26 of March 2021 – 3:58 PM
I inspected my hand; while the agonizing pain was gone, the scar remained, though no longer raised. It was smooth and spread across my palm like a web of lightning; a wildflower depiction made of dull rosewood spider veins. It was equally impressive and intimidating.
“I’m still marked,” I grumbled. I was rather groggy.
“Yeah, I’m not exactly a professional healer,” Cari reminded me. Her backpack was hanging from her shoulders once again, and she ambled toward Helena and the guys. Once she was close enough, she whispered her friend’s name; Helena, who had had her back to us, turned and faced Cari without issue, leading me to believe that she could see through her glamour. “Mortal check?”
Helena nodded and gave the parking lot a once-over. “Some students way off on the other end–they’re too far to see or hear us. We’re clear.”
“Finally!” Dani practically shouted as Cari’s glamour fell, and in a matter of seconds, the entire pack (save for Estelle, of course) had converged on me.
“Tell us everything!” Dani probed.
Rina was frowning. “Noah Gray did this? Really?”
“Are we reporting this to your dad, or just jumping this dude the next chance we get?” asked Luke.
“Hey, give him space,” Cari warned my pack. “He’s gonna need to go home and rest–and someone else should drive. He’s in no condition.”
“I can get you an Uber–” Luke offered, but I waved him off and threw Jett a questioning glance.
“You can drive, right?”
He chuckled and threw a cocky smirk back my way. “Probably better than you, Buzz.”
His response had caught me so off guard that I couldn’t help but laugh as I fished my keys out of my right rear pocket and tossed them in his direction. “We’ll see about that, Batman.”
Ignoring the astounded expressions of the wolves around us at our sudden familiarity, I addressed the pack as a whole. “I’m sorry for worrying you. Go home. Stay safe. I’ll see you all tonight.”
When Luke opened his mouth to ask something–or perhaps to protest–I tacked on: “Whitney can tell you all what happened, and I’ll let you know later what I decide to do about it. For now, just keep it to yourselves.”
My right-hand man pursed his lips and nodded before gesturing for Dani, Rina, and Beck to follow him to his car. Estelle pushed herself off of my trunk, and Finn waved at me as he followed the sophomore to Whitney’s car. Cari was texting and whispering something to her friends about leaving the excuse of their tardiness up to her when Jett approached her.
“Hey, thanks for doing this,” he sighed. “You’re not gonna get in trouble for healing him, are you?”
She grimaced. “I mean, technically I’m unlicensed–but since this was an emergency situation that none of us are ever going to talk about again, I think it’ll be fine.”
“You seem sure that we won’t tell our alphas.”
The witch cocked an eyebrow. “Considering that doing so would mean your pack would either get transferred to another mortal school–which, transferring that many students to another school this late in the year is hella sus–or you would all be retained for homeschooling and have your liberties jeopardized, I think I have an inkling.”
Jett’s eyebrows furrowed as he gaze back at me. I shrugged. “She’s right.”
His shoulders slumped. “Well, shit…”
“Consider this thanks for yesterday and Monday,” Cari mumbled in pursuit of nonchalance. “We’re even now.”
Whitney and I swapped fleeting glances. Yesterday?
“So? Who ya bringing to the party?” Lilly piped up.
“About that,” Jett began, sucking in his teeth. “Uh, with all this trapper stuff happening, is it cool if the whole pack comes? We don’t think it’d be a good idea for us to be separated.”
Cari gave my stepbrother a half-smile and nodded in concession. “Yeah, it’s fine. Thanks for asking as opposed to just showing up.”
“C’mon, I wouldn’t do that.”
A thought occurred to me as the girls began to wave bye to Jett. “Hey, are you all headed the same way?”
“Jett and I can drop you off,” I offered, motioning to the car behind my back with my thumb. “Distance isn’t a problem.”
When the freshmen exchanged hesitative looks, I added, “Better than walking around with a trapper warning in effect.”
“When he’s right, he’s right,” Lilly shrugged, already approaching my car. “You can just drop us at the café on the corner, though. Our ride’s waiting there.”
“Cool,” Jett beamed as he rounded the vehicle’s rear. “I can pop the trunk if you wanna put your stuff there?”
They continued on, but I stopped listening–I was fixated on the permanent fixture to my left, the reluctant attachment to my arm.
“Give us a few minutes,” Whitney told Jett pointedly. “And turn off your damn ears!”
His face contorted in confusion as he muttered, “Damn, woman! Asking the impossible–”
“What?” she demanded forcefully.
“Nothing!” Jett damn-near swan dove into the driver’s seat and shut the door behind him. The witches had all clambered into the backseat, Luke had already driven off, and Elle and Finn were waiting in Whit’s car. As far as I could tell, she and I were the last two standing in the lot.
There was a brief pause before either of us spoke. “Are you okay?” I asked.
She scoffed. “Seriously? You’re asking me that after you almost…”
Whitney gulped, her fingers pressing into my arm. It was the first time we had been that close in years; her proximity had my heart beating faster than a hummingbird’s wings. Her perfume was a mix of spicy and sweet, woody and herbaceous, all blended together with vanilla and jumbling my thoughts.
And just when I wished she would never let go, she did just that. Whitney took a baby step back and wrung her hands together, her warm brown eyes lowered.
“I’ll be okay,” I assured her. She glanced up at that moment and locked onto my nervous gaze; I fought to keep my composure and didn’t look away. “Because of you. Thank you for helping me.”
She gritted her teeth. “Stop that.”
When I frowned, she grumbled, “Why are you being so nice to me?”
“I… Didn’t realize that I wasn’t being nice before,” I admitted, my shoulders sagging. So that’s how she sees me. “I’m sorry. I’ll be more mindful.”
