Chapter 3: The Only Option

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"It's not a list. I mean, I don't need any supplies, or herbs, or fucking chalk, for fuck's sake. Jesus." I closed my eyes for a second, and the world felt like it was tipping around me. My stomach roiled. This was the last thing I wanted, but it was this, or die. And it turned out, I actually wouldn't rather die after all. "The ritual was forming a bond."

"Yeah, you said." Matthew finally sounded impatient. I was surprised he'd lasted this long. Most people didn't, when they were talking to me. "Get to the point."

"If I'd interrupted it a little sooner, maybe the magic would just have broken. But the shaman finished the part that created the bond on my end. He hadn't started the part where the other guy got bound up too, but I was already hooked."

I swallowed hard around the lump in my throat, the words dying out before I could even form them.

Matthew leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "Tell me, Nate."

"I need to complete a bond with an alpha werewolf. Or my magic's just going to keep draining out of a conduit to nowhere, and I'm going to die."

"Complete a bond," he said slowly, and then I saw the moment when understanding dawned. His eyes widened, and his dark brows climbed almost into his hairline. "You need a mate."

I winced, and a twinge of pain shot all the way down to my toes. "Yeah, Matthew," I said hoarsely. "I need a mate. A werewolf mate. And quickly."

"It can't be me," he said so quickly I almost wanted to laugh. It was kind of funny, but -- ouch.

"Hadn't even crossed my mind," I said truthfully. "But -- what's so wrong with me, anyway?"

"It's not what's wrong with you." I glared at him, and he cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably. "Not that there is anything wrong with you. You know. But. This is definitely a not-you-it's-me situation. I'm the pack leader. I can't take a warlock as a mate without making everyone in the pack question my sanity. No offense."

And they would, too. Any being with magic could technically and magically mate with any other, practicalities like matching appendages and orifices granted. That didn't mean werewolves didn't nearly always mate with other wolves. And there was the whole baby werewolves issue, not that I'd have been a lot more welcome as a witch.

"That sounds a lot like an it's-definitely-me situation, Matthew." I tried to make it come off as a joke, but it landed like a lead balloon. I was hurt, and I was dying, and Matthew was kind of a friend. Or at least, maybe he could have been, a long time ago when we were kids, if my father had been the kind of guy to let me make friends.

I'd spent some time in Armitage territory, back then. I'd been nine or ten, Matthew maybe sixteen, and Ian and Jared around eleven. My father had been trying to make nice with Matthew's dad, who'd been the pack leader back then. Doing some commissions -- a few wards for the territory's boundaries, a little healing for the few illnesses that werewolves' magic didn't cure without any intervention. Without a shaman, the Armitage pack couldn't match the magic of their neighbors, werewolves or other. My father saw a business opportunity, and he was never one to walk past a chance for profit.

While they talked, I wandered around outside, falling in with the other boys. Matthew was, ironically, too mature even then to show any disgruntlement at not being allowed at the adults' table. While Jared mocked and insulted me, and Ian stared at me with way too much intensity for a kid that age, Matthew talked to me.

And once he'd managed to coax more than monosyllables out of me in response, he actually listened.

Yeah, I'd envied Ian his big brother. I still did. And Matthew -- maybe I'd have liked him to be a brother, but he wasn't. And he was hot, and reliable, and decent. The fact that he didn't see me the same way, as someone with potential, stung a little.

Matthew sighed and rubbed at his forehead, looking all of a sudden a lot older than twenty-nine. "The pack council's been on my back about this, all right? I'm holding them off right now, but if I don't take a mate they approve of right away, I definitely can't take one they'd hate."

He looked so exhausted and beaten-down that I couldn't stay cranky. I smiled in genuine sympathy. "No female werewolves have caught your eye yet?"

"Not like there are many to choose from," he grumbled. "And no."

Matthew wasn't just being picky. The flavor of magic that flowed through werewolves' souls and veins heavily favored males -- just the way it was. Most werewolf offspring were male, in a ratio of about two to one. Almost all alphas were male, too. A female alpha came along once every fifty years or so. The guys ended up marrying a lot of human women, and then their kids were often human too, probably the main reason why werewolves, with their speed and strength and healing, had never overrun humanity. Nature's way of finding balance, I guessed. But that meant that werewolf women were in high demand as mates, and could seriously pick and choose, even when it came to a smart, good-looking pack leader like Matthew.

"I'll be happy to listen to your many complaints later," I said. I had to get him back on track. Much as I wanted to be there for him, he wasn't the one with a ticking clock. "We can have a beer. But that kind of depends on me, you know, being alive to drink it."

"Okay," he said. "Fair enough. But you're not going to like the only option I can think of."

And that was when it twigged. There weren't all that many alphas available. They had more magic, more strength, more everything; whatever it was that made werewolves what they were, alphas had it dialed up to eleven. They were popular, and not just because (so I'd heard, anyway) they had giant dicks to go with the rest of the perks.

And the only unmated alpha besides Matthew in the Armitage pack was that actual giant dick, the one who wouldn't piss on me if I was on fire: Ian.

I covered my face with my hands and laughed, building to hysteria. I could vaguely hear Matthew saying something, sounding alarmed, but fuck it. I deserved a little hysteria. Because if my life depended on Ian being willing to bond with me, I might as well just lie down in a grave right now and call it a day.

There were some more sounds in the background: a door opening, voices, Matthew saying something that sounded like, "Get your head out of your ass," followed by Ian's angry response, and then I passed out again.

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