanced on a few Earthborn wolves that were rushing towards them. Gunshots were going off all up and down the road as the rest of the Iron Guard finally got themselves in order after the initial surprise of the attack and the impromptu lightning storm at the center of the caravan. The flail came down on one Earthborn and ripped into its fur and flesh, tangling it up in a net of hurt as Nick threw it across three lanes of highway.

Aura ignored the pain of her shoulder to attack, and once they were close enough to other wolves, she turned her bangles into darts as she had done before. Orlando was somewhere beyond her reach, and so she just aimed them at every exposed body part that she could see. Faces. Necks. Shoulders. Anything. Several went down as the darts went into their necks, but with a wave of her hand, she drove the metal deeper into their skin. Everything on her was turning into a weapon, in all the ways she had trained herself and the metal covering her to become when it was needed.

Nick made more use of his brute strength, crashing into the midst of several Earthborn that were trying to drag him under the churning ground beneath their feet. There were five of them around him, but it was obvious that none of them had ever fought an Ironborn before. They weren’t prepared. Not by a long shot. Not for Nick, anyway. The metal rings around his fingers and the bracers on his arms became gauntlets of claws sharper than those of his wolf form, and he was a whirlwind of pain and blood in their midst, even as the six of them disappeared beneath the ground.

She actually shifted once she ran out of metal, and even though she was small, she was fast. Aura was able to take down two Forestborn fighters before they retaliated, vines and tree roots coming out of the ground and wrapping around her body only to slam her into the ground. Aura yelped out in pain, and when they did it again, she heard her leg crack at the impact.

A few moments later, the vines released their hold on her, and a few more Ironborn came crashing over her to rain down on their attackers. Fire was everywhere, smoke filled the air, and trees had crashed down around them, but things were quickly quieting down.

The side of the Council was retreating as they finally realized how unprepared they were to fight the Ironborn, and though she shifted back into her human, she was unable to move and barely able to keep from screaming. Her right shoulder and most of her upper arm was burnt badly, and her left leg was broken in at least two places.

A wolf she recognized as Nick came up beside her and licked at her face before he shifted to kneel over her. “They’re on the run. It’s over.”

Tears ran down her face, but she didn’t move to touch him. “It…hurts…” She said between choked back screams of pain.

“We’ll get you taken care of soon, just lie still.” Another bolt of lightning broke the air, and Nick flinched down over her protectively. “And stay close to the ground.”

“Please get me out…” She was starting to shake and tremble since she suddenly felt so cold. Her body was in shock and pain. “Please, Nick.” Her voice cracked and her lips trembled. Normally she wasn’t the one in the middle of the fight, but with both the men she cared about being threatened on either side of her, she’d thrown herself right into the face of it and hadn’t looked back.

His blood-stained hands slid under her legs, broken as one of them was, and picked her up to carry her back towards the shattered car. He laid her in some of the pieces of the framework that were left behind, and sculpted them around her, forming part of it tightly around her leg to keep it straight and set in place.

She tried to keep herself focused, but it was hard to think clearly through the pain. “Is everyone alive?”

“They’re pulling back. We’ll know soon enough.” The entire ring of fighters around them was collapsing back like a tightening chain whose links were getting smaller, and finally the lightning bolts had stopped, but Nick looked around for Orlando and didn’t see him. The smoke was too thick to see too far, and some of the Guardsmen were racing around with fire extinguishers putting out the flames, some of them on the tail end of their own car.

Aura eventually closed her eyes as her body continued to shiver violently, since she would rather be unconscious than feel the continual pain of the burns and her broken leg. Werewolf bodies healed quickly, and while it might only take a week or a little more for her bone to heal, at the moment it felt like it would never be the same again. “How are we…gonna get home?”

“It doesn’t look like they got all the cars, but don’t worry about that right now. Just rest. They’re gone.” The look on Nick’s face was still one of murder, though he was trying to keep it soft for her sake. “I’ll take care of you.”

She opened her eyes again to look up at him, though her vision was blurred by tears. “I just want to go home.” As she began to lose consciousness, she could feel her mind trying to decide what she meant by that. Whether she meant the compound in Spain with Nick or her flat in England with Orlando’s right down the hall. But the world went black before she could decide what she meant.

**************

In short order, several of the more utilitarian Ironborn had made several of their vehicles into a cross between an unmarked utilities van and a stretch limousine, and they were on their bumpy way down the road in several such vehicles. It was a few hours later when she finally woke up, still wrapped in steel and gold from neck to toes. Her first response was panic, but the moment she tried to move her shoulder or her leg, she remembered that she was hurt and she cursed loudly. “Fuck! Owwwww!”

“Yup, she’s awake.” She heard as she cursed, and there was a chorus of chuckles around the huge van, which immediately set her mood a little lighter, letting her know that if people were laughing, then everything was alright.

She leaned back into the wrappings anyway, since she wasn’t about to burst out of it naked with a group of people around staring at her. “What was this? My mobile vigil?”

“We’re headed home.” Nick’s voice said from the other side of her, the metal running along her arm in a caress.

Aura relaxed a lot more once she heard Nick’s voice. “Good. Is everyone okay?”

“Almost.” He put a hand on her arm over the steel that had just rippled over her skin. “We couldn’t find Orlando. He wasn’t in the cars and he wasn’t in the ground nearby. I left a link of Guardsmen behind to look for him.”

“What?” She actually tried to get up at that, and she hissed at the pain that jolted through her. “We have to go back!”

Nick tightened the hold of her full-body cast to keep her from doing any more harm to herself, and turned her face gently towards him. “We need to get you home. There are more than enough of them back there to get him home if they find him.”

Her eyes burned with tears, and she couldn’t even really look at Nick even though he had turned her face toward him. “He fought alongside us. He helped us. He can’t die.”

He wasn’t going to correct her, though he knew Orlando was just as mortal as he was. He did nod, though, and his voice was respectful. “Our men only fought on the north side of the road. When we pulled away, the south side of the road was nothing but trees on fire and dead bodies. Orlando leveled that entire side by himself. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

That just made her actually cry, since she knew that if they couldn’t find him, it was likely that he wasn’t going to be found. Not after what had just happened. “I’ve never seen anything like him.

He didn’t answer that either, because he had heard the tone in her voice when she said it. He tried, instead, to pretend he hadn’t heard it at all, and just looked away out the makeshift window at the greenery running past. They needed to get back to their people as quickly as possible.

When her tears slowed, she looked up at Nick even though he wasn’t looking at her anymore. “Are you hurt?”

“I’ll be alright.” He nodded down at his arm, which was bracketed in an iron sling. “Collarbone and most of my shoulder got pulverized by one of the Earthborn that landed a lucky punch. Everything else was just cuts.”

Aura sniffled a few times, wishing she could move to comfort him. “I should be taking care of you.”

“You took on about ten Forestborn at once and every plant they could get to work for them. You need to rest.”

The metal around her moved a little at her command so she could reach her uninjured hand out to Nick. “Thank you for everything you’re doing.”

“You don’t need to thank me for doing what I want to do.” He wasn’t looking at her, though, which was rare for Nick. Normally of the two of them, she was the one with eye contact issues. “Just go back to sleep, we’ll be home as fast as we can get there.”

Aura pulled her hand back in and then turned her head away from him without saying anything else.

**************

Orlando woke up half-buried in the ground, with one arm and one nostril in open air. His first instinct was to cough out the sand that had been shoved down his throat, but he couldn’t move to pry himself up out of the ground. He dimly remembered a group of Earthborn getting across the road behind him and dragging him to his knees on the ground. After that he didn’t remember anything at all.

More than just air, he was suffocating for power. He’d never exerted himself like that, not once in all his years. He would die from the lack of it faster than he would die of suffocation, he knew. And he knew just as well that it was going to be one or the other that killed him, since with his one eye above ground, he couldn’t see any trace of anything living. Just corpses and smoke.

Lea was a part of the team that had been left behind to make sure that everyone was found and rescued, even the demon that they had been warned about from the beginning. She was one of the oldest of the group, but she wasn’t nearly as Pure as Nick and Aura, only a third generation that hadn’t contributed much to the pack except for her exceptional skills as a fighter. Lea was flipping over corpses to look for their own people, all of whom would be identified by some kind of marking or metal piece that she knew, but luckily, none of the corpses were Ironborn. When she got past a particularly large pile, she saw an arm sticking out of the ground, and so she grabbed onto it to check that corpse as well. As soon as she grabbed it, she could feel her power being sucked out of her, as if a vacuum had been placed on her soul.

She had to let go after a moment, but once she realized it was the demon, she grabbed onto a car door that was nearby and wrapped enough metal around her arm to create a sleeve. The metal remained fluid as she reached down for him again, tugging as hard as she could to get him out.

He cursed and screamed as she pulled him up out of the ground, since she broke a few ribs and dislocated his shoulder in the process of extracting him, but he gasped for air as soon as he could, spewing out sand and pebbles as he doubled over on the scorched grass.

Lea left him there to form some kind of stretcher out of the remainder of the door she had made her sleeve out of, and then she got him onto it, though not without pain. “Glad to see you’re still alive, Shadow.”

“Are you?” He laid down on it awkwardly, favoring his ribs. “I doubt that.”

“You saved a lot of Ironborn lives. For that, I’m glad you’re alive long enough to thank you, at least.” She whistled for some help so that they could carry him to a car. “We’ve been looking for you for awhile.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“Most of them have gone to get the injured home. There were a lot of them that were pretty bad off.” Lea couldn’t help but stare down at the Shadowborn while she tried to make him as comfortable as possible. It wasn’t every day that she saw a wolf with black eyes.

“What about Aura? Nickel?”

“Nick’s arm was messed up pretty bad. Aura was unconscious when I saw them cart her out of here. Her leg was shattered, and I heard she got burned pretty severely.”

He didn’t answer that for a long time, just growled a few times and spit out the last few bits of sand and gravel in his teeth. “Do we have any cars left?”

“Just calm down, Sparky.” A few others finally got over to them and they lifted up his metal stretcher to get him to the only van they had left. “We’ll get you taken care of.”

XIV

Nick wouldn’t let anyone else see to Aura even when they got home two days later. He took her back to her house and saw to it that she was comfortable, but every time she woke up for a little while, he was seated at the door of her house with people coming and going, speaking in low tones to him so that they wouldn’t wake her up.

She could sit up on her own, but walking was still very much out of the question. Lots of things were, really, including bathing herself, dressing herself, all the normal things that made her feel independent. “Am I in quarantine?”

“No.” He said as he got up and went over to sit on the side of the bed with her. “I just thought you’d be more comfortable in your own house.”

“Was there someone at the door?” She’d heard him talking, but she couldn’t tell who was outside.

“Van and a few of the men in his unit. I’ve taken four units’ worth of volunteers from here, children and some of the mothers who don’t have any pups, to get started on gathering enough currency to put your plan into motion. They’ve left to go pull in everything they can from the moneychangers in Madrid, to get the message flow started.”

She smiled at that, glad to know that everything was moving. Especially after what had happened, the Ironborn everywhere needed to unite. Aura looked up into his eyes and then smiled weakly at him. “You’re an angel for being here.” She assumed that her parents would take over taking care of her, but apparently they thought they had better things to do. “How’s your arm?”

“It’s on the mend. Looking better than your leg, anyway.” Her leg was still badly swollen and bruised, and apparently the bones were taking their time (for their kind) about knitting together again. He still had his arm in a sling, and she could tell it was still swollen, but there was no bruising at least. “How does your shoulder feel?” Burns were something they healed from rather quickly, but he was never sure.

“Still hurts, but I think it’s getting better. Let’s just keep it wrapped up so I have an excuse to let you bathe me every night.” She was trying to get him to laugh, since he still seemed so down.

It didn’t get a laugh, but it did get him to smile as he put the wrappings back over it. “I’m glad you’re awake. You had us all worried there for a while.”

Aura reached out for him with her good arm hoping that he would take her hand this time. “I’m sorry I worried you.”

Nick did take her hand, holding it tightly. “There haven’t been any more reports of aggression from the Council. Not even a whisper. We’re not sure if they’ve actually backed off or if they’re just waiting for all of us to be gathered in one place. The other four dens are on their way here right now.”

“This wasn’t the way you wanted it to go. I’m sorry.” Aura said softly, since it certainly wasn’t anything she envisioned either. She never thought the Council would actually try to kill them as they left.

“Nothing about this is your fault.” He said as he finally made eye contact with her again. “We’re at the beginning of something here that’s different from anything either of us thought it was going to be. Things aren’t going to get better than this any time soon.”

She thought about all the people that had gotten hurt already, and she thought about Orlando. Nothing had been mentioned to her about Orlando, and the only thing that kept her hopes alive was that no news was good news. No news meant that he hadn’t been confirmed dead, even though she thought he must be by now. “Once I get better, I’ll be there beside you on the front lines.”

He was quiet for a while, still looking her in the eye. “Is there anything I can say that will keep you somewhere else?”

“Keep me somewhere else?”

“Somewhere safe.”

“You’re going to be the Alpha, Nick. I would be ashamed to be by your side without fighting for this pack. Especially after everything I’ve done.” The determination in her voice was obvious, and Aura had never been the type to sit back and watch things happen without her, anyway.

“No, then.” He sighed, and leaned down to kiss her cheek. “I’m not the Alpha yet. Hopefully not for a long time.”

“You’re mad at me.” She said simply, but she hoped that addressing the issue would convince him to talk about why he would be mad at her.

“Why would I be mad at you?” He looked away, since he had never been a very good liar.

“You are.” She sat up straighter, wincing at the movement but not caring otherwise. “Tell me the truth.”

He turned back towards her and sighed. “We’ve had no more news of Orlando.”

Aura swallowed hard as though there was a large rock in her throat, but she tried not to make a big deal of it. “So he’s assumed dead?”

“Our people haven’t returned yet either. We don’t know if they were found by what’s left on the road or what happened.” He sighed, and looked away. “But it’s only been a few days. There’s still time.”

“That’s it.” She said quietly. “That’s what you’re angry about.”

“How can I be angry?” He said as he got up and headed back to his chair across the room.

“Damn it, Nick, stop deflecting me!”

“What do you want me to say?!?” He growled back at her so loudly it ran through the sheet-metal house from the tin floor up through the corrugated metal roof.

“Just talk to me! Yell at me! Don’t just sit there and pretend like it isn’t real. Yes, I have feelings for him, is that what you want me to admit? I have feelings for you, too!!” She had expected herself to start crying when she envisioned the moment she admitted things to Nick, but no tears came, just the truth. “I don’t know what the hell is going on, Nick! When I think of you and being with you, I can see it and I can be happy that way, but there’s no adventure with us, Nick. I’m scared of being with you because I don’t want it to end up like my parents or your parents! I want to be excited!!”

“No excitement lasts forever.” He said quietly again. “Peace might, once we have it. But adventure won’t. That’s why I never wanted it.”

“But I do.” She said just as quietly. “I want to be the century-old couple that still sneaks out in the middle of the night just to make out in the woods just to get chased by the guards. I want to run away to find new places just so that home feels that much sweeter. I want so much, Nick. I don’t want, however, to sit there and watch rust form on the houses. That’s not me.”

“Well, now we’ve started a war.” He said as he looked back at her with the strength she’d known him for all their lives together. Unyielding, unassailable, and unbowed. “And it’s a war that’s going to go on until one side gives in. Either we slip back into the shadows they were content to let us live in, or they step back and build two more thrones in that Council chamber they love so much. And that is not going to happen in a week, or a month. Or maybe even in a century.” He looked back at her with anger fuming in his eyes, but more than anger was pain, at the idea of losing her to someone else. Much less a demon. “Is that exciting enough for you?”

Aura finally looked away at that, but the tears still hadn’t come, though her voice shook when she finally answered him. “Why are you here? If you’re so angry, if you hate me, why are you here? You could have left me here to rot.”

His look softened, but the pain in it didn’t go away. “In what world could I ever hate you, Aura?”

“You’ve done nothing but support me and love me. I’ve betrayed you.” There were plenty of reasons for him to hate her, and she knew each of them intimately. Most of them were reasons that she hated herself, in one way or another, though it didn’t change her feelings about Orlando.

“You found something you wanted.” He said as he looked away from her finally, more deflated than anything else. “What does it matter who else you betray, as long as you’re true to yourself, right?” He didn’t say it angrily, just as though he was stating a fact, and he headed for the door. “I hope we have some news about him soon, for your sake.”

“Stop. Stop it.” She said as she started to cry, but she tried to get up out of the bed, since she couldn’t stand feeling so helpless. Especially with Nick turning away from her, too. No one else in the entire place cared if she lived or died. The fact that her parents weren’t even there was proof enough for her.

“Stop what? What do you want me to do?” He turned around at the door, and asked quietly, his eyes begging for some hint of how exactly he should handle the situation as it was.

“Stop making it seem like I only care about Orlando. But you’re right. All I’ve cared about is what I want. Tell me how to make it right.” She used her good leg and her working arm to get off the bed, but it wasn’t enough to keep herself balanced, and so she fell to the floor with a yelp of pain, but she kept trying to get up.

He didn’t move to help her up, but the sheet of steel that she had for a bed dipped down on one side to scoop her back up onto it and hold her up as he looked at her. “Right isn’t a word that applies to these kinds of situations. Right is the word they teach you to use when you’re five years old and you have to give back the candy bar you’ve just tried to steal. I can’t tell you what to do any more than Orlando can make a machete into a monkey wrench. You live by your rules, and I live by mine.” He hated making that kind of declaration, because it separated them completely. It was the one thing that had always separated them their entire lives. He wasn’t saying it as a condemnation of hers, just as a statement of fact.