She shook her head. “I’m… I’m sorry that you got hurt because of me. I should have known–my parents had me study berserker stones when I was ten, but I forgot what they all smelled like, and I thought he was just reaching in his pocket for his phone–”
“Whitney,” I held my hand out in a halting motion, cutting off her rambling. “Stop. It’s not your fault, okay? I wasn’t hurt because of you. This happened because a trapper tried to take advantage of you. He could’ve approached any of us–”
“I should have known better!” she refuted, her volume a frantic whisper-shout. Her lip was quivering, and her eyes were scanning the parking lot. I’m sure she had meant to appear as if she were keeping watch, but I knew better. When she was under emotional duress, she had difficulty maintaining eye contact. “This shouldn’t have even come close to happening to me–me. I was going to be your second.”
My eyes widened. “Wait, what? Whit–”
“If things were different,” she cut me off again–only this time, she met my gaze head-on. “If I had never come out… If I didn’t start transitioning, would you have made me your second instead of Luke?”
That’s when it hit me; her distance, her cold shoulders, her steely glares. Her behavior wasn’t anything new–it had been going on for years, beginning shortly after she came out. I thought back to my own behavior around her, scouring my memories for any hint of negativity or implication that I could ever disapprove of her identity. The Woods and the Shepards had always been close, and Whit and I were no exception. We were best friends; we came up together, and did everything with one another, even more so than Luke and me.
Then, after our second-grade winter break, she told me that she was transgender, and my perception of her slowly began to change. She wasn’t the short little kid who dragged me around the neighborhood anymore. She wasn’t the boy who introduced me to anime or stayed up with me all night when my parents argued. She wasn’t the boy whose family I lived with for a month when my mom was hospitalized. She was a girl–familiar and still the same, personality-wise–but a girl nonetheless.
Looking back, it was at that moment, standing beside my car and ogling at her, that I realized that it wasn’t Whitney who had had the problem. She hadn’t treated me differently or pushed me away–it was me. I was the one who had retreated into myself. I was the one who had ostracized her, who had treated her as different. She had stopped being a boy, and therefore stopped being my best friend… Instead, she was a girl.
And this girl incited feelings in me that no one else had ever before.
Her smile made me weak. Her laugh drove a swarm of butterflies through my abdomen and up my chest. Whenever she would place a hand on my shoulder or shove me playfully, I would rethink everything I knew about physical contact, because I had never felt someone’s touch linger for so long after our brief encounters. I was starving for her attention, her affection, eager to take whatever I could get whenever she gave it… And that terrified me.
I knew firsthand how dangerous that level of adoration for another person could do to you. I saw what it did to my mother; how it blinded her to Dad’s faults, how their marriage spiraled downward until it resulted in her having a mental breakdown and him using his charisma to manipulate the pack’s perception of the Howard family. Whitney knew it, too–that’s why she stuck by my side throughout the whole ordeal and had her parents convince my father to let them keep me for a month. He gave me up so easily.
Could she give me up that easily, too?
“You want to know what would have happened if you never came out?” I challenged her, my expression hardening. I couldn’t help it–I was angry at myself, angry that I could ever make her think that her transition made her less than worthy in my eyes. “You’d be miserable right now. You’d be at war with yourself every day because you’d be so desperate to hold up this perception of someone that you aren’t. You coming out was never a bad thing, Whit–not for you, and not to me.”
“So what happened?” she demanded with a shrug. My response seemed to make her bristle when all I had wanted was to ease her mind. “I’m the strongest, I get the best grades–you know damn well that I should be your right hand, not Luke–”
“I don’t want you as my second,” I imparted, my expression softening along with my voice. The gentleness I exuded was enough to garner Whitney’s attention. “I want you to be my partner.”
We both knew what that meant: I’d been trying to change the pack’s terminology for years, steering them away from words humans threw around or that were simply considered outdated. Sure, alpha and beta were the technical terms used by older members, but our generation was working to change all of that. “Second” and “right hand” were alternative titles for the beta members; “leader” or “boss” for alpha; and we were actively trying to omit the omega label, shutting down any usage. For us, partner meant more than something professional–it was a romantic relationship, a lifelong connection, and it was used in place of “mate.” Why? Because “mate” implied that those within the partnership were expected to mate, to breed. It reduced something as grandiose and abstract as love into something as vulgar and transactional as producing offspring. A mate was just one-half of a breeding pair, but a partner was a person who led with you, not beneath you. Partners stood on equal ground, which is why making Whitney my second-in-command never sat right with me.
We stood there for several heartbeats, staring at one another. I couldn’t tell what I looked like–nervous, anxious, frightened, scary–but her face gave me the impression that she was confused. A tiny indent had formed above the bridge of her nose, her eyes were wide, and her mouth was agape in an O shape. I was so caught up in studying her, in waiting for her response, that I didn’t even realize that the chattering in the car directly beside us had ceased with my confession.
My confession… I swallowed through the anticipation. No, that wasn’t just a confession. That was practically a marriage proposal. What the hell is wrong with me?
Then, without warning, Whitney gathered her purse and books from the roof of my car–that was the first time I had even realized that they were there–and she hugged her belongings to her chest. “I need to get Finn home.”
That’s right–with the trapper warning, his parents are probably the most concerned, since he’s the youngest. “Okay, post in the group once you’re home. Stay safe.”
She strode past me, headed for the only vehicle two rows down–a shiny white Tesla–and I was about to get into my car when I called out to her. “Whit!”
She jumped and peered silently at me from over her shoulder.
“Don’t…” sighing, I decided to go through with it. “Don’t worry about anything I just said, okay? Nothing has to change. We can talk some other time about you being second.”
Emotions I couldn’t place flashed through her earthy eyes and, with only a curt nod as her response, the girl of my dreams walked away.
In hindsight, I guess it really was just that easy.