She stared his direction and then she grabbed the metal of the bed and shaped it into a crutch. Aura couldn’t stay here. Dying was better than being in the same room with the expression he was giving her. “You’ll be a great leader for them. You already are.”

“You would be a better one.” He said simply. “You’re an Ironborn through and through, but I swear it must have been a Fireborn that bit the first mother in your line.”

Aura walked past him to the door and then out of it. She didn’t know where she was going to go, but there was no reason to stay if even Nick couldn’t stand to be around her. “Except I don’t belong here.” He’d made it clear enough to her by telling her that they lived by different rules. He lived by the laws of the pack, and she didn’t.

Even as she left, though, she was thwarted from leaving by the guards standing around the entire perimeter of the community. None were allowed out, certainly not the Seventh on crutches. But as she did get out to the edges, the faces that were answering her were no longer condescending or even angry. Everyone was asking why she was up on her leg when it clearly wasn’t healed yet, and telling her it wasn’t safe for her out near the fence line in case there was another attack. There was concern in their eyes, not just for their beloved and breakable Seventh that must be protected, but for her. Since she couldn’t exactly sneak out while she hopped around on one foot, Aura didn’t continue to try. She just sat down on the ground, leaning against the fence, and finally cried.

It was perhaps an hour later that the gate about a hundred yards away from her started to open. She could feel it through the chain links at her back when the metal was being pried open by magical force, and she could hear the several cars that pulled into the compound. Shouts went up from all around, as dozens of guards pulled guns and other weapons, but others were screaming for people to put their guns away, that they were friends.

She couldn’t really get up quickly, and the cars were past her long before she got close enough to see who had made it back. Aura went up to one of the guards, hoping for some answers. “Was it another den?”

“No, Councilor.” She’d been asleep too long in recovery to start hearing it, and it certainly hadn’t exactly been the subject of her conversation with Nick, but the Guard said it as though he’d been throwing it around for days, which he had. Apparently she and Nick were both being considered Council members by the Ironborn at large, whether the Council itself recognized them as such or not. “Looks like some of the last stragglers coming in from Geneva. That’s Lea. I’d know that bitch anywhere. Lea!!!” He was too excited to see his friend to continue the conversation, and he started waving and running off to help, as was a huge mob of people, who were actually dismantling the vehicles piece by piece rather than waiting for their friends to come out by the doors like civilized humans would have.

Aura looked at the cars and then didn’t move any closer. She couldn’t know if Orlando was dead, she just couldn’t. She just stood there, staring, not sure what to do. As they dismantled the vans, the rows of seats inside became visible, and there were several still wounded that were being dragged off on stretchers that had been smoothed from the sides of the vans themselves, to be given treatment and care. In the back of one van, not on a seat but on the floor where luggage might have gone, she recognized the way the sunlight was catching a man’s back and lighting up a tattoo of three figures looking up at the sky. The image on the whole looked far less defiant with blood all over it, but it was an image she had put there herself. She tried to hurry to him, but she was trembling with both the effort of walking and fear as she got up to him. “O…Orlando?”

His head moved just slightly, and though his eyes opened, instead of being filled with dark strangeness and savage emptiness as they always had been before, they were just empty and exhausted. His lip curled up slightly as he saw her, but that was clearly all the effort he could manage. “You made it.”

Aura started to sob as she looked at him. “So did you.”

“Can’t take credit.” He looked over at Lea, who was embracing the guard she’d asked to identify them, and nodded imperceptibly. “She’s the one that dug me up.”

She looked back the direction of her house, but she knew Nick wasn’t there any longer. Honestly, she had no idea what was left, but she knew that no one else would take care of Orlando if she didn’t. She got the attention of a few guards, and then she had them carry Orlando to her house. “I’ll take care of you.”

**************

Over the next few days, she didn’t see Nick at all, but she did see more than her share of the Guards, some of whom had apparently assigned themselves to her service without her consent or request. All of them had been involved in the attack on the road from Geneva, and whenever she caught any of them looking at Orlando, it was with a mixture of fear and respect. They helped her get food for him, helped fetch any other supplies she needed for herself or for him, and otherwise stayed out of her way unless she was asking them to do something. It was a very different kind of treatment than she had ever received from the Guards before, to the point where it was almost a little unsettling.

By the time a week had passed, her leg was more or less healed, and her shoulder was scarred, but completely healed. Aura limped around on her leg and it still hurt from time to time, but she was grateful that she wasn’t a human and therefore forced to take much longer and more extreme measures to heal. Orlando wasn’t conscious for most of the time, so after she fed him or cleaned him up and re-wrapped his wounds, she often went out to sit on her front porch to watch the life she had taken for granted before. While the simplicity that their pack had given her had previously driven her mad, the sound of metal clanging and pups barking was actually welcoming to her now. She missed Nick, and she often wondered where he was, since she never saw him and the guards around her never spoke of him. It was like he had effectively cut himself completely out of her life, and now she was confused as to how she would ever patch it back up.

While she was outside one day, a few of her guards started backing away from her, with no apparent explanation as to why, but then the Alpha came in sight, again alone, and nodded to the last few guards to leave. When they were alone in front of her house, he stood nearby with his hands folded in front of him, chains and rings clicking against one another every time he moved. “I’m glad to see you’ve healed well, Councilor.” There was a slight curve of a smile on his lips at the name, but he wasn’t saying it to mock her. It was a tradition of the pack that served his purposes, so he gave it due consideration and use.

“I’m not a Councilor.” She said softly, but she looked away from him quickly. Maybe she wasn’t fighting against him anymore, but she wasn’t going to welcome him either.

“You are around here. No matter what they say in Geneva.” Welcomed or not, he stepped up closer to her as a part of the metal that made up her porch flowed up and made a seat for him at arm’s length from her. “You’ve inspired a great deal of loyalty among the Guard with everything that you’ve done. Coming back from your own exile, going before the Council, then rushing headlong into the fight the way you did. And especially the fact that you seem to have no fear whatsoever of Orlando.”

“I may not like you very much,” She said honestly and openly. “But I love what I am, and I think our kind deserves as much as you’ve always taught me to believe.”

“I don’t need you to like me.” He said with complete apathy in his voice. “That was always Nick’s job, not mine.” He knew the mention of his son would be painful, but he wasn’t saying it for that purpose. “He’s gone off to France, by the way, to see who can be gathered from Paris. We have a few contacts there, and he requested to be allowed to go and help spread the beginnings of your plan and gather in anyone he can find. He should be back in a few days. I thought you would want to know.”

She sighed as she leaned forward some more and rested her chin on her pulled up knees. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Nick will move on without me. Once I leave, you can just tell people that I was abducted or something, just to use my memory as a reason for them to fight for you.”

“You plan to leave?”

“Nick can lead without me. You wanted to get rid of me anyway, remember?”

The look he gave her was both wary and oddly respectful at the same time in response to her insinuation, but he completely ignored it as he went on. “What I meant was, you intend not to be a part of this anymore? Even after all that’s happened?”

“Nick was the reason I did it all in the first place.” Aura said with a defeated sigh. She was glad that she could take care of Orlando and she was glad he was alive, but that didn’t mean that losing her best friend hurt any less.

“He will still want your help. Want you here with us, dangerous as it’s going to be.”

Aura looked over at him and then she narrowed her eyes. “Why are you here? What good does it do you if I stay?”

“I’m here for the same reason I’ve always been here, Aura. The reason you don’t like to think about.” He gave her a hard look, and the hazel of his eyes seemed as stern and unmoving as the steel they drew their life from. “I love my people. Our people. I love what we have built and I believe in what can yet be built by our combined strength. And I use the tools at my disposal to do the work of building that needs to be done. You have always been one of those tools, and whether you enjoy the role or not really doesn’t concern me.”

Nick’s father stared at her for another moment, then looked at the door of the house, beyond which Orlando was still sleeping, then back at her. “You and your Shadowborn lover can save hundreds of lives here in the fight that’s coming. They didn’t expect us to fight back on the road, but they will now. They won’t take chances the second time, and they aren’t going to give us the time we need to gather up the entire world’s population of Ironborn to support us. They’re coming, and we need everyone we can get on our side. You most of all.”

“He’s not my lover.” She said defensively. Aura would never be a tool in anyone’s hands, especially not those of Nick’s father. And she wouldn’t let him make her feel like he could manipulate her as he was obviously trying to do. “Don’t you care about your own son?”

“My son is a mature enough wolf to know that his responsibilities come before his personal life. I have never in my life been more proud of Nick than I have in the last few weeks.” There was real pride behind his eyes as he said it, though the harsh character of the man was firmly unbroken by the softness of his fatherly affection. “He will do his part, no matter what else happens. He made that choice a long time ago.”

Aura looked back toward her house and then out at the rest of the world that the man next to her had helped sustain. “I’m not going to use Orlando. He almost gave his life for us after you nearly shunned him and that’s more than enough.” She was still thinking about Nick, and how much she wanted him to come back soon, and it was enough to confuse her even further about how she really felt.

“Orlando doesn’t fight for us. Nor would I expect him to. He isn’t one of us, and he never will be. But he does fight for you.” He stood up, and the chair he’d been sitting in flowed back to become a part of the groundcover in front of her house. “If he believes his place is with you, then he will remain. And you know your place is here with the rest of us. You may as well start admitting it to yourself and stop tearing yourself in half about it.”

“You’re telling me to cast off my feelings about Nick for Orlando? Just for the pack?”

“I’m reminding you of where you belong. To hell with your feelings.”

“But I love your son.”

“You have a strange way of showing it.”

That pierced straight through to Aura’s core, but only because it was true. Nick’s father had no illusions about Aura, and he didn’t care about preserving her feelings, or anyone else’s for that matter. He cared about the pack, and their kind. “Get away from me.” Aura eventually said in response. “Get away from my house.”

He nodded to her with a slight bow, and this time he didn’t try to hide the mockery in his voice. “Councilor.” He turned and walked away, headed back toward his own house in the distance.

Aura sat there for a moment longer and then got up to go check on Orlando again. The sooner he got better, the sooner she could leave. It would be better for everyone involved, no matter what Nick’s father said.

She knew he was getting better every day because whenever she went to sit down next to him, the spark that leapt from his hand to hers was just a little stronger. And dangerous as it was, he’d been plugged into a makeshift charger the entire time, since his own usual cord had been destroyed in the attack on the highway. That time when she sat down next to him, his hand actually twitched and took hers, and he shifted a little on the bed towards her. “That you, Aura?” He said without hardly moving his lips.

Aura smiled weakly and then leaned in and kissed his cheek. “Of course it’s me. I wouldn’t let anyone rob me of the chance of taking care of you.”

“That’d have to be one…seriously…desperate thief.” He groaned once and tried to open his eyes, but he closed them again quickly. “What day is it?”

“A week from the Fulness.”

Orlando tried to hide the panicked twitch that brought out in him, but he didn’t do it very well. “Are you going to be alright for it?”

“I’ll be fine. I’m worried about you.” Aura said as she held his hand a little tighter and ran her fingers over his knuckles in a gentle caress.

“I’ll be fine. I just…” he tried to laugh, but it didn’t come out well, and his ribs were still tender, so he winced, “I just need to sleep somewhere a little less conductive.” He picked up her hand and kissed the back of it lightly.

“I thought it would help?”

“I know. It does up to a point. Past that, I need to be able to hold onto it to get any stronger.” He was able to open his eyes after a few attempts, but he didn’t try to sit up. “Let me guess. Even you guys’ bathtubs are stainless steel?”

“Yeah…“ She said with a sigh. “Tell me what you need and I’ll try to get it for you.”

“Just something insulated, like a rubber air mattress or even those things you float on in a pool would do fine.”

“Okay. I can get that.” There were pools around, and so she let go of his hand and ran out to take one from the nearest neighbor, who didn’t even protest because of who she was. She came back with a blue floating bed, hoping that it would be what he was looking for. “How about this?”

“That looks perfect.” He managed to roll himself over and onto the air mattress with her help, then unwrapped the cord from his wrist where they’d tied it to plug him in. He put the already-frayed cord up to his mouth and bit off the end of the cord even as it sparked across his tongue. He stripped the cord until the elements of it were exposed and there was a slightly burnt smell lingering in the room, then wrapped the frayed cords in a knot around his ankle before lying back with an exhausted sigh, but she could tell he was getting much more from it than he previously had been. “Ahhhh, you guys are running with the old circuit breakers. Gods, but I love these things.”

She laughed softly as she knelt next to him, but she didn’t reach out to touch him, since she knew he needed everything that he was taking in. “I’m sorry I didn’t set you up like this sooner.”

“It’s alright. I’m kind of special-needs. What you did was great.” He reached out a hand for hers anyway, and she could feel the thrum of power through him again, not like it had once been, but stronger than the edge of death where he’d been staying for the last few days at least. “Any more sign from the bad guys?”

“No. None from the good, either.” She sighed, but she held onto his hand gently. “Nick is gone for awhile.”

“Gone where?” He said with genuine concern in his voice, both for Nick and for her.

“Gone to gather more Ironborn, to bring people into the pack, I guess. I didn’t even know he had gone until his father told me.” It was clear by her tone that she had been hurt by Nick’s leaving, but she was slowly coming to accept the plan she had in mind. The plan to leave, the plan to allow for Nick to move on with his life without her.

Hearing that she hadn’t known Nick left Spain meant that she and Nick had been apart in the first place, and that confused Orlando most of all. “What happened?”

She looked into his eyes with a sigh. “I told him that I have feelings for you.”

Orlando met her eyes for a moment and then sighed, resting his head back against the air mattress. “I’m assuming that didn’t go over well.”

“I have feelings for him, too.” She said softly, since she was still conflicted inside, but she was coming to terms with the fact that any relationship at this point was just not going to work no matter what she felt. “But none of it matters anymore, anyway. We’ll get you better and then we’ll leave.”

“Leave?” He seemed just as confused by the idea of leaving as Nick’s father had been a few moments before. “And go where, exactly?”

“Anywhere else. Nick will be better off without me and I won’t let this pack be the death of you by taking advantage of your power.” Aura was determined to keep Orlando safe, even though she was sure that he could handle himself pretty well without her.

“Not to take all the credit, but I’m pretty sure my power was the only thing that kept most of the people with us in Geneva from getting slaughtered.” He moved, and winced, and decided moving was a bad idea. “I can help, I just need…the voltage to do it with.”

“Just get better, okay? Don’t think about anything else.” Aura said quickly. She didn’t want to think about the fight, and she didn’t like being reminded that she’d almost lost Orlando for good.

“I wasn’t there to save you.” He said quietly, looking up at her clearly for the first time since they’d rolled him off the back of the van he’d been brought in on. “I’m sorry.”

Aura leaned in and kissed his forehead lightly as she continued to hold his hand. “You’re okay, Nick’s okay, I’m okay, that’s all that matters.”

“Come here, I’m not going to hurt you. Just make sure to stay away from the ankle.” He pulled her down onto the bed with him, and staying away from the ankle was easy, since he was so much taller than she was. Power was starting to flow through him freely, and for once he was able to share a little of it with her while keeping plenty of it for himself. Though it wasn’t quite as comfortable as sleeping on sheet metal for her, it was warmer at least.

She snuggled in as close as she could get without hurting his ribs or any other injury on his body before she said anything. “I thought you were dead.” She whispered against his shoulder.

“I’m not made of steel, but I’m a little harder to kill than turning off a light-switch.” He kissed her forehead through her hair. “Not much harder, mind you, but a little.”

Aura kept her voice at a whisper, but this time she whispered against his neck. “They want me to use you.”

Orlando nodded slowly and sighed, obviously not surprised. “Better than them just wanting me dead.”

She kissed his cheek and then sat up a little more to kiss his lips. She held herself over his body and stared into his eyes as she hovered over him. “I do want to be with you, but not because of them.”

“I know you do.” He pulled her down very, very slowly into a kiss, both of them conscious of his ribs as she moved, then let her go again, as he traced a line of sparks down her collarbone onto the necklaces lying along her chest. “And I want to help, but not because I feel used.”

Aura giggled at the feel of the sparks against her skin, especially when they connected to her necklaces. “You need to get better. Quickly.”

That made him grin, and he kissed her one more time as she settled in next to him. “Then I should probably go back sleep. But I have excellent incentive.”

Aura put her hand over his eyes to help him sleep. “Then go back to sleep before I can’t hold myself back any longer.”

**************

Coren walked over the remains of the battlefield, where a number of damage control units were still cleaning up the mess from the week before. Alina was at his side, and the two of them were dressed very differently than they ever would be while inside the Council chambers in Geneva. He wore loose jeans, a blue button-down shirt and sandals on his feet as he stepped around a large crater in which a group of Earthborn had tried to bury one of their enemies. “Not one casualty.” He said again in disbelief. “Not a single Ironborn dead.”

Alina shook her head as she looked around, her anger easily felt in the shifting rocks beneath their feet. “We truly misjudged the situation.”

“This must not happen again.” He said with a calm urgency to his voice that only Alina would really recognize the severity of. She knew him better than almost anyone else, and she knew just how lethal he could be when it was necessary.

“Now that we know what we’re up against, we can prepare appropriately. It won’t happen again.” She said confidently. Alina was careful enough and certainly confident enough to not allow any mistake to be repeated as long as she had control over the situation.

“They’re gathering. More of them are gathering in Spain to wait for us.” He looked down on the body of an Oceanborn that was grouped with a few others, awaiting extraction and proper burial at sea. His lip curled and he growled, heedless of his usual need for apparent neutrality in all things. “We should not make them wait too long.”

Alina put her hand on the side of his arm. “We cannot be hasty either. Not one more life should be lost at their hands.”

Coren nodded in agreement, and tore his eyes away from the sight of the bodies to look back at the highway, or what was left of it. The Stoneborn were busy patching it back up under the guise of human road maintenance men, but there was much to do. “Call up every unit and commander and tell them to gather in Geneva. We need to make them come to us.”

She nodded and then looked back toward their home. “We will come out victorious, Coren. You’ll see.”

XV

Nick came home the day before the Fulness, along with the dozen guards he’d gone out with as well as forty more Ironborn that obviously weren’t Spanish. They were all welcomed into the community by Nick’s father and shown places where they could sleep and rest before the Fulness that night, but things were starting to get crowded. There were people reinforcing the fences around the compound, both in preparation for the wildness of the Fulness to come and the prevalent fear that the Council would choose the Fulness to attack.

Aura was there to welcome Nick home along with everyone else, but she knew that he probably still didn’t want to see her, so she tried to blend in as well as she could. It wasn’t that easy, since she was a “Councilor,” but she thought she had managed it well enough. Orlando was back at her house, healed, but charging for the Fulness ahead.

It wasn’t easy to avoid each other, since the crowd opened up between them to allow them to greet each other. Nick didn’t look much like his usual confident self, but he looked more like a leader than she had seen from him in some time as he dismissed his men and went up to her with a nod and an attempt at a smile. “Good to see you back on your feet.”

“I’m glad you’re home.” She said softly, but she had to look away since she knew that he didn’t want to hear much from her. It was true that there was a lot of tension between her and Orlando, and that they had spent a lot of time together and snuggling, but that was it. She thought of Nick every day and she hoped that he was safe. He still mattered a great deal to her, even if he didn’t want to believe it.

“No place like it.” He said with a sigh, not walking away as she might have thought he wanted to. “How is Orlando?” There was no anger in his voice as he asked, only friendly concern.

“He’s much better. He’s spent most of the time on an inflatable pool mattress on my floor, but he’s doing better.” She finally looked up at Nick, and then when she did, she couldn’t help but throw herself at him and hug him tightly.

He returned the hug, gently at first, but then more forcibly. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was leaving.” He whispered into her hair. “I just needed to get away for a little while.”

She melted into his embrace and hugged him back just as forcibly, inhaling the scent of him that she knew so well. “I missed you.” She whispered back.

Nick just nodded back to her as he let her go finally, looking off to where some of the newcomers were being welcomed by the rest of the community. Many of them were looking back at the two of them as they were shown who Aura was and told more about what had just happened with the Council. “I need to go see to some of the new recruits. But I’ll be around to see you later, alright?”

Aura nodded and then backed away a little bit. “I can’t wait to hear your adventures.” She smiled weakly up at him, but then she nodded in the direction of her house. “You know where to find me.”

“I’ll come by before tonight.” Which they both knew was the Fulness. They could feel it as if the moon was already tugging on something inside them, warning them that they only had hours left of their own will before they were no longer entirely their own creatures.

She nodded and then kept smiling at him as they both backed away in opposite directions. Afterward, Aura then went home where Orlando was still plugged in, and she sighed as she plopped into a chair. “I’m so glad he’s home safe.”

Orlando agreed as he sat up, propping himself up in the corner he’d taken for himself. It would be a comical sight to anyone who didn’t understand the reason for the eccentricity. He was sitting on a plastic air mattress, leaning back against a nylon sleeping bag roll that was set against a glass table that was upended against his back. “A lot of new faces, I hope?”

“Yes, there were, actually. He’s with them right now.” She looked over at him with a smile. “How are you feeling?”

“Great.” He sat up a little more, and bent one knee to lean an arm across it. “I think I’m more or less back to active duty. I feel about as good as any of us usually do before the Fulness, I think.”

“I’m glad.” She looked around her house and then back at him, though her smile faded slightly. “I’m…a little worried.”

“About what?”

“It gets crazy here around the Fulness. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“I handle crazy pretty well, generally speaking.” He shrugged. “But if it’s easier for everybody concerned, you can box me up in here for the night. It’d be a bigger cage than I’m used to, that’s for sure. Comfier, too. And it’s not like you’ve got sheets you need to worry about me ripping up.”

“I’m not going to cage you. Are you kidding me? I’m just worried.” Aura was a little appalled by the idea, especially since he’d told her his parents used to cage him when he was younger.

“I’ll try and stay out of everybody’s way. You know I’m no Lunatic. I’m not going to hurt anybody.”

“I know. I know you won’t hurt anyone.” She went and laid down on the floor next to his whole setup. “I don’t know when I’ll be back here, if you’re staying here. I’m going to go catch up with Nick before the change hits. But I should be back.” Aura did want to see Nick and to hear about how the gathering of the other Ironborn was coming along. She had missed his company, and now that Nick was talking to her again, she wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity.

“Alright.” Orlando said quietly, a slight note of disappointment in his voice that he didn’t do a very good job of hiding. “I’ll be here.” He leaned off the bed and sparks shot from his hand to the floor before he actually touched it, as he leaned over to kiss her.

Aura leaned in and kissed him back, her fingers resting on the top of his. When the kiss broke, she pressed her forehead to his. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

“I doubt it.” He smiled and got up as she left, and the last thing she saw was him looking through her small bookshelf for something to read while she was gone.

When she stepped out the door, she looked back with a smile as the door closed on her small house. The closer she got to Orlando the more she realized that her feelings for him weren’t just curiosity. They were getting deeper every day, and while she knew Nick was probably a better match for her in a lot of other ways, Nick was her best friend. She missed him and she felt comfortable around him, but he’d made it clear when she admitted her feelings for Orlando that whatever had been between them before was over. First by creating the space between them, and second by sealing the space when he left her behind even though she was the other ‘Councilor.’

When she found Nick, he was actually just walking out of his house as the evening fell around them. He stopped before he locked the door behind him, surprised to see her. “I was just on my way over to your place.”

“Well, it looks like I beat you.” She smirked and then walked the rest of the way up to him and then she gave him another quick hug. “Wanna walk?”

“Sure.” He already had his shirt off and was just wearing a loose pair of jean shorts that were ripped at the bottom, walking barefoot down his steps to join her. “It’s more peaceful around here than I thought it would be by now.”

She nodded and started to reply, but then she was distracted by a new tattoo on the back of his shoulder, and so she hung back to run her fingers on it as she walked slightly behind him. “I am officially offended. New ink that didn’t come from my fingers?”

He smiled back at her apologetically. “I thought about that while I was getting it, actually, I’m sorry about that. But it was a good idea, and I wanted to get it done quickly.” He turned his shoulder a little so that she could see it, and there were actually two new tattoos, one on the outside of both his shoulder blades high up near the top of his shoulders. It was a Roman numeral XIII on one side and XIV on the other, both set into shields with a wolf face subtly engraved in the background. There were chains wrapped all around both in identical patterns, with open manacles hanging down from them. The shading was actually very well done, though her work was still better.

Her fingers lingered on the wolf’s face and then she smiled as she moved to walk side by side with him. “It is an excellent idea. Very nice.”

“I hoped you’d like it.” He sighed and rolled his eyes. “I just hope I don’t have to go back to Paris anytime soon. Though visiting the Eiffel Tower was fun.”

“You didn’t like it there?”

He shook his head. “Too soft. Far, far too soft. Everything about it.”

That actually made her laugh, but she should have realized as much. “Yeah, it is the city of love, after all.”

“That still doesn’t mean it has to be soft. In fact, I would think it’d have to be the other way around.”

“Love is hard?”

His smile disappeared as she asked, and he just looked over at her for a moment as if to confirm that she had really just asked him, of all people, that question.

She sighed and then looked away, since it made her feel guilty that he was looking at her that way. “I didn’t mean for it to turn out the way that it did.”

“I never thought you did.” He walked alongside her a little longer, then spoke again. “But nothing’s turned out at all yet, anyway. You’re not Mated to him, as far as I can tell. I think I’d have heard about that if you were.”

“Mated? I don’t take that decision lightly.” This was a turn of conversation that she wasn’t expecting. “I uh,” she was watching the ground as they walked, “I thought that you were done with me.”

“Done with you? What does that even mean?”

“Done with being around me. Done with caring. Just done.”

He was quiet for a moment after she said that, out of pure incredulity, and finally turned to face her, still walking backwards a few steps before he stopped. “I’m sorry, have we met? I don’t think we have. I’m Nick. The guy who’s been around you since we were puppies. The guy who spent two years tracking you down across all of western Europe. And you think I’m somehow done with caring about you? Just like that?”

She sighed and then finally looked up at him. “I’m sure you wish you were. Then I couldn’t hurt you anymore.”

He shook his head, not looking away from her. “I can’t even bring myself to wish for that. That would mean you’re gone, and I’ve never been good at that.”

“I care about him, Nick. I do. But I could never stop caring about you, worrying about you. Loving you.”

A look of visible pain went across his face as she said the last part, but despite that look, he stepped in closer to her. “Just like you know I never will. Stubborn as I am.” She’d called him that more than once in their lives growing up, and it was exceptionally true. Once he had his mind, and especially his heart, set on something, there was no changing him. And he’d had every bit of himself set on her for almost their entire lives.

Aura looked away, since she felt horrible for causing him that pain. Her stomach twisted at the sight of it, and then she took a few steps back instead of forward. “I’m sorry. Maybe I should just go.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t.” He said as he stepped closer to her. “Maybe you should stay.”

“I’m hurting you. I can see it. I don’t want to.”

He stepped up and grabbed her hand, locking his fingers with hers almost out of pure instinct, it was such a habit. “You can see a lot more than that if you look closer.”

She didn’t move her hand away, and, in fact, she did move closer to him. “I missed you. It was awful when your father came to talk to me after you left.”

“What did he want this time?” His tone sounded just as irritated with the mention of his father as she usually did.

Aura actually stepped in closer and lowered her voice, but she shook her head slowly. “It doesn’t matter.” Even though it was pretty clear that it did.

Nick took her other hand and held her closer in, looking very slightly down at her, since he was just barely taller than she was. “Nothing my father says matters anymore. But tell me anyway.”

She was surprised by that declaration, since he seemed to be living and breathing everything that his father hoped he would. “He wanted me to seduce Orlando so that he would stay here.”

His grip on her hands intensified almost to the point of pain, and she could see his lip curl slightly, though she knew him well enough to know that his sudden flare of anger wasn’t at her, but at his father. “That’s despicable, even for him.”

Aura sighed and then looked away from him. “I tried to explain that I couldn’t do that, that I wouldn’t, that I still had feelings for you, but he was right. I wasn’t showing what I said I was feeling.”

He ran a hand along her arm and up to her chin, turning her face gently back toward him. “My father’s been right about a lot of things in his life, but very rarely were they about you. He doesn’t understand you, or anything about you. If he knew even a tenth of what I do about you, he’d know you’re not that kind of person.”

She looked up into his familiar eyes, and instead of getting lost in them as she did with Orlando’s, she felt warm and comfortable. She was just glad to have the chance to gaze into his beautiful eyes again. She ran a finger across his cheek and then his lips. “Of all the Ironborn eyes I’ve ever seen, yours are always the most incredible.”

He kissed the finger she ran across his cheek, but nothing about Nick ever stayed gentle for very long, and his hands went to her waist, pulling her in next to him as he had a thousand times before, his lips just a breath away from hers. “Run with me tonight.”

Aura was breathing a little heavier now that she was trying to fight the fact that she didn’t want to fight anything about him. She didn’t move away. “Isn’t it…dangerous?”

“Half the continent about to descend on us with full intent to wear our fur for a coat and you’re worried about running with me on the Fulness?” He said with a grin.

She smirked and then leaned only a little bit closer, putting their lips so close that they brushed when she spoke. “Yes. Which should say a lot about how dangerous I think you are.”

“It does. And maybe you’re right. But I’m a kind of danger you can handle.”

Aura squirmed against his hands on her waist, but it only made things worse for the both of them. She couldn’t help but lean in the rest of the way and kiss him, loving every bit of his familiar taste.

They were close to the fence that went around the entire compound, and so he walked them backwards until they were up against the chain links themselves, some of which peeled off at his command to wind themselves around her back. One threaded itself down her spine beneath her shirt and out again at her waist to hold her to him as he kissed her.

She moaned at the feel of the metal and his responding kiss that hit her all at once, but all she could think about was more, that she wanted more of him and more of the delicious metal that they shared. She ran her hands along his back, along his new tattoos and even across his chest. “Don’t stop.” She whispered between kisses.

They stayed there for a long time as the chain link fence wrapped them up in a cocoon of their own power, and as it got darker and darker, Nick sent the tiny darts of the fence through her shirt and the top of her jeans, the metal sharpening for an instant to slash through the fabric at intervals, shredding every bit of cloth that was covering them as the light faded from the world. The process was so painfully slow, though, that only when it was truly dark all around them did the fence finally slice through the last barriers on their bodies, and in a matter of moments afterwards, they could both feel the urgency of the moon’s pull combined with their own urgency for each other.

Aura kissed him several more times as their bodies pressed against each other, and she breathed heavily into his ear as their bodies sunk to the ground. “I don’t want these chains to forget a single moment.” She kissed him once more before the push of the moonlight shifted them both, and she growled as she pushed him down playfully beneath her. Now I can hear your thoughts.

[_Like you couldn’t tell what they were before. _]

She licked the side of his face and then growled playfully against his ear. I want you, Nick. I want you so much…her hormones were kicking in high gear, and all she could think about was him.

They rolled inside of the chain links that had previously been wrapped around them, and the metal loosened of its own accord to give them more room to move. He twisted to almost shove her down against the links beneath her, but they moved and shaped themselves against her like a blanket as he leaned down to lick her shoulders. You have me. You always have.

**************

Even after their bodies shifted back into their human forms, they were still bound together. They weren’t exactly in a private place, but as respected as they were by everyone else, they were left in privacy. The fence looked downright wicked, all twisted and knotted around them, but she’d enjoyed every minute of it. When they couldn’t move any more from sheer exhaustion, they just lay there together, still wrapped in chains and wrapped in each other. Aura closed her eyes and kissed the side of his neck one more time before deciding that sleep was absolutely necessary. “That was…the best…ever…”

He was utterly exhausted alongside her, and even the sweet, calm strength of the iron around them was just more reason to slip off into sleep. “You’re not kidding.” He was covered with sweat and couldn’t have moved even if she still wanted to, so he was almost grateful for the expression of fatigue on her face.

She cuddled close and then buried her face into the side of his neck. Her heart swelled with the amount of emotion she had toward him, and in that moment, she was sure that she couldn’t feel differently. That Nick was perfect for her, even though she couldn’t quite get herself to admit to it out loud and make it real. Instead, she hoped that he would just know how she felt, so she held tighter to him until she fell asleep.

They slept through the entire day encased in the fence and in each other’s arms, waking only when the Fulness hit that night. The High Night of the Fulness was always the worst, when even powerful wolves like the two of them felt a twinge of pain at the moon’s insistency, but it was also by far the most energetic night of the three. For them, though, the previous night had been too much, too fast, and soon after the moon rose (though not too soon after) they fell back to sleep, curled up with their fur tangled together in the moonlight.

Sleeping next to Nick as a wolf was a new experience for her, since they didn’t do it that often and hadn’t spent very many Fulnesses even allowed in each other’s presence. It was comforting to feel him there next to her all night, to feel his fur against hers. She woke a few hours before sunrise, and she watched him sleep, still in her wolf, since he was just that much fun to look at. He was a much bigger wolf than she was, even though he wasn’t that much taller than her in their human form. Aura was a thin girl and therefore a thin wolf that was more wire and bones than anything else, but she was still beautiful. Not like him, though. His darker fur made his eyes seem even more dangerous whenever they peered at her, and his shoulders were broad and showed his strength. He was an incredible wolf, and she cared for him even more because of it.

She could also see others off in the distance between the houses of their compound. Any human who stumbled on their home during the Fulness would have thought the place overrun by some kind of mass breakout from a zoo. There were hundreds of wolves all congregated in the center of town, still running and wrestling one with another in a great central plaza filled with broken and discarded shards and sheets of all kinds of metal. It danced along with them, and every paw that passed over any bit of it left a print in the material like the strike of a minted coin. The howls and the barks, though distant, were their own kind of music, and the festivities pulsed with the hammer-strike of iron on steel.

When their bodies shifted back into their human forms, she still snuggled closer to him and she reached out to caress along his face and neck, anywhere she could reach. She just wanted an excuse to touch him. Finally one of her caresses woke him, and he stretched languidly, the chains around them vibrating with the intense relaxation of his muscles as they sang against their skin. “Gods almighty, that’s some of the best sleep I think I’ve ever had.”

Aura grinned and then kissed him passionately. “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so relaxed.”

He settled back against the chains under the kiss, the rest of the world around them completely forgotten for the moment in favor of a universe that was bound in the chains that wrapped around them as if they’d been forged from the dreams he’d been dreaming at her side. “I think if I were any more relaxed, I’d just never wake up again.” He looked up at the brightening greyness over them and squinted a little. “I can’t believe we slept through an entire day and night.”

She laughed softly and then kissed him again. “That’s what happens when you have life-altering sex.”

“Life-altering, huh?”

Aura giggled again and then kissed him even more passionately. “The best I’ve ever had.” She whispered against his lips after the kiss broke.

He ran his fingers through her hair to put some semblance of order back to it, then started to get up. “I should go see my father. I’m pretty sure everyone knew where we were, but I should check in anyway and see how some of the newcomers are doing over the Fulness.”

She pouted and tugged him back toward her for another kiss. “Can you stop being Mr. Responsible for two more minutes?”

“Two more minutes? You think that’s all it’s going to take? After the other night?”

“No, but you’re not easy to negotiate with. I figured I’d start out with two.”

Nick smiled and kissed her one more time. “You’re right, I’m not easy to negotiate with. I like to win.”

She finally let him go and then sighed as she got up and realized that he had shredded her clothes a long time ago. “Now I have no clothes.”

“Hey, I’m just as naked as you are, here.” He got up, and grabbed a few handfuls of the substance of the fence and started forming rudimentary clothes out of it for her, a halter top first and then a very simple and very loose skirt of hanging chains that flowed around her waist. “That better?”

Aura twirled around with a giggle. “Yep.”

He grabbed a bit of it for himself and looked her up and down as he made a very simple covering, since his own shorts had met the same kind of fate as her clothes. “It’s a little more Xena: Warrior Princess than I’m used to from you, but I like it.”

She looked at him with a fierce expression and then she let out a growl before she broke into laughter again. “You’d better go before I decide to make a game out of taking off your clothes.”

“You win.” He said with a smile and then turned to walk off, his new clothing rattling as he did so, but no less than hers did every time she moved.

She was lost in the sound of her clothes as she walked toward home, until she was standing on her doorstep and she realized that she’d been gone for two days. Two days when she told Orlando she would be back before sunset on the first night. Orlando. Gods. What was she going to tell him?

When she got inside, she found him sitting on his bed, which was now deflated, leaning back against the glass table with a book propped up on one leg, the title of which she couldn’t quite see, but which she knew was her copy of an urban fantasy novel involving vampires. He didn’t look up when she walked in, just turned the page and kept reading, a distant expression on his face.

Aura took a shaky breath as she stood in her own doorway, wishing that she could just run away, she felt so ashamed. “Sorry doesn’t even begin to cover it.”

“What do you need to be sorry for?” His voice was trying to make it sound as though he didn’t care, but he wasn’t doing a very good job.

She sighed as she pressed her back against her door and slid down to the floor. “For leaving you here when I said I’d be back. For being with Nick for the past two days. Mostly for the pain you’re feeling right now because I’m a bitch.”

He sighed, but he didn’t put down the book yet, even though his eyes weren’t actually reading the words on the page anymore. “I’m the last person you ever have to apologize for living your life the way you want to, Aura. You should know that about me by now.”

“I don’t even really know how it all happened. I just went out there to find out about his trip, but then before I knew it…” She leaned her back against the door. “I was happy with the way things were going between you and me. Now I don’t know what the hell to think. Again.”

He stayed there on the floor, but closed the book, tossing it down beside his bed. He still didn’t look up at her, just sat with his arms around his knees staring at the far wall and not saying anything. He didn’t have any right to feel betrayed or ignored. She wasn’t his anything, besides his friend. He didn’t have any claim on her beyond what she chose to give him. He was a demon. Born to live on the edges of society. That was his life. This was just another part of it. He shouldn’t have been surprised.

“I’m so sorry, Orlando. You deserve better than this.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit.” He said, somehow without even sounding angry, but he still didn’t look at her. “I can take a lot of stupid lines from a lot of very stupid people, but you’re not one of them.”

“Bullshit? It’s true!”

He stood up and unwrapped his ankle from the cord, then yanked it from the wall and reached for a shirt, still facing away from her. “You don’t need me hanging around bringing you down right now. You’ve got a Fulness to finish and an army to lead. I’ll be around when you need me.”

She stood up quickly and then moved closer to him. “Please don’t go.” She was almost begging him. She knew that he probably hated her right now, but she still didn’t want him to leave.

Orlando finally turned to face her, black hair hanging unkempt about his face, not quite as dark as the emptiness in his eyes as they met hers. They were a night that it seemed no sun would ever shine in, that had never known stars or even the silver of moonlight. They seemed to go on forever, deep enough to make the whole world spin while she tried to find the bottom of them and failed. “Why would you want me to stay?”

“Why?” She moved closer slowly, but not with any purpose other than to try to make him understand that he wasn’t worthless like he thought that he was. “Don’t you know that I like you? That I care about you?” She shook her head as she finally looked away from him. “When I thought you were dead, I was devastated.” She sighed and spoke in a whisper. “You’re one of the sweetest most understanding men I’ve ever met. And an incredibly powerful wolf. You never looked at me the way every other wolf here does, you just saw me for me. And you’re not a demon. I never thought you were.”

“Maybe you should have.” He said a little more harshly than he meant to. “This is what a demon does, isn’t it? Comes in and steals your soul? Makes you doubt things you shouldn’t be second-guessing about yourself, about what you want?”

“I was already doing that a long time before you came around.” She sighed again and then sat down on one of her chairs, already feeling defeated. “You don’t belong with me, anyway.” She said softly as she looked down at the floor. “Nick’s father told me a long time ago that the Council has Lightborn. I was afraid to tell you because I didn’t want to lose you.” Aura knew exactly how selfish that sounded, but it was the truth.

Lightborn? That was truly a twist in the conversation he hadn’t expected. But then, just as unexpectedly, he started laughing. “Dear gods almighty, I knew the man was a piece of city sewage, but I didn’t realize he would stoop to fairy tales to try and keep me around. Lightborn don’t exist, and he’s a bigger idiot than I thought if he believes anybody who says they do.”

She wasn’t laughing, though, since it had been a genuine fear of hers, losing him to his destined match. “I thought he was telling the truth.”

“If there are such wolves, and the Council has them, then there’s nothing any of us are going to be able to do to fight them.” He looked at her without anger or pain for the first time.

“I should have told you, even if you don’t believe it.”

“And you thought I would actually just…drop everything that’s going on and run for that? Even if it was true?”

“Why wouldn’t you? A Lightborn? That’s your perfect match.”

“My perfect match?” He laughed again, but not because he thought it was funny. “Are you listening to yourself? That’s as foolish as Nick’s father telling the two of you that you’re perfect for each other because you’re from the same bloodline.”

She looked embarrassed and ashamed after he seemed to be cutting down everything she had been taught. “What about you? Aren’t you being foolish, too? Thinking that you don’t deserve love? That you’re just some demon that sucks out people’s souls?”

“What else exactly have you seen me do?” He almost growled at her, and the mixture of his anger and the depression he lived his life in was apparent in his eyes as an extension of the emptiness already there.

“You have been there for me. In every way that you could ever possibly be. You’re no demon, you’re an angel.”

“I don’t have wings, I have fur. And teeth don’t double as a halo.”

Aura moved a little closer to him. “Please. Please just stay.”

He didn’t get any closer to the door, but he didn’t get any closer to her either. “I’m not what you think I am, Aura. I’m not safe. I’m not kind. I may not be a demon, but I’m no angel either. Unless it’s a destroying one. And I’ll destroy you too, if I stay. That’s not a threat, it’s a fact.”

She still moved closer to him, a little more boldly the closer she got. “I know I messed up. But at least as a friend, please stay. I want you here.”

He looked back at her for a moment without responding, then looked past her at one of her windows. “I thought about leaving yesterday. There were some holes in the fence that somebody ripped while they were running the first night. I wouldn’t have had anything with me, but since when is that new? But I couldn’t leave, even though I knew where you were.”

“Why didn’t you leave?”

He didn’t answer for a while, but finally returned his eyes to hers. “I kept hoping you’d come back.”

“I’m sorry, Orlando. I’m so sorry I hurt you.” Her eyes burned with tears and one slipped and fell down her cheek.

“Never be sorry for being happy. As long as that’s really what you are.”

“I was happy with you. I was happy staying here, spending time with you. I was moving on from whatever was between Nick and me. He left. He left me here, he left me behind in a place that he knew I never wanted to stay in.” She continued to stare into his endless gaze. “I was worried about him, sure, and he was helping my kind, so I wanted to know more about what happened. He’s been my best friend for so long. But then it just…maybe it was old flames. Unresolved feelings. Or the hormones of the Fulness. Everything he can control is what I love. Steel. Gold. Lead. Iron. My body responds to it. It makes sense that I would be attracted to him, but how do you explain my attraction to you? The fact that I want to be close to you? It’s not natural, so what else can it be but a choice?”

“Everything is a choice. Everything but death. And sometimes even that.” He held up his hand, and sparks jumped back and forth between his fingers like a ring of blue steel that he was making dance above his palm. She could tell just from the strength of the current that he was feeling much, much better, and exceptionally well-rested, and it was strange that just form one sight of him, she could tell so much. That was how much notice she’d been taking of everything he did. “No one chooses this.”

She moved closer to him and finally came within touching distance, and then she reached her hand out slowly. “I’m not running away.”

“Even though you know you should.” He didn’t get any closer to her, but he stretched out his fingers towards hers, still buzzing with power.

Aura reached out a little further. “I don’t want you to go, but I don’t want to make you stay.”

That finally got the barest hint of a smile from him, but it just accented how dangerous he looked in the first place. “You really think, after everything you know about me, that you could really make me do anything?”

Instead of backing up, she took another step closer. “There are some things I could make you do.” She actually smirked as well, almost taking his smile as a challenge.

When her hand got close enough, an arc of electricity leaped from his fingertips to hers, running up and down her finger and through her rings as the path of least resistance. It was incredibly low-powered, but it still pinched all along her skin, even as it electrified through the rest of her. She gasped, but out of shock more than anything else. Aura then reached the rest of the way and touched his hand gently. Once she was touching him, the charge running through her was no longer painful, just alien, a foreign kind of power running across her skin. And once she was touching him, his power went in waves from her fingertips to her toes, electrifying every piece of her in an instant.

Her fingers traced up his arm slowly as she stepped in even closer, but then she leaned in and kissed the side of his neck very, very lightly. His hand went down her side to her waist, grazing over her mostly-exposed skin the entire way. “I hope this house is fireproof.”

She moved up to kiss his lips, and she moaned when their lips connected. “Mmmm…Fireproof?”

He answered the kiss with two gentle ones of his own, but she could tell that he was just barely restraining himself. After the second kiss, though, the restraining came to an end, and he grabbed her by the waist and pressed her back against the metal sheet that made up one of her walls. The lights dimmed all around the room, and every electrical outlet in the little house sparked at once as he kissed her again. She could feel herself almost magnetized against the sheet metal from the power coursing through her. Even as several of the lamps around her room exploded, there were arcs of electricity between Orlando’s arms and the wall that were lighting the room more brightly than the sunlight coming in through the window. It was like she was caught in a web of pure power, but it wasn’t wrapped around her, it was wrapped through every single nerve in her body.

Aura squirmed, but she had no desire to be free of his touch. She moaned again and then the metal clothing seemed to start to melt down her body, a few strings of it whipping up from her and wrapping around his back, pulling him closer. She kept looking into his eyes, even as her heart pounded in her chest and her breath quickened. “Are you sure you want this?” She whispered between breaths, since she knew he would be giving up something that she didn’t just want to take from him unless he was ready.

He actually laughed, a full laugh that resonated through her with the rest of his power, and kissed her again, melting every muscle in her body with a single touch. “I’ve wanted this from the moment you put your needles on my skin.”

Nothing she’d ever experienced had felt like the insanity of that moment. Nothing could have prepared her for how good it felt to touch him, to kiss him, and she was sure that nothing would feel quite as good as being even more intimate with him. She bit down on his lip playfully while her hands continued to be quite curious. Every piece of metal on her body caused a shower of sparks against his skin, but it just made her want to be even closer to him. If she could literally melt, she would have by that point. “I want this too.” She whispered against his skin. “I want you.

Every piece of metal that was left on her body was just another way for his power to get to her more easily, more intimately, and what followed between them was nothing short of chaos. They may have both been in human form and remained that way the entire time, but there was very little human about their lovemaking. Their surroundings didn’t matter, the house didn’t matter, and nothing beyond the pure sensations running between them even registered as mildly important. The farthest either of their minds could reach was their own nerve endings, and they were wrapped up in a white heat that was so amazing it was painful. Lightning struck through her mind again and again, leaving both their bodies shaking and shattered but unable to stop.

Every moment was incredible. Every moment was better than the last, and it was more intimate than she’d ever imagined could be possible with another person. The feel of his power inside her veins was foreign and yet her body thirsted for more no matter how much he gave. Even the metal that made up her entire house responded to his power, and between the electricity he had access to and the metal at her fingertips, it was a storm that nothing could match. It exhausted her and charged her at the same time, and only when they felt the weak tug from the moon were they able to think rationally enough to slow themselves down even slightly.

Between gasps as they lay on her floor, hours later, she finally tried to speak. “Are you…are you…okay?”

He laid back on the floor unable to move, covered in sweat and still shaking a little, breathing shallowly as he tried to look over at her and failed. “I’m…not sure. You?”

“Every part of me…tingles…” She smirked and then she shivered, but it was a good sensation. “Incredible…fantastic…”

“Can’t…think…straight. At all.”

She ran a finger over his sweat-covered chest and then she kissed him gently before she just couldn’t move at all. “Nap…we’ll have to…shift soon…”

“Nap…would be good.” He twitched a few times. “Don’t think I’ll…be able to sleep.”

Aura could, though. She was unconscious before she even tried to fall asleep, only to wake up once her body shifted into her wolf on top of him. She yelped slightly, but only in surprise, since she could still feel his current of power through her body even as a wolf.

As always, the shifting process was more painful and drawn out for him, but soon enough it was his black fur against hers, though he still whimpered once or twice in pain as he came awake beneath her. Could’ve done without that part.

She licked the side of his face several times as though she was trying to take away his pain with every kiss. I wish it didn’t have to hurt for you. Being a wolf is a lot of fun sometimes.

He moved them so that they were a little more comfortable, realizing for the first time that they were actually in a completely different part of her house than they’d started in. I’m sure it is. I just don’t get the chance very often.

Aura buried her face into his fur, since she just absolutely loved the smell of him. You know, doing it like this…still incredibly hot.

More things I’ve never tried before. _]He licked her face again, and settled in so that he could see her, enjoying the way her eyes looked against the rest of her in her wolf form. [_Though I barely survived you the first time. I’m a little worried.

She barked playfully in a way that translated into laughter. I told you I could be dangerous.

I should’ve believed you. _]He stood up, slowly, a little wobbly on his feet, but finally upright as he leaned his head down to brush against her fur. [_I’m pretty sure I could sleep for a week.

Aura licked his face again. [_Well, then what are you getting up for? _]She brushed her head against his.

I’ve gotta shake this off somehow. Otherwise neither of us is going to survive ‘til morning.

Talk about sweet, sweet death. _]She brushed her fur against his. [_Okay, so you want to run?

No, because that would mean going outside. I’m not really into that idea right now. _]He jumped away from her and up onto her steel bed, looking down at her as electricity crackled between his feet and the flat metal sheet. [_I’m going to keep you in here to myself.

She crouched her head down low, but her butt was sticking high in the air as her tail wagged and she growled playfully. Is that some kind of a challenge?

He was sitting on the edge of her bed and looking down at her, but she could see his tail wagging behind him as well. [_Take it as you like. _]He jumped off the bed on the other side and started running through the rooms of her house, making her chase after him.

Aura barked loudly and chased after him, loving the game of it, but she also loved winning. She finally got him back to her bedroom and another interior wall moved to keep them both inside the room. Now where are you going to go?

He backpedaled quickly to stop himself from running into the wall headfirst, but then jumped up onto it instead and jumped off of it to land behind her. He stomped one paw down on the floor and sent a shock through it towards her, twitching her feet out from under her as he grinned down at her. Wherever I want, looks like.

She scrambled to get back up afterwards and then she whipped around to growl at him again. The sheet beneath him shifted and moved like a wave of water. Wherever?

As it shifted beneath his feet, he took off from it, leaving paw prints in the malleable surface as he leapt to tackle her, teeth playfully biting at her shoulder as he took her down in a tangle of sparks.

Aura bit back just as playfully, but he had pinned her down onto her back, and she looked up into his black eyes with her paws out in front of her. Looks like I’m at your mercy.

I’m a demon, remember? We’re not known for our mercy.

She snapped her teeth in the air right next to his muzzle. Well, then what’s my punishment?

He knew what she had said about being a wolf was true, and he knew that he could be, and often was, just as wild or wilder than she was. Seeing it firsthand was something a little different, though. Hopefully a punishment is that last thing you’ll think it is.

Aura licked his muzzle several more times. You’ll like it. It’s different, but it’s incredibly hot in its own way.

It was incredibly different, as she had promised, but although he had to admit he preferred things as humans, he could understand why some wolves preferred things as wolves. Things were less chaotic, and the house suffered a great deal less in the process, but the simplicity of it, and the fact that he could hear her thoughts and she could hear his made things that much more intimate between them. It was completely unlike anything he’d ever experienced before, and it wasn’t nearly as much of a drain on either of them as their antics earlier had been, which was helpful for both of them, exhausted as they already were.

There was still a good few hours once they calmed to a less frenzied state, but she was content to just lay there beside him. She rested her chin on his paws, and she licked his cheek every so often. Today was incredible. I, um, _]He could tell she was nervous, but she continued on anyway. [_I really think I’m falling in love with you, Orlando.

She could hear his mental chuckle as he turned his head to look back at her, settling against the wall a little more comfortably. That good, hm?

Were my moans, growls, howls and screams not enough indication of how good it was? Good isn’t even the word for it.

I think the growls were my favorite. _]He licked her face and then just stayed there beside her. Intimacy was different as wolves, but there was an aspect of togetherness that was achievable even in quiet moments between minds that they could never quite reach in their human form. [_I’m pretty sure I’m falling in love with you too, Aura. Have been for a long time now.

She rubbed her face against his and then cuddled even closer. We can start our own life. Find a place to build a house that’s exactly what both of us need. We can do whatever we want to do. Be whoever we want to be.

That possibility drew him up short, though, as he met her eyes again and looked around. [_What about all this? What’s happening here? _]

We’ll fight the Council and then once the dust has settled, we’ll go our own way. I don’t want to leave the pack now, but we will. The Council won’t be able to deny us after we show them we’re strong enough to take our rightful place.

He nodded his agreement with that plan. I’m with you. Like I told you before. I’m not going anywhere.

I’m glad you didn’t. _]She sighed into his fur. [_I don’t want to lose you.

The rest of the night went by peacefully between them, and when he shifted at the first rays of sunlight, it woke her from the sleep she’d fallen into, though he didn’t even move. It was just his body relaxing after having to maintain his wolf shape for so long, and his slight snores as a wolf turned into slightly louder snores as a human.

She smiled as she watched him sleep and then she realized that she just couldn’t do it anymore. She couldn’t split her heart over two men, and though she could honestly say that she loved them both and that Nick had told her before that he would run away with her, he couldn’t and wouldn’t do that now. Now he was a genuine and powerful leader of their pack, and the last thing she would ever want to do would be to take him away from the life he had made for himself. Nick belonged and she didn’t, and it was obvious. She and Orlando fit and they wanted the same things, just to be happy together. There was no outside pressure for anything else, and ultimately, that was the life she wanted.

When Orlando finally woke, it was to the smell of a hearty breakfast that was already a heaping, steamy pile on a large plate.

“Mmmmm…” He growled from the floor where he’d fallen asleep. “If I didn’t love you before, I sure as hell do now.” He tried to move, and groaned, then laughed, but that hurt too, and so he eventually just pushed himself onto his back with a slight chuckle at his own pathetic state. “Gods, the hangover from you is even worse than tequila.”

Aura giggled at that and then before she brought him over some food, almost more than the plate itself could handle. It was everything of everything that breakfast could contain, really. Pancakes, a mountain of eggs, bacon, sausage, and biscuits. She was actually a decent cook when she wanted to be. “Here. I made plenty.”

“Where’s yours?” He said with a smile, even though the mountain of food on his plate was more than even a wolf could eat in one sitting. Though he planned to try.

She grabbed a plate for herself and then she sat down next to him on the floor, but there was significantly less food on hers than his. She’d been eating bites here and there while she’d been cooking the whole time, so she wasn’t quite as ravenous. “Look at us. Breakfast in…on floor.”

“It’s a good enough bed for me.” He said through a mouthful of bacon and eggs. “‘Special-needs bed for some very special-needs people.”

Before she dug into hers, she leaned in and kissed his cheek, then dug in with a vengeance. After long silence of just the both of them enjoying their food, she finally spoke again. “I have to tell him it’s over.” She said softly, since even she was still a bit surprised that she had actually made a decision for herself.

Orlando was finishing a bite of pancake as he looked up at her. “Today?”

“Haven’t I put you both through enough? The sooner the better.”

He nodded as he chewed, since she was right about that much. “What do you want me to do?” He would come with her if she wanted him to, but he doubted that was part of the plan.

“There’s nothing you can do, really.” She sighed, since she knew it was going to be painful. “It’ll be awkward for a while, but we’ll all get through it.”

“I’ll do whatever you need me to do.” He said as he pulled her in for a quick kiss, though there was still maple syrup on the side of his mouth that she caught part of. He looked around her house afterwards. “Which includes cleaning up this place while you’re gone. Though some of it will have to wait for you, looks like.” The place was completely warped out of its own dimensions, as though one day a rational person had lived there and the next a modern art sculptor had decided to turn the entire home into one imaginative creation.

She giggled and then left a sticky kiss on the side of his mouth. “I’ll fix it when I get back.” She took a few more bites from her plate, but she really wasn’t that hungry anymore, so she got up and put away all the leftovers quickly. “I think I’m gonna go find him.”

“Alright.” He said, still kneeling on the floor and looking up at her. “I’ll be here.”

Aura leaned down to give him one more kiss. “You’re the one I want.”

He returned the kiss with a dark grin. “I noticed.”

She locked eyes with him for a moment and then turned and walked out before she lost her nerve to do so. Aura paced not far from her house for a while and then decided to go take a walk on the outside so that there weren’t people coming up to her or watching her as she tried to think of the best way to break the news to Nick. The fence opened up easily enough, and as she walked, she sighed at the fact that the noises on the inside faded away quickly. Finally. A little bit of quiet.

On the way out of the fence there had been a number of unfamiliar faces, and there were a few outside the fence line as well, but she could tell that they were all Ironborn with a glance, cleaning up the damage from the last three wild nights. Some were laying out new trenches for the fence past the boundaries of the community, since they were going to need space soon for all the others that were coming in. Some faces she recognized from other families of her own pack, but most were strangers, though all of them seemed to know her. She got out farther, past the newer workers and into the woods that separated their home from human civilization miles away. Nothing greeted her but the new-fallen sunlight through the trees and the occasional sound of an animal, though every wild thing kept its distance from her instinctively. Even squirrels knew her scent and scurried up the nearest tree as she approached.

Aura kept going out until the sounds of the compound had completely died away, and then she sighed as she paced around in the forest. There had to be some easier way to tell Nick without him going crazy. She just needed a little bit of time to herself to think about it. She wasn’t exactly sure what had changed, but she was sure about her decision. She loved Orlando. She loved the way he made her feel and the life she could envision with him. That was enough.

Shortly, though, she heard the sounds of someone nearby, and three Ironborn came into sight from the direction of the compound, waving at her with friendly expressions, though she’d never seen them before. “Morning, Councilor. Pleasant Fulness?”

“Incredibly.” She said with a weak smile, since she didn’t want anyone to be aware of all the emotions churning inside of her. “Yours?”

“Peaceful. Didn’t know it’d be so much fun to Moon over with so many other Ironborn.” His accent was decidedly French, and it made his Spanish accent strange, but she’d heard worse. One of them seemed not quite with the other two, setting his eyes on a walnut tree behind her and running up to climb it in pursuit of some walnuts. “I hope we’re not disturbing you if you’d rather be alone.”

“No, no. It’s fine. I just needed a place to think.”

“Then you probably should have picked a safer place,” the man’s smile glinted up at her for a single dangerous moment before his words sank in, “Councilor.” She felt an almost pleasant sting in her back as several needles shot into her from above, fired by the man in the walnut tree. She could feel the sedative they’d been tipped with seeping into her system faster than she could even react, poison so strong it was already making her eyelids heavy by the time she realized what had happened.

She tried to scream, but she had gone too far away for anyone to hear her. Not that she could shout loud enough to be heard with the drugs working through her. She was barely able to look at her attackers before she sank to the ground. “You’ll pay for this.” She whispered, since it was all she could manage to get out.

“Such creativity.” He mocked her, then crouched down to look at her as she faded. “We’ve already been paid for this. Rest easy now, Councilor. It’s a long ride to Geneva.”

XVI

It was approaching late afternoon when Orlando finally came out of Aura’s house and set out to look for her. He had known that her conversation with Nick wasn’t going to be short, but he hadn’t expected it would take quite as long as it was taking. He walked the perimeter first, thinking that she might’ve gone back out along the fence for the relative privacy it offered, but even after a full circuit of the compound, there was no sign of her. No one stopped him, or even challenged him, since he had apparently taken on his own kind of mythical standing in the short time since the battle on the road home from Geneva.

He had started his second circuit of the fence line, but was looking more inward toward the homes and common buildings of the compound instead of out past the fence, when he saw Nick standing with a group of official-looking Iron Guard members at one particular point along the perimeter. Nick saw him only a few moments later, and the two men stared each other down uncomfortably for a silent moment before Nick turned to the men and excused them. Some of them actually bowed to him slightly as they slipped away, and all were throwing looks back at Orlando, dirty and otherwise.

Nick stepped up toward him slowly, peaceably, with no look of anger or even of pain in his eyes. That confused Orlando, based on everything else he’d thought he’d known about the man. He had been devastated, Aura said, when he’d found out she even had feelings for a demon like him. How much more distraught should he have been at the news that everything was over between him and the woman he’d been with most of his life?

“Afternoon, Sparks.” Nick said almost affably.

Still confused, Orlando nodded back to him. “Councilor. How um…how is everything?”

“Going about as well as can be expected.” Nick said with a slight sigh, obviously tired after working most of the day. “Most of the newcomers are settling in nicely, though we’ve already had some deserters from the group we picked up in Paris. Apparently forest living didn’t agree with their city sensibilities. They’ll come back when they’re needed, though, I’m sure.”

Orlando was starting to get even more confused at the man’s apparent good mood. Either he was taking it amazingly well, which Orlando didn’t think likely, or…“Have you seen Aura?”

Nick’s good mood vanished quickly as he looked back at the taller Shadowborn. “Not since the High Night, why?”

The hairs were starting to stand up on the back of Orlando’s neck, and not because of static electricity. “She said she was going to go find you this morning. Just an hour or two after sunrise.”

Nick shook his head. “She never did. I thought she was with you.” Though when he said the word ‘with,’ his inflection made it clear there was no further meaning to it than that they were in each other’s company.

“I thought she’d gone to find you.” The two men looked at each other and started panicking at the same moment and for the same reason, as they looked around together, as though just worrying about her would make her appear.

Nick spoke first. “I’ll question the Guard. Somebody must have seen her.”

“I’ll start looking outside the fence. Let me out here.”

Nick opened up a hole in the fence that Orlando stepped through quickly, off at a run and already shouting Aura’s name to the trees.

Nick shifted and started running the fence line, questioning every wolf he passed as to Aura’s whereabouts, but the only reports he got from anyone were from a few women who’d been doing laundry near a stream that morning who had seen her leave through the fence but hadn’t seen her come back. Orlando met him at that point, having gotten the same reports from a few others, and together they ran through the forest with several members of the Guard on their heels fanning out the search.

For all their searching, though, they found no sign of her, or even any sign of a struggle of any kind, though Nick and Orlando both agreed that her scent faintly clung to a certain grouping of walnut trees. Past a certain point, there was nothing, and so they determined she had to have gone back to the compound, but there was no one who had seen her return, and no other lingering touch of hers on the metal of the fence aside from the single hole where she’d torn through that morning.

The search wore on, but eventually Nick and Orlando had been forced to send out the Guard in force to sweep the forest for her, as they regrouped and finally gave in to hunger near Nick’s father’s house in the center of the compound, close to the main gate. After most of the day had gone by with still no word, a woman with bright blue eyes made her way down the road that led straight to the compound. She drew up close to the fence, but she knew better than to try and touch it if she wanted to keep her fingers intact. “Hello?” Her voice carried into the compound along the breeze, making certain she was heard.

The moment she said something, she saw several Ironborn almost materialize out of nothing around her, each of them with two handguns pointed at her head, one of them with a spear ready to throw at her. “Si?” The one with the spear answered sarcastically.

“My masters have sent me with a message for a wolf by the name of Nickel.”

That just made all of them growl, but the one with the spear spoke again, though even as he asked the question, he was sure he already knew the answer. “And who are your masters?”

“The Council.”

“You are as stupid as they are to come alone.”

“If you kill me, you’ll never get her back.”

One of them shifted and ran through the fence, which opened up for him like the surface of the ocean for a diver, closing behind him afterwards just as serenely. Another of them answered, after a dark look shared with the other. “Step up to the fence, and the Councilor will see you at his convenience.”

The woman stepped up closer but she wasn’t stupid enough to touch it. “I don’t have time to waste. If I don’t come back within a certain amount of time, they’ll think I’m dead and they’ll kill their prisoner.”

She didn’t need to touch it, she just needed to get close enough for several of them to use part of it to wrap her up in an iron cocoon, though they were careful not to harm her in the process. “If they took her, they took her for a reason, and if they sent you, then they sent you because they don’t give a shit whether you live or die. Or did I not kill any of your friends on the road from Geneva?” The man with the spear stood without moving, letting the others on the watch do the work of holding her in place.

“I volunteered to come because I don’t give a shit whether I live or die. I’m their prisoner as well.” She didn’t even flinch at the fact that she was wrapped in chains. “They have a wolf called Aura as their prisoner. They also have no intentions of letting her go unless the Alpha and his son make an appearance before their court.”

That got a general laugh from everyone around her, and one of the men with guns answered her. “Oh, mamacita, if they wanted the Alpha to make an appearance, you don’t gotta kidnap nobody for that. You just gotta ask nicely.”

“But this way they’ll get him to play nice.” She said sarcastically. “So what are you going to do? Kill me? Let me go? Make a decision, your chains itch.”

A voice spoke from behind her angrily. “You should be glad that’s all they’re doing.” Nick came up with Orlando just behind him, neither of them looking happy in the slightest, and he motioned to the guards that had their guns trained on her to bring her in. Two of them went to either side of her and picked her up as though they were carrying luggage, walking through the fence and towards a fairly large building where Nick’s father was waiting on the doorstep.

“The longer you take to make a decision,” she said as they set her down again. “The less chance I have in making it back on time. They’ll kill her. Honestly, they’re hoping for it, after what you did.”

Nick had been filled in on what she’d told them so far, and turned back to her without even thinking that his father should really have been the one handling the negotiation. “And what are their intentions if we do show ourselves again before them?”

“They wish to negotiate with you.”

“Do they? And they show their good faith in this negotiation by kidnapping Aura?”

“I suppose they do.”

“And they wish me and my father to attend. I can only assume my Shadowborn friend here is not invited.”

Orlando looked properly wicked at his side as he said so, with a very slight smile curling the side of his lips and promising violence.

“Probably not. Anyway, isn’t this a purely Ironborn pack? What, you let in just anyone if they are to your benefit?”

“Is there more to the message, or should you really stop talking now?” Nick said with barely controlled rage.

She sighed loudly. “Time is ticking.”

“Get her out. I’ll speak to my father alone.” He nodded to the Guards, who picked her up again and carried her back out of the house, sealing up the door afterwards and leaving Nick alone in the room with his parents and Orlando, whom he didn’t order out just because he was involved with this as well.

Nick’s father stood back from the group of them as the messenger was escorted out of the house to where she would be kept in chains until she could be dealt with. That left only Nick and Orlando and his Mate in the room with him, and once the messenger was out of sight, he actually started smiling. “This couldn’t have been more perfect if we had planned it.”

“Perfect?” Nick whirled on his father with murder plain on his face, but his expression cooled quickly. “How long has it been since you had a soul, father?”

“I gave my soul to this work long ago, and I’ve been repaid more than worthily for what I’ve given. Look at this situation with open eyes, son. They have kidnapped Aura, one of the figureheads of everything that we stand for, yourself the other. They have given every wolf here who was skeptical about the Council’s intentions towards us an airtight reason to fight.”

“They took Aura!!!” Nick screamed at his father, his voice resonating through the sheet metal of the house until it sang in their very bones. “They could have killed her by now, and all you care about is strategy?!?”

“All I care about is accomplishing our goals. You need to start understanding that. Aura in captivity is doing a thousand times more to help this cause than anything she has EVER done while she was free.”

Nick flew at his father then, and at the same moment, electricity flashed from Orlando’s fingertips across the room, as both men lost their patience with the Alpha at the same instant. Before he could even react, he’d been shocked into a worthless puddle on the floor, and Nick, completely unfazed by the small bolt of lightning, leaped at him and flung his father the rest of the way across the room until he landed with a loud crack against the far wall, sliding down into a heap onto the floor.

“Stand up or stand down, Father.” The challenge momentarily confused Orlando, but it seemed to have an altogether different effect on Nick’s mother, since the challenge was one that she had heard from her Mate’s own lips the day that he in turn had challenged Nick’s grandfather for leadership of the pack. Nick had heard the story enough times to know the rituals that had to be observed, and he was glaring down at his father with murder on his face.

The once-glorious Alpha looked up at his son with a sneer, speaking in an agonized whisper as he slowly got up to his hands and knees. “You know I’m right, son. You can never be an Alpha if you’re unable to see that Aura’s kidnapping right now is the best thing that could have happened.” He started to get up on one leg, but it failed under him, putting him off balance and back on his hands and knees again.

“Stand up or stand down.” Nick repeated, a little more loudly than before, but didn’t make another move to get any closer to his father. “Orlando, call in the Guard. I want everyone to see this.” Orlando gave him a momentary look to remind him that he wasn’t one of his Ironborn to be bossed around that flippantly, and though Nick didn’t look over at him, he seemed to feel the look anyway. “Please.”

With that, Orlando stepped away and complied, calling to some of the Guard to come in and watch only, warning them not to interfere, since he finally had some idea of what was going on.

“Stand up or stand down, Father.” Nick called loudly, as his father struggled to pull himself up, but there was obvious damage done to his legs.

Even so, he was fighting through the pain to try and stand on his own two feet. “You’re not ready, Son. You can’t fight this war on your own. You can’t lead these people on your own. There’s so much more you have to learn, so much more you have to…”

He was cut off by Nick stepping forward and putting the back of his hand through his father’s jaw, sending him sprawling to the floor again. “I will ask you one final time, Father.” Nick walked over to stand directly over his father’s broken legs. Everyone in the room could hear his father growling through the metal sheeting of the floor. Some took a step back, but not Nick. “Stand up, or stand d-”

He was cut off by his father’s attack, which took him down to the floor in a bear-hug. What followed was a cacophony of metal screeching and splintering against itself all along that side of the house. Orlando and Nick’s mother crowded along with the rest of the Guard near the doorway, watching in amazement as the house transformed itself over and over again before their eyes.

It was no playful battle of one Ironborn against another, but a brutal contest with spears and daggers made from pieces of the wall flying every which way, deflected and redirected and re-shaped by Nick or his father just at the moment before they would have been impaled by their own element. In moments, the world was whirling faster than anyone could follow, and a wall went up between them and the two combatants, put there by Nick so that no one else would be harmed in the midst of the fight.

The screeching of the metal seemed to have a language of its own as it wailed and howled in tones no wolf’s throat could produce, but as abruptly as it had started, it stopped, with the house coming to rest again, the wall still in place.

Slowly, an opening formed in the wall as though it was silver liquid, and Nick stepped out, bleeding and obviously battered, but walking and standing taller than anyone had ever seen him, with fury still burning in his eyes. At a single gesture, the wall catapulted his father’s broken body out into the midst of all of them, and though the man was not dead, it was clear his injuries were extreme.

“Stand up or stand down, Father. You know the law.” Nick said one final time, his throat ragged with exertion. But this time there was no sign of a struggle from his father, who was panting just to breathe on the floor in their midst.

Nick’s mother rushed to her Mate’s side and then pulled at pieces of the wall behind her to form splints and wrap his body up carefully, so that the touch of the metal would bring him comfort as well as energy to heal. She didn’t look back at her son, just because she was far too angry to look at him without breaking into sobs. “You made your point, Nickel. Go rescue your little fleck of gold, if you think it will do anyone any good.” His mother’s tears fell down onto her Mate’s bloodied face. “Look who is standing next to you and tell me that Aura hasn’t already turned against us. You would destroy your family just for her?”

Nick hesitated a moment before he answered, but only because she was his mother and he still had some reservations about speaking back to her. After everything he now knew was true about them, though, he regained his confidence quickly. “There was a time when I did everything I did to please you. But for a long time now, Aura has been the only reason for anything I’ve done. Including this. Take care of your Mate. This pack has no need of him anymore.”

His mother finally looked up at him now that he was basically telling her that both she and his own father were being shunned within the pack they’d spent their lives building up. She looked over at Orlando and then back at her son. “What will you do if she doesn’t choose you? Then what is your reason, my son?”

“Guards.” Nick said quietly, staring his mother down without moving as the members of the Guard came forward quietly to obey their new Alpha, standing between Nick and his parents as they escorted the two of them from the building, leaving him alone with Orlando.

“I’m going to guess you didn’t plan that.” Orlando’s voice finally broke the silence.

Nick shook his head, the full realization of what had happened finally sinking in and stealing some of the certainty from his posture. “Not exactly, no.”

“I gathered. But it was well done anyway. I would’ve killed him if you hadn’t challenged him. Only reason I didn’t is because you got in the way.”

Nick thought about that for a moment, his eyes far away. “Maybe I should’ve let you.”

“No, it’s better this way.” Orlando stepped up to a window, looking out to where the Skyborn was still being held captive in her rather itchy chains. “So what’s the plan?”

Nick sighed, feeling the weight settle on him, the first of many questions people would be asking him for guidance, and Orlando wasn’t even a part of his pack. “We march on Geneva with everyone we have. You and I will go in to face the Council, and when they try to kill us, we…won’t let them.”

Orlando shook his head, but he was actually smiling. “My kind of plan.”

When the messenger was finally let free, she stumbled back a few steps, but she almost looked bored as both Nick and Orlando approached her. “Do you have a return message for the Council?”

“Tell them we will go before them in four days.” Nick said in the same bored tone. “Tell them that if anything happens to Aura, they will answer to ten thousand Ironborn. There were only a hundred of us on the road from Geneva.” He looked over at some of the Guards around her and nodded to the fence. “See her out.”

She took a few more steps back and then she looked over at Orlando with a smirk. “Be careful. They know more about you than you want them to. Everything that’s in her mind, her heart, her soul…they will already know by the time you get there.”

**************

Marc walked down the long staircase with the Ironborn’s body over his shoulder as if he were carrying a box for an artificial Christmas tree. From head to toe, she was encased in stone, bound so tightly around her that all she could do was breathe. It even clamped her jaw shut so she couldn’t speak. She was fairly small, and so the weight was something he could easily manage, but it made her conveniently unable to fight him the entire time they descended. He kept her facing the ceiling, only inches away from her face, so that she wouldn’t see any of the guards they were passing or the way they’d taken from the Council chamber itself. Finally they reached the bottom level where the most important prisoners of the realm were kept, and he walked past the lower guardian Oceanborn with a nod.

He took his prisoner to a cell and held up a hand to allow the iron bars to fall away from the stone, then took the girl into the cell and laid her down on her side facing the corner. With some difficulty, he pulled the grate of iron bars away from the cell and replaced them with stone that came up from the ground itself in several pillars, crossing the pillars with bars wound tightly enough that they would tempt her to try and squeeze through, but which would be too tight to actually let her do so.

Finally, he stepped up to the bars and released the hold of the stone over her body, letting it crack in two halves to either side of her, letting her take her first deep breath in almost a full day, then stepped back with a smile to let her get her bearings.

It took Aura some time to get out of the stone, coughing as she was and trying to move limbs that had almost stopped working from the amount of time she had been kept immobile. When she was able to stand she picked up a large piece of rock and threw it at the pillars, but it did absolutely no good. She was still unstable on her feet, especially after the sedation, but she was angry enough to keep trying. “You don’t know what you’ve started!”

“Don’t we?” Marc said, utterly motionless on the other side of the wall he’d put up for her. “The histories tell us a great deal about the Ironborn uprising of seventeen ninety one, when two thousand Ironborn tried to take control of the Council. And then there was the attempted assassinations of eighteen twenty six, in which four hundred Ironborn conspirators were summarily hung in dungeons much like this one and left to starve until the Fulness, for their plots against the Council. And then there was the massacre of nineteen twelve, and the Ironborn raids of the early seventies…” he shrugged. “I think we have a fairly good idea of what’s going on.”

She was so angry that she was trembling, but she didn’t want to speak any more to a thickheaded Stoneborn. When she heard him leave, she slid down the stone and then started to cry quietly, since she knew he wasn’t lying. Their kind had a history of being destroyed whenever they tried to take a legitimate place, and their history spoke of nothing else. Not only did she feel defeated by it, but she felt weak, so completely weak. She hadn’t had a taste of metal all day except for the little that was on her body, and under sedation and then captivity, she couldn’t do any harm with them.

Candra wasn’t used to having someone to talk to other than her masters, especially since the others down the row from her were too often crazed for her to have decent conversation. This new person was across from her, so she could actually see the new prisoner. “He’s right, you know.” She said matter-of-factly. “Except that he didn’t mention that there were always survivors. That’s not the way their collective memory remembers it, though. I don’t blame them.”

Aura was barely able to register that someone was actually talking to her, and when she did, she looked out through the bars to try and figure out who the hell was trying to have a conversation with her. “Who’s there?”

Candra scooted to the edge of her bed and then placed her book properly in her lap, always too polite for her own good, really. She glowed in the darkness, but it was hard to see from even the short distance that separated her from Aura. “My name is Candra. What’s yours?”

Aura looked around her cell seriously wondering if there were cameras and someone was playing a sick joke on her with this demure little waif who apparently thought she was on a rerun of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. “What the hell is this, tea party introductions? What is wrong with you? We’re PRISONERS!!!”

As she bit down on her bottom lip nervously, Candra shook her head. Screaming always bothered her, since her very first master, when she was a pup, did it all the time. He hit her, too, which was what she thought of when she heard Aura screaming at her. “We’re safe down here. No one can touch us when we’re behind these bars. That way no one can ever hurt us. Don’t you see?”

Aura shook her head against her own bars before she hit her forehead against them lightly. “They have royally fucked you up. They actually have convinced you that you’re better off here? Gods, I can only imagine what the hell they’re going to do to me.” She finally stopped bashing her head against the stone and just kind of sat there, unmoving. “My name,” she finally replied, “is Aura.”

That response made Candra smile, which made her glow brighter for only a moment. Enough that Aura could see, but Candra hardly even noticed. “That’s a very pretty name. I heard them talking about you before they brought you down here. The masters sent a messenger to your family, and they told me that I might be able to help with the negotiations once they arrive.”

That terrified Aura but it confused her as well. “Negotiations?” The Council didn’t negotiate, especially not with a kind they were known for perpetually trying to exterminate. “You? Help? What can you do? You’re a brainwashed prisoner.”

Candra’s smile faded a bit at that, and she sighed as she got up and put her book away carefully. It was a new one, so she didn’t want it to get damaged in any way. “I give my master power, but I have to be careful. It burns if I’m not careful.”

“Oh, so you’re a Fireborn. That explains the little burst of light. Got it. Totally not fair that they gave you those books for kindling. Seriously, can you just cut the crap and get me out of here? Melt your bars or something, come on.” She could see that the bars keeping in her friend were metal, or she could feel that they were, but she was much too weak to make them do anything.

Candra moved closer to the bars so that she could see her new friend as well, but it was hard to really see her, so Candra grabbed onto the bars and made them glow to create a little more light. It was enough to see her new friend. “I’m not a Fireborn.”

Aura looked out toward the glowing lights again and as soon as she saw Candra’s eyes, she scrambled to stand up. “Holy…shit. You’re…you’re…“

“Don’t be scared.” Candra said with an expression of sadness. People outside of her masters were always so scared of her, and she just wanted Aura to be her friend. It had been a long time since she’d had anyone to talk to. Quickly Candra pulled her hands away so the glowing would stop. “I just wanted to see what you looked like.”

Zara came down the stairs quietly and stood by as the two women in front of her had a conversation without knowing that she was even there. The longer she stood in their presence, the more she learned about them, how they reacted to each other, the way they spoke. Anything that revealed their personality gave her an edge. When she could tell that Candra was getting a little worked up, though, she finally made her presence known. “Don’t worry, Candra. Aura will still be your friend.”

Aura didn’t know who was talking to them, but as soon as the Heartborn wolf got close, she recognized her from the very first meeting that Aura and Nick had before the Council. There was a slight glow to the entire place that made it possible to still see things or people if they were close enough, and the Heartborn was a little [_too _]close. “Now I’m really fucked. A Lightborn AND a Heartborn?”

Zara couldn’t help but chuckle at a comment that crude, and the sound of Zara’s laughter was comforting to Candra, so Candra just went to her bed and sat down quietly to listen. She was never one to interrupt whenever one of her masters or one of their trusted servants were around. Zara then moved even closer to Aura’s cage to shove her arm in and grab Aura’s before Aura knew to move away. “Let’s see what you’re hiding in those thoughts.”

Aura tried to pull her arm away, but once the Heartborn was touching her, it was like any remaining strength she had was sucked out and she was completely at the Hearborn’s mercy. With a whimper, she felt Zara invade her thoughts, her desires, her dislikes. Everything that made her who she was, Zara was into it all. When Aura was finally released, Zara took a step back and then turned to look at Candra. “We’d better keep a close eye on you, sweet girl. It might get dangerous up there.”

With that tiny statement, Aura was well aware of what the Heartborn was speaking about. Orlando. Orlando had to be coming with Nick for the negotiations, didn’t he? No one told her if Nick even knew that she had been taken. Maybe he had no idea. What did he think? What did Orlando think? Did they wonder if she was even alive? Aura was staring across at the Lightborn she had been convinced didn’t actually exist. If Orlando was coming here…to save her…

Zara finally looked back at Aura, since she could now hear Aura’s thoughts easily after she had essentially raped Aura’s mind with her abilities. “Don’t worry, there’s no way that the Councilors would dare let your demon anywhere NEAR their treasures. And anyway, both your lovers will be dead long before they even realize that you’re down here. That’s the whole point of luring them here. Then, once they’re dead, they plan to take good care of you.” Zara said it in a way that sounded friendly for Candra’s benefit, but Aura knew what the Heartborn really meant.

“Your masters are morons. They should really think twice about who they send engraved invitations to. Seriously.” Aura said with as much confidence as she could muster.

“Are you sure they’ll even come? After what you’ve done to those wolves, you piece of scrap metal?” Zara continued on. She didn’t even know them, but she felt the conflict between Aura, Orlando and Nick quite intimately now that she had tapped into Aura’s thoughts and memories.

Aura didn’t even respond, since she knew no insults or any other matter of speaking with a Heartborn would do any good. Instead she just stared at Candra and remained silent until Zara started backing away toward the exit. “Good luck, Heartborn.” Aura said quietly, since she secretly hoped that Nick would throw a spear right through that wicked purple heart of hers.

Zara bowed and then disappeared as quickly as she came to go back to her own master, leaving Candra and Aura in the quiet, near-darkness. Candra listened to see if anyone else would come in, but they didn’t, so she responded in a low voice. “See? I told you that they would take care of us and keep us safe.”

Aura put her hands up as if she was going to strangle the woman from across the hall, but her fingers just closed on air. “It’s almost like you’re sleeping. Or dreaming. Something. How can you be like this? How can you be so blind to what they’re really doing here? They’re using you for your power!” Aura screamed at the end, frustration boiling over.

Candra frowned again at the yelling. “Of course they’re using my power. That’s how I help them.” She was confused why Aura sounded like she was accusing her of something, but she tried to keep the conversation light.

Aura hit the back of her head against a pillar as she turned around and faced the opposite direction away from Candra. “Horror movies make it obvious that you shouldn’t go in the basement, but they never give any hints as to how to get OUT once you’ve been dragged IN. This is worse. I’m in the basement with a flashlight that is blinding me instead of one that can show me the way out.” She hit her head against the pillar again as she sighed. “And this is what I get for having two boyfriends at once. Thank you, universe, for punishing me for all the great sex I’ve been having. I knew it was too good to be true.” Aura said bitterly, since she knew she was being punished by some god for loving both Orlando and Nick at once.

Candra was even more confused, but this time she stayed quiet. Maybe things would be better in the morning once her new friend had time to settle in.

**************

The man looked at the slip of paper in his hand and wound his way through the streets nervously, all the time muttering to himself. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe I’m doing this.” But whenever he thought he would actually turn around and leave, he felt in his pocket for the ridiculous sum of money he’d been given just to run one errand. It was more than he made in a month, for an hour’s work. Or at least that’s what he hoped it would end up being. Deals like the one he’d taken never ended well in the movies he watched.

He turned a corner and counted the doors as he walked down the street, then went up to one and tried to open it, still incredibly nervous, but it did open onto a dark landing, with a set of stairs leading down below street level. He gulped, as every horror movie he’d ever seen flashed through his mind at once. He kept going down the stairs, since they had, after all, been on the directions, and when he heard the sounds of a pool below and saw lights flickering through water, he knew he’d found the right place, though that didn’t make him feel any better.

“Hello?” He called testily into the darkness as he rounded the last corner, and the huge pool spread out before him. “Is anybody there?”

Teresa heard the echo, though muffled, through the water and then finally surfaced. Her eyes looked even more dangerous with the water beneath her, and when she answered, her voice traveled through the water toward the man. “Somebody is here, yes.”

He took an involuntary step backwards as the woman surfaced, since he hadn’t seen her there. “Are…are you Teresa?”

“Depends on who is asking.”

“I have a message for someone named Teresa. I’m…supposed to say that it’s from a recent shady and steely acquaintance.”

“Indeed?” She came out of the water completely naked, as usual, and she waited to get her towel just because she liked to feel the water drip down her body. “What’s the message?”

He didn’t answer for a solid minute, just staring at her against his better judgment, a little appalled and a long way beyond amazed at what he was seeing. When he knew the image of her was well and truly burned into his mind to be recalled on demand at a later date, he cleared his throat before he spoke. “I’m supposed to tell you that your friends are outside the city.” He held out the piece of paper in his hand, which was a map. “They said for me to tell you that they hope you’re still their friend after everything that’s happened.”

She took her time drying off her hair and then she walked over to him to take the map from his hand. “Are they expecting a return message? Or am I supposed to meet them somewhere?” When she was up close he could see that her eyes were just as beautiful as the rest of her, a deep blue that was so unnatural it couldn’t be anything but stunning.

He didn’t take his eyes off hers once he saw them, getting lost in the moment at the same time as he questioned whether someone might have slipped something in his drink earlier that day. “They told me to return any massage…er…message you want me to take them, but if there isn’t one, then they’ll wait for you to come. Get there. Go see them, I mean.”

Teresa smirked and then stepped a little bit closer to him. Humans could be so much fun to toy with sometimes. “Are you a friend of theirs?”

“They found me at the college. Asked me if I wanted to earn some money really quick. It…seemed harmless. Just give you a message, bring one back.” He shrugged with a tentative smile, eyes still glued to hers.

She leaned in so that her damp hair brushed against his cheek and her body got dangerously close to his. Teresa’s voice dropped to a whisper as her lips hovered by his ear. “You can tell them that I’d love to join them.”

Teresa could feel his breathing quicken, but he didn’t dare move. There was something dangerous beyond belief about a woman as bold as she was, and he knew without needing to be told that whoever she was, he couldn’t handle her. “Can I…tell them when?”

“I don’t know, can you?”

He felt immediately like he was back in primary school with his teacher asking him the same question, but while the teacher in question had been lovely, she was nothing compared to the dripping incarnation of beauty in front of him, backlit by the pool lights. “I’ll tell them anything you want me to.”

Teresa actually laughed softly and then she took a few steps back away from him. “You’re cute. You tell them that I’ll meet them in two hours.”

He nodded, then felt strangely as though he ought to be bowing, but he restrained himself as he stepped backward. “Sure…I can do that.” He looked her over again nervously, then stepped back to the stairs before thinking better of it, and turned around to ask permission. “I’ll…go now, then?”

“Do you want to go now? It doesn’t matter to me. You can stay if you like.”

He looked at her again for a while, then thought back to the people who had hired him, and silently cursed. “I should…probably go. The ones that sent me here looked pretty pissed off.”

“Yes, I’m sure they did.” She nodded and then dove back into the pool, since she didn’t really want to come out in the first place. When she came back up, she looked at him once more. “Goodbye, then.”

He took one last look and sighed, then turned around with regret and headed back up the stairs quickly to deliver his message.

XVII

A little more than two hours later, Teresa was wandering around the edges of the city, where she’d been informed her shady and steely friends would be. As she wandered past a long fence on the far side of a building, a wide hole opened up, large enough for her to step through. On the other side, she could see two figures, one of whom she had met before. The other she recognized only by the fact that his eyes matched the gathering night above them and she’d seen him from a distance in the Council chamber.

They seemed like they were alone, but the area was half forest and half outlying homes, and there were any number of places to hide guards. Nick was gracious enough to nod respectfully when she came in sight. “Thank you for coming, Councilor.”

She looked around and then nodded off in a direction where she knew it was less likely for them to be seen. Once they made it to the edge of a nearby pond, she sat down on a large boulder and then finally responded. “People are out looking for you. You need to make this meeting quick.”

“We will, for your safety and ours.” They stayed on the edges of the pond, not even getting their feet wet. Orlando stayed on guard while Nick spoke to her in quiet tones. “Where are they keeping her?”

Teresa sighed and then actually looked a little hurt instead of her usual placid expression of confidence. “I don’t know where, exactly. I know it’s underneath the meeting room where you made your appearance, but ever since I tried to support your cause, they’ve kept me out, along with a few of the others. Even after the battle that killed some of our own. You still have supporters, but very few, and we have to remain quiet about it. I think that they deserved what they got, if history means anything. That’s beside the point. I don’t know how far down the tunnels go beneath the meeting rooms, but there are guards of every color down there.”

“But it’s accessible through the Council chamber itself?” Orlando actually hadn’t known whether she would know where they were being kept or not, and the fact that she did put hope back into his eyes for the first time in days.

“There are several doors that you have to go through behind the two central chairs. I’ve never been down there myself, so I can’t really give you much information about it.” Teresa said with a quiet sigh.

“If the hinges are made of brass and steel, I can’t imagine doors will be much of a problem.” Orlando said as he looked over at Nick, who just nodded and didn’t break eye contact with Teresa. “What friends you have, I’d advise you to get them quietly away from the Council building. As quickly as possible.”

She stood up from the boulder and then started walking away slowly. “They’re rallying the Earthborn and the Stoneborn to attack you first. Stay away from any paths that slope, and stick to the woods. The Forestborn aren’t nearly as motivated about this as the Earth and Stoneborn, and they’re much more merciful.”

“How willing would you bet they are to bring their own Council building down on us?” Nick asked cautiously. She had said to keep the meeting short, and he’d gotten and received everything he needed.

Teresa stopped for a moment to meet Nick’s eyes so that he really heard her as she responded. “They will do whatever it takes to destroy you.”

“Then maybe I have more in common with them than I previously thought.” He didn’t smile as he said it, but he did bow very slightly to her. “I hope we talk again soon, Councilor, on the other side of the next twenty-four hours.”

She nodded and then she looked over at Orlando before she motioned to Nick to come closer. He saw the look, and looked at Orlando as well, but did come closer, since he did trust her more than he trusted nearly anyone else outside his own pack. Teresa dropped her voice as low as she could, since she felt it was very important for Orlando not to hear. She knew that Orlando was somewhat trustworthy, but the news she needed Nick to know was not for Orlando. In fact, if any wolf wanted to survive to the natural end of their lives, Orlando must never meet the match to his kind. “The Lightborn are very real, Nickel. I don’t know where Coren keeps them, but I know they’re here. If you want anyone to survive at all, including Aura, you must keep a careful eye on your friend.”

That completely floored him, since he hadn’t even considered the possibility in a very long time, and his voice dropped to her level. “Why on him? The Lightborn are the ones that are supposedly the end of creation.”

“Do you know what he can do?”

Nick’s voice dropped to an even thinner whisper, as he glanced sideways at Orlando again. “I was there on the road from Geneva. I saw what he can do.”

“If he were to find a Lightborn, he would be able to rely on an infinite power source without even the remote possibility of being overloaded. Everyone would die except for the two of them.” She said simply, since the facts didn’t need any elaboration.

“Just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they will.” Nick might not like Orlando very much, but he didn’t think he was a mass murderer by nature either.

“It’s not a choice when the two kinds come together. That’s why he’s known as a demon. He won’t be able to resist.”

“I’ll keep watch on him. Thank you for your warning.” He looked back at Orlando a little hesitantly, but the Shadowborn was still on the lookout and either oblivious to their conversation or intentionally giving them space to talk.

Teresa stood close to him and then put her finger under Nick’s chin to force him to look back at her. She stared into his eyes for a moment until her own burned with tears and then she pulled away her hand and turned sharply with a final warning. “Don’t hold anything back.”

Nick watched her go for a moment as he felt the emotion in her voice settle through him, adding the weight of her reasons to the iron resolve he already had to win the fight to come. Remembering the emotion she’d showed them in the room with her private pool, he considered the fact that what they were doing, the entire purpose for their lives, the mission they had come on, was not just for the Ironborn. It was for everyone touched by the steel in their blood. Their families, their friends, their loved ones, even a highborn Council member grieving over a life that nothing could give back to her. As he turned back to join Orlando, his step was just that much more certain, and his fists clenched that much tighter with his resolve. He went back to Orlando and just kept walking past him, the Shadowborn falling into step next to him on the way along the fence. “Good talk?”

“Good enough.” Nick said under his breath as they were joined by several other Ironborn guards who melted out of the shadows as they walked. “We can’t put this off too long. The longer we stay here, the longer they have to find us before we can attack.”

“Then let’s stop putting it off. We know where they are, we know they won’t be in session…”

“We wait until morning.” Nick said with the authority of an Alpha in his voice that would brook no discussion. “An hour before sunrise.”

**************

The lack of sunrise or sunset visible to them made it impossible for Aura to tell how much time had passed since she had been taken prisoner. She could tell that something was going on, though, since she woke up to the sound of Coren speaking softly to Candra. He was talking to Candra with a loving and sweet tone of voice that had a lilt to it ,as though he was speaking to one of his young pups. Aura didn’t want any attention brought on to herself, so she remained quiet and unmoving until after it was clear that Coren was gone. “Candra?”

“Aura?” Candra sounded excited at the fact that Aura was actually speaking to her. Too excited, really, but it was clear that Candra didn’t have many friends. Any friends at all, really. “You woke up a little too late. My master just left. I wish you could have met him.”

Aura growled a little since she wanted to say everything she felt about Coren, but it was clear that Candra wouldn’t agree with her sentiments about the Lightborn idiot’s master. “I haven’t seen him down here yet. Does he come down a lot?”

Candra shook her head even though it was a bit hard for Aura to see her in the shadows of her comfy-looking cell. She was slightly weakened, and so she wasn’t glowing as much as she normally did, which wasn’t that much in the first place. “He comes down every once in awhile. Today he said he’s preparing to fight a big battle to keep me safe. Don’t I have a wonderful master?”

“A big battle???” Aura was terrified by the thought, and it came through her voice easily enough. “A battle with who? Did he say?”

Candra shook her head again, but the fear she heard in Aura’s voice was more than enough to upset her. “Don’t worry.” She tried to say confidently. “No one knows where we are. They won’t hurt us because they can’t find us.”

That made Aura even more brokenhearted, and she started to cry into the stone pillar that was very much her cage. “We need to get out, Candra. Lots of people are going to die out there, maybe people that I love!”

“We’re safe in here.” Candra repeated, since she had been told as much over and over again throughout the last several years of her life. “We’ll be safe.”

Aura pulled her knees up close to her chest and then tired to think about anything else. Anything other than the fact that she could be the last Ironborn to survive whatever Coren was planning. “Please,” she muttered through her tears as she tilted her face upward, speaking to the gods she believed in. “Save our kind. Save us.”

**************

Nick walked among his people in the large conference hall they had invaded in the middle of the night where they were all hiding. As he walked into the building, he was amazed by the silence above everything else. The place seemed like any other building at night, abandoned during the hours of darkness and sleeping with the rest of the human population. But as he and Orlando and his personal guard stepped through into the huge conference hall itself, it was obvious the building was anything but abandoned. There were almost a thousand wolves present, but their discipline kept them silent as they huddled in groups all around the floor.

Not all present were Ironborn, either, though most were. Some of the independent wolves that had answered their silent call for volunteers had brought their families and their loved ones for the fight, and there were wolves of almost every color present. But the vast majority were Ironborn. The Children of the Iron Moon, as his parents had called them while Nick was a child.

Orlando hung back near the entrance as all present gave him mixed and distrusting looks, but most of the huge gathering was focused on Nick. He was the Alpha. These were his people now, and everyone was there fighting under his command. Orlando felt more sorry for the man than he had in days, but Nick never faltered as he walked out among them, speaking in normal tones but still audible throughout the hall because of the silence.

“You Skyborn here, I ask that you be sure that everyone can hear me, and I express my gratitude for your support.” He paused as a few wolves with bright blue eyes moved closer to obey his command, and when they settled, he continued, his voice echoing in a whisper around the room.

“The Council knows we have come, and they know better than to think I am just going to bare my neck so they can take my head for a souvenir. We’ve learned that the fiercest defenders here in Geneva are the Earthborn and the Stoneborn. Many of their Fireborn fighters we reduced to ashes on the road home a few weeks ago the first time they underestimated us.” There were a few chuckles around the room from those who had been present that day, and Nick smiled at them, encouraging their confidence.

“Aura is being kept in prison cells located somewhere beneath the Council chambers themselves. We don’t know how the guards are laid out over the city, but I want everyone in position by four thirty. When the signal is given, you all have your orders. What we need most is to draw the guards away from the center. As long as you can do that, don’t risk open contention unless you’re sure you have the upper hand. Draw them out. If they turn tail and head back into town, put a bullet in their ass as they run away. I imagine they won’t enjoy that.” That got more laughs, and a wider smile from Nick.

“Today the Council loses on its own ground. Today they begin to understand how badly they have underestimated us. And we are the ones who will teach them. I will see each and every one of you after sunrise, when we will go home with all our loved ones and leave the Council with memories of steel that they will never forget.”

The entire room began shaking slowly, as every single throat began to growl one after the other, until it was a soft, quiet roar that foretold the violence to come. Everyone was with him, everyone knew their purpose, and every tooth and claw in the room was eager for blood.

Nick turned around and went to Orlando as they left the room, headed back into town, and Orlando nodded as he walked beside his unlikely friend. “Nice speech.”

“It’ll be nicer in about twelve hours.”

Orlando nodded. “It certainly will.”

**************

Groups gathered in places all over the city that had as little human exposure as possible, staying to the shadows and staying out of sight, but the movements of so many people could only be kept so quiet. Nick and Orlando managed to get into the center of town a few blocks away from the Council building, both of them wrapped in trenchcoats from neck to toe. The other dozen Ironborn guards that had volunteered to go with them into the lion’s den waited behind them in a van as they got out and walked towards the office building nearby. “Are you sure you’re ready for this, Nick?” Orlando asked as they walked along the side of the old brick building. “I’ve seen you kill before, but this is war.”

Nick didn’t even flinch or look back at him as he answered, and Orlando could tell it was because the question wasn’t new to him. He’d been asking himself the same thing all day. “This is a war I didn’t start. But I do intend to see it through to the end.”

Orlando nodded. “I can respect that.” They got to the side of the building where the utilities came down off the disorganized pole along an alley and he stopped, looking Nick over and realizing just how young he really was. Still so idealistic it was almost amazing. “Just know that war changes things. All things.”

Nick nodded with a growl. “For the better. We’ll make sure of that. Let’s see this done. It’s time.”

Orlando took off the gloves he’d been wearing and put his hand up on the electrical box next to him, closing his eyes as Nick peeled back the metal casing for him to reveal the wires beneath. He took a handful of them and actually moaned once at the surge of power through him, gritting his teeth afterwards. He took a tighter grip on the cords and Nick could see sparks flying all over the man’s body as he made himself another part of the city’s electrical mainframe itself, drawing in massive amounts of power so fast that any other creature would have been dead before they could have even screamed. It only lasted a few minutes before Orlando gave a final growl, completely overwhelmed by what he was feeling, and screamed once, as sparks flew off of every transformer over their heads, and every streetlight around them, and indeed every streetlight in the city, blinked out at once.

The entire city went completely blind in a heartbeat, and Orlando pulled his hand away from the cords with some difficulty. “Gods of the abyss, I need to do that more often.”

As Nick looked at him, he could’ve sworn he actually saw some hint of color flickering in Orlando’s eyes, but it was too dark to tell, and they had other concerns. “Come on, we have to move fast.” Orlando set off at a run next to Nick, as the other Iron Guard members rushed out of the van to join them sprinting down the street.

All over the city, the Ironborn and their friends sent up a howl all at once as the lights went dark. It was a bone-chilling but forgettable occurrence for the humans in the vicinity, but a clear challenge to any other wolves in the area. The Earthborn and Stoneborn guards posted throughout the city began to come out in force, in tightly regimented groups under strict control, to confront them, and in a dozen areas of the city, the war began in earnest. The city was turned upside down in patches with the violence of the meeting. Most of them had completely ignored what Nick said about avoiding a fight, but he had known they would. They were Ironborn. Steel was in their soul, and steel didn’t know how to retreat.

As Nick and Orlando entered the square in front of the entrance to the Council chambers, they all came to a halt as the very stones of the square began rising up, more than three hundred Stoneborn getting to their feet with smiles on their face to meet them. It was clear they had expected a charge from the Ironborn, as they had received on the road outside the city, but Nick and the other guards came to a skidding halt as Orlando barreled forward, unable and unwilling to stop himself, he was so filled with power. By the time the Stoneborn in the square realized what was happening, it was almost too late, and Orlando’s power lanced across a hundred yards of open ground with the accuracy of a sniper rifle directly through their hearts.

His power leapt from one Stoneborn to another in a chain reaction of death, and he actually slowed in the midst of it, both hands out, palm up as if he were giving the Stoneborn a generous gift of mortality. He began laughing maniacally with a pitch that rose quickly to a scream, unable to contain himself even though he knew full well that secrecy was of the utmost importance. There was nothing to do but follow him through. He missed several of those attacking him, and they tripped up the ground in front of him and nearly crushed him under a thrown stone fountain, but a woman of the Guard was there to push him aside and broke the stone’s fall before it crushed them. Orlando’s power shocked her without his meaning to, and the woman crumpled, but was still alive. Orlando didn’t even look back, running alongside Nick towards the Council building’s steps.

Surprisingly enough, once they made it past the first wave, there was no one stopping Nick and Orlando as soon as they stepped inside. It was kind of the point for the two of them to make it inside once the attack had begun, since Coren and Alina were very much aware of the fact that Nick was someone the Ironborn followed. No one in the Council knew that he was now the Alpha, but they knew he was important. The rest of his guards were occupied with the fight outside the doors of the building, but the inside was eerily quiet as they walked in and made their way down the endless halls toward the Council chamber.

Halfway to the chamber, Orlando stopped Nick with a hand on his shoulder, and Nick twitched several times angrily before stood still, listening. Orlando nodded off in one direction, and Nick nodded, continuing on toward the chamber alone. A few moments later, he heard a zap split the silence, followed by a body collapsing to the floor. But when he looked back, the shadow following him at a distance was Orlando, looking out to the side hallways to make sure there were no more fighters lying in wait.

Just as Nick stepped through the door of the chamber itself, he looked to the side and saw a pair of violet eyes looking back at him. “Nickel.” Zara stood there with her hands up in the air, proving instantly that she had no weapon and showing that their crossing of paths was purely by accident. It was like she was seeing him for the first time, after having seen so much of him in Aura’s memories, and she felt slightly connected to him through them. The expression on her face, the concern and fear, seemed to be solid proof that she was innocent of whatever he might possibly accuse her of. She was a servant, after all, always in the background and never allowed on the Council, despite her purity. Who could say that she didn’t also have an axe to grind?

Nick growled once, more to let Orlando know from down the hall that he’d found something than in actual anger, and didn’t look away from her, though the metal he’d been holding and using as a crowbar changed shape into a short spear as he glared at her. “You stay out of my head or I will feed you your own heart.”

He heard a scuffle start outside, and so Orlando was obviously occupied for the moment, but it didn’t sound like anything Orlando couldn’t handle. Zara looked back at the sound of fighting, then up at Nick again, and she dropped her voice to a whisper. “I know where she is. I’ve seen her.”

“Where?” Nick was still eyeing her warily, checking the rest of her body to make sure she was telling the truth about being unarmed. Heartborn were by far the least violent of the bloodlines, but that didn’t mean they weren’t capable of it when it was necessary.

Zara pointed across the chamber to the central door behind the thrones. She then hurried in front of him and then pulled out a key that hung around her neck and unlocked it, even though as an Ironborn, he could have done it himself. “There are guards down every floor. Every type of wolf recognized by the Council.”

“So I’ve heard.” He didn’t trust her in the slightest, and the fact that she was opening the door just made him think he was actually in the wrong place after all. For a moment, he wondered if they’d been completely misled by everyone. By Teresa, by the messenger who had come to them, by the Heartborn in front of him. But there was nothing for it but to see it to the end. “Get out.”

Zara backed away slowly toward the confrontation behind her, and she flinched at the sounds of the fight behind her. “Death is so devastating.” She said in a whisper that actually sounded painful. For her, death was more painful than it was to anyone else. It cut people away from her, and her very power thrived on the relationships people had with each other. Good or bad. She backed all the way up to the wall that held the door he had first walked through. “Why are you even here to save her? You started a war for someone that doesn’t even want you.” Amazingly enough, Zara looked more hurt about the truth of it than anything else. It was like she was hurting for him.

As much as Nick wished he could say otherwise, her words cut him more deeply than anything else could have. Shaken, but still resolved, he glanced back at the door she had opened, then glared back at her. “Tell whatever lies your Council masters have trained you to tell me, witch. You don’t know her.”

“They don’t even know where I am.” She whimpered very softly as a single tear slipped down her face. “I thought that if I helped them for long enough, they’d let me in. But they hate me as much as they hate you.” She spat a little too forcefully, proving that she felt just as scorned as he actually was. Zara shook her head and looked back where Orlando was. “She wants him. The Council doesn’t want you, and neither does she. You need to save yourself and your pack.”

“One more word and you’ll no longer have a mouth to speak with.” The spear in his hand formed itself around his wrist, making it look like he was about to punch a hole through a wall with it, and the anger in his eyes was enough to let her knew that he had considered it. “You don’t know the first thing about what I need.”

Orlando finished up with those that had been pursuing them as he said so, and he came over near the door, lightning still running back and forth between his fingers as he stared down the Heartborn a few steps away, wondering why Nick was even indulging her in conversation.

Zara looked at Orlando with genuine fear in her eyes. “It’s true. Tell him it’s true. That’s why she was outside the fence, she was trying to figure out what to tell Nick.” She locked her gaze with his accusingly. “It’s your fault they have her. Everything is your fault.”

“It usually is.” Orlando said with a growl, and didn’t look at Nick for permission before he balled up his fist and punched her square in the face. He wasn’t the strongest of wolves physically, but he was strong enough to knock out a smaller and weaker woman with a single punch at least. Her nose would probably be broken when she woke as well, but he didn’t care about that, just watching to make sure she didn’t get up again as she fell to the floor. When it was obvious she was out cold, he turned back to Nick and headed into the hallway. “Come on, we’ve gotta get moving.”

Nick was a little slower in doing so, but he had enough forethought to take the door between the hallway and the Council chamber and seal it shut against the rock with more than just a lock. But he didn’t follow. “Is it true?”

Orlando sighed as he reached the far door, standing back behind it to make sure he was out of range of anyone coming back up through it. “Does it matter right now? Aura’s down there, imprisoned. Are you really going to walk away without rescuing her now, no matter what the answer is?”

Nick stared him down for a few moments without speaking. He would have just denied it outright if it wasn’t true. Anger rose up in him as all of his thoughts of Aura came crashing down around him, and the world seemed to lose whatever bottom it once had beneath him. He had no more zest for the fight, and if he were being honest, he felt like sitting down in the hallway and just waiting for the Council to be in session again, so that he could put his neck at their mercy as he’d said he wouldn’t do earlier.

When he didn’t respond, Orlando glared at him even more darkly. “Does your love for her really depend on whether or not she chose you? Is that going to be enough for you to tuck your tail between your legs and go belly-up, you coward?”

That word alone was enough to send Nick hurtling through the air towards Orlando, his hands clasping around the man’s throat as they both tumbled to the floor. Orlando was sputtering even as the sparks ran instinctively up and down Nick’s arms along the metal covering his skin. It made Nick’s muscles twitch and jerk, but it only tightened his hold on the Shadowborn’s windpipe. The entire time, though, Orlando didn’t even struggle, just allowed Nick to bear him to the ground, where he finally looked up at Nick with open and calm eyes. He spoke in choked breaths, barely able to get the words out through clenched teeth. “Kill me and you don’t have a chance alone. You know that.”

Nick’s grip intensified a little more, as his teeth actually gaped open as if he was going to rip Orlando’s throat out with his canines, but after a long moment, he slowly let go and stood up, and started running down the hall without waiting for Orlando to catch up.

**************

Aura could hear stone shattering above them, as well as all sorts of other noises that shook the very ground that they were surrounded with. Somewhere nearby there were Earthborn throwing everything they had into the battle, and Aura was sure that if they threw any more into it she and Candra would be part of the debris. “Now what? You still think we’re safe in here?”

Candra was obviously afraid, but she sounded much more confident than she really was. “My master has never let me down before.”

“Yeah, well, he’s kind of a liar. You are a slave. A toy. A CHARGER. He doesn’t care about you any more than he cares about anything that isn’t Alina or made of water. You are nothing to him.”

Candra glowed a little brighter, but this time it was out of anger. “Stop. Stop saying those things. You’re the liar!!”

Aura was bored already with Candra’s outburst. “Yeah, well, when you’re crushed under one of Alina’s rocks, then maybe you’ll get it through your skull.” She was both afraid and angry that she was trapped in a cell made of stone, and she couldn’t find it in her to care about hurting Candra’s feelings. She needed to get out. They both needed to get out. Desperately.

The sounds of battle continued above them for seemed like hours, but might have only been minutes. Over time, they quieted, though there was a different kind of rushing close by. It went on for a long few minutes, then both of them saw water beginning to spread along the floor toward them. Something above in the entry stairway had broken and was spilling over. From where Aura was standing, she could see some of the iron bars of the cells across the room begin to spark as the water reached them, though the flashes were so tiny anyone else would probably have missed them.

“Hey, Candra?” She tried to say calmly. “Get up on your bed.” The beds themselves were shaped out of stone with a mattress on top of them. “And don’t move.”

Aura got up on her bed as well and watched as the water moved closer. She couldn’t help but flinch at the water, though, since it made her think of Coren, and the fact that he could use it just as much as Orlando could. “I’m in here!” She screamed anyway. She wanted so desperately to see Orlando’s face and to know that he and Nick were okay. “I’m in here!!!”

“Aura!!!” Nick’s voice echoed down the hall from a long distance. After a few moments, she heard his footsteps getting closer, and she could hear a door squeal open at the far end of the room, but it slammed shut again a moment later, with a loud splash of water behind it. Footsteps came sloshing up the walkway, and she saw Nick looking back and forth between the cells, though as soon as he saw the stone bars in the front of hers, he stepped slowly up towards her. He was bloodied all over, and the outer edge of his right arm was burned in places. He honestly looked like a monster out of a horror movie aside from the look in his eyes that let her know it was really Nick she was looking at. He was limping as he approached her cell, and there was a kind of pleading in his eyes as he met hers. “Aura…”

She ran up to the stone and reached out as far as she could through it, though she still couldn’t touch him. “You’re alive!!!”

Nick was leaning against the thick stone bars with his hands, but he didn’t get any closer than that, just barely keeping himself standing. When he spoke, the words were an exhausted sigh. “Don’t sound so shocked.”

Aura backed away slightly as soon as she realized he wasn’t getting any closer. “How did you get in? Get past all the people?”

“Everyone is here. Almost the entire pack. We need to get you out of here.” He stepped over to one of the other unoccupied cells and slowly started pulling the metal off into a huge hammer, but it was taking him some time to form it because he was so exhausted. In the process, he saw the cell across from her, apportioned almost comfortably. “What is this, a dungeon of studio apartments?”

As Aura watched him struggle and her anger started to boil at the fact that she couldn’t help him, she was struck with an idea. “Hey, Candra.” It was only after she said something across to the cell that he was looking at that he realized someone was in it, but scared as Candra was, she was back at the edge of her bed and almost falling off of it, not wanting to touch the floor because of Aura’s warning, but wanting to be as far away from the bloody monster in front of her as possible. “Can you help Nick with something?” Nick looked at Aura and then across at the comfortable cell, confused. If there was an Ironborn in the cell, why didn’t they just walk out through the bars?

“Is he going to hurt me? Master told me never to share…”

“He won’t hurt you.” Aura said confidently. “I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you, Candra. We’re friends, remember?” Candra nodded, but she was still hesitant as she crept up closer to the bars, and once she was close enough, Nick could see her glow. And then her eyes.

She had her hand on his arm by the time the color of her eyes really registered on his hazy sight, and by then it was too late to pull away. The rush of power from her took his breath away, and he struggled just to take another breath as he felt it cascade through him. “Dear…gods of…silver and gold…” he choked a little, struggling to even stay upright as he held to the iron bars of her cell. They were shaping around his hands and arms of their own accord, drawn like a large webbed magnet to the swiftly-rising power within him.

Candra only pulled away when she knew he couldn’t take any more, since she had been trained to know when enough was enough. She was terrified by what he had done to her bars, though, since she had never seen anything like it and she quickly retreated back into the corner of her cell, standing in the water that was at her ankles. “Please don’t hurt me.”

He ripped the remains of the bars out of the walls with one fluid motion, and they formed themselves into huge steel hammers around both his hands. He gave her a feral look for a single moment, then turned around, half-mad with more power than he’d ever felt in his entire life, and started wailing against the stone that was keeping Aura imprisoned. He hesitated long enough to let her get to the back of the cell before he did, but in only a few blows, he had shattered the stones into dust, throwing the iron around his hands to the ground afterwards, unable to hang onto it any longer because it was just too much. He was only barely staying human as he turned to look at Aura, breathing heavily.

Aura met his eyes and then held his gaze. “They need the animal you are right now.” She trembled as she watched him, since she wanted to hug him so badly. She wanted to be support him, be his best friend and fight by his side, but she couldn’t leave Candra. “You saved my life. Again. I owe you.”

“You don’t owe me anything.” He said almost gruffly, and though she was now holding his hand, he wasn’t drawing her in closer. He did, however, give her plenty of the power he’d just taken from Candra, and was glad to be rid of it.

As he did, there was a jolt that went through the water at their feet, and they heard something spark at the other end of the hall. Again and again it happened, until the wooden door at the far end was in flames, burning quickly through from the other side.

“You came together?” She was surprised by that fact, but the look on her face was undeniable. She was just as happy and relieved to see Orlando was alive. Slowly she let go of Nick’s hand and stepped toward the flaming door. “Orlando?”

When the door had almost burned through, a stone came crashing through it, and Orlando stepped through the hole that was left behind. He looked a great deal better than Nick did, but he still had some cuts and obvious burns on his face and torso. His shirt was in charred shreds, and the burns were much worse along his chest, but he was walking at least.

Nick was just looking down at the water that was filling the floor, past the hand that Aura had just dropped. He didn’t even look up at Orlando as he came in, nor did Orlando look at him. Instead, Orlando just went for Aura and put his hands on her arms, wishing he could hug her, but he was in too much pain to do so at the moment. “I’m sorry it took us so long to get here.” He said as he struggled to speak. It made him wince to talk, but holding her again made him too happy not to. “You wouldn’t…believe the traffic.”

Aura reached up and touched the side of his face gently, smiling despite the entire situation. “I’m glad you made it through.”

He nodded heavily, then took her hand and looked around. “Come on, we need to get out of here. Is there anyone else down here in need of a good jailbreak?” He saw the other cells, some of them brightly lit, but he couldn’t see anyone inside, and started looking at some of the others, moving slightly past her.

“Just my friend.” She wasn’t really thinking as she looked back and called out. “Candra? Come on! We’re going to get somewhere safe. No one is going to hurt you, I promise.”

Candra was hesitant, but she grabbed her favorite book off the shelf to save it from the rising water and went to follow her friend out. Maybe Aura would help her find her master before he got hurt, since getting hurt was apparently happening a lot. The man she’d touched was covered in blood and had obviously just stepped out of the battle they’d been listening to for hours.

The sound of Candra’s name shook Nick out of his stupor, and he looked back at the Lightborn in the cell across from him, then at the Shadowborn that Aura had chosen over him, and put out a hand as he tried to jump between them. “No, no, wait!!!”

Candra had already stepped out of her cell, though, and while she was sacred of Nick, she looked around for Aura to protect her. When she looked around for Aura, though, she only saw her friend for a brief moment as she met the eyes of the man standing next to her.

As she met his eyes, Orlando froze, every muscle in his body seeming to cry out in a kind of exultant panic at once. His eyes widened by degrees, but still as she looked at him, there was no color to be found in them, only the emptiness of his nature. He could see the soft glow of her skin, dimmed somewhat by the simple clothing she was wearing but shining vibrantly from her face and hands. The longer he looked at her, the more he felt a kind of pull towards her, as if there was some part of him that had known she was there all along, and which was crying out to him to get closer.

Though Candra had never been told of a wolf with purely dark eyes actually existing, she had read about them in some of her books. She read that they were demons, but that they were the perfect match for someone like her. Candra wanted to feel a closeness with someone like that, someone meant for her. The darkness in his eyes drew something out of her without a single thought from her, and she could feel herself radiating light, as if her hands were crying out to touch the darkness her eyes couldn’t look away from. She was drawn to him, and she took a step closer. The longer they stood there, staring at each other, the more they seemed to connect. Almost as if they were creating a silent bond that was fusing the two of them together, changing them into the match for the other.

Aura watched and felt her heart start to shatter as Orlando let go of her hand to walk closer to Candra like a man hypnotized. She couldn’t even say anything as she watched Candra’s expression, as she watched the two of them gravitate toward the other. It was unnatural, and yet the most natural thing in the world.

Nick looked over at Aura, distracted by the pain in her eyes, and hopelessness cascaded through him like an avalanche of coldest iron. There was nothing he could do now. He had failed Aura, and he had failed Teresa. She had warned him of what would happen. He took a final look at Orlando and Candra, and tried desperately to run through the water to get between Aura and the impossible pair, to protect her from what was coming, but the water made it harder to move, and he knew he wasn’t going to make it.

Candra stretched out her hand as real life turned into slow motion. Their eyes remained connected, and she felt her pulse quicken at the closeness between their fingertips. “You’re not just in books. You’re real.” She whispered.

“And you…” He said as though everything he needed to say was in just those words. As if in a dream, Orlando’s feet moved slowly through the water towards something that he’d heard about all his life but never believed in. A person that the gods had placed in the world to be the answer to the emptiness within him. An insatiable need could never be satisfied except by an abundance that could never be depleted. Slowly, as he walked, his hand rose of its own accord towards Candra’s, his fingertips reaching out as though he had to touch the dream to be sure it was real.

With only a few inches between his hand and hers, the soft glow of the light from her fingers finally touched his, and the air between them ignited with a single arc that bridged the space. After the arc connected them, Candra could feel the rest of his jolt run all the way through her body as though it was commanding her abundance of light out of her veins and directing it into his. All she could do was tip back her head with a growl of relief, consciously giving him the power he thirsted for, and the air all around them erupted in a cloud of sparks and threads of electricity that lit up the entire room. At the center of it, they heard nothing, but felt everything. Every spark. Every fiber of their bodies and power firing to respond to the other.

And there was no going back.

  • *

The story continues in

The Heartborn Mate

Coming June 2012

About the Authors

Dawn Edelen is an avid Young Adult reader and a graduate of Brigham Young University in English, currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Library Science from Emporia State University. She lives in Olathe, Kansas with her dog Dyra and a collection of books that she swears has become self-aware and refuses to be contained by traditional bookshelving methods.

Dave Brumbley lives in Hockessin, Delaware, graduated from East Carolina University with a Bachelor’s in English and is so close to completing his Master’s in English from Salisbury University that he can taste it. After that, he will be pursuing a Ph.D. in either creative writing or movie quotes, whichever program he finds first.


The Ironborn Claim

The pack had Aura's life planned out even before she opened her Ironborn hazel eyes as a puppy. She was to grow up in their exclusively werewolf society, learn the ways of her people, with their ability to shape and bend metals to their will. Later, when she was old enough, she would be mated to Nick, the Alpha's son, and go to Geneva, to confront the ruling Council of wolves, and demand a seat to represent the Ironborn alongside the other six most common elements. Aura and Nick are, as far as anyone knows, the first seventh-generation Ironborn ever to exist, making them the only wolves of their kind who can stand up and claim legitimacy for their people. No pressure. But when the plans of her pack close in around her, Aura has to make a choice, not only between her life of freedom and her duty to her people, but between the honorable man she knows her heart should belong to and the deadly and powerful wolf who has begun to steal it for his own.

  • Author: Dawn Brumbley
  • Published: 2017-07-19 05:35:27
  • Words: 116921
The Ironborn Claim The Ironborn Claim