Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
Praise this beautiful, terrible world where we are opened
and crushed, where the kiss comes from a mouth that bites.
- “The Diver”
Roman can feel the yearning roll off her – silent, heated waves crashing through the air and landing against his dead skin. He isn’t sure if their connection is because of the blood they share, the thick, heady stuff he takes from her regularly (because he hungers too, he hungers more than he needs) and the drops he’s offered her over their many months together making a circle of their life, or simply because proximity has granted him an intimate awareness. But he can feel it: clear, obvious, undiluted. He runs his tongue against the sharp points of his fangs. He glances at her from beneath his eyelashes, body still against the floor, his hands behind his head and legs stretched forward. He has kept the room sparse, ever militant with his lack of need to display affection or familiarity, and made himself a marble statue posed in relaxation.
“Feeling needy, kid?” he asks.
Lene closes the wooden door separating her bedroom from the smaller, darker back room before shoving her hands into her pockets, her weight shifting to one hip. “No,” she lies. “Being home feels –”
“Home is never how you remember it as. Trust me.”
She rolls her eyes and kicks at one of his bare feet. “I was going to say good. It feels good.”
He moves so suddenly, so like the wolves lambs learn to fear, and snatches her foot. When he pulls, Lene tumbles, her small body awkwardly responding to pressure and gravity, while the beast inside of her instinctively charges with anger at the unexpected attack even as she outwardly laughs. She lands on the carpeted floor with a thud, the stone ground beneath sturdier than her bones. Roman crawls forward, ignoring the way her right knee jams into his rib, her left leg with her newly freed foot wrapping loosely around his hip, his hand pinning her elbow, her fingers in his long hair until they are half-holding, half-wrestling each other’s bodies.
“You smell like the sun,” he murmurs once the skip in her pulse has calmed, his wide nose near her neck, his teeth on her ear. He can lick the dust from her skin.
“You don’t smell like anything, old man.”
She pushes a palm into his face, the coarseness of his beard scratching her fingertips. He nips at her knuckles until she laughs again. It’s a sound like the wind through fresh grass. He’s more used to her nighttime sounds, to her sighs like nightingales and her vixen cries. Lene grins with her hair in her eyes and feels his body move above hers, his hands anchoring at her hips, until she’s rolled and is straddling his sharp waist. One of his palms slips across her stomach, pushing the fabric of her shirt up.
He raises an eyebrow at the bruise blossoming against her ribs and the welts only freshly fading.
“What is this?” Roman asks.
He digs his fingers in, hard enough to hurt, and sees the way Lene tries to hide her wince. She sighs, a huff of annoyance, reaching down to halt his hand by his wrist. “Nothing. The usual contenders, welcoming me home.”
“Ah, I see. You disappointed them by bringing me here, so they doubt you. Do you want me to eat them?”
“Oh, that’ll help. You’re a thousand-year-old child.”
Roman’s expression goes blank like ivory. He bites his own thumb then smears the blood across her welts. Lene accepts this, her eyelids shivering at the sensation of pinpricks near her ribs. Gradually, she shifts her weight, stretching herself slowly above him, bracketing his head with her elbows, the ends of her hair trailing across his collarbones, making a curtain around his long face.
“You don’t know what it’s like. A family. A pack.” she whispers.
“A nest. We call them nests, and they are dangerous. They breed stupidity and hunger and greed, liebchen.”
“Not here. It’s different here. We’re different.”
He tucks a piece of hair behind her ear, a soft gesture unlike almost all of his others. “So everyone thinks, kid.” He doesn’t ask what she means – which we she is referencing. Him or her family.
In the brief silence that follows, she touches his forehead with hers. Roman’s sinewy – not as broad around the chest as Lene had originally surmised him being, his narrow figure hidden behind heavy jackets and expensive suits, his length tapering into a finely muscled abdomen and defined hips sharp enough to batter against her thighs – but he’s a brick of a man. She can feel his solidity beneath her, his cold strength that has become a comfort to her, and for a moment it is enough. She had wanted to tell him about family, about a kinship different than heredity and genetics, how blood and bond can forge affinity, but she thinks he already understands. He’s simultaneously been a lover and a son, a father and a brother. She’s still not sure how to articulate her place in the history of his personal hierarchy; she doesn’t know how to ask.
Lene feels it as part of her desire, all those anxious and burning pains she’s felt low in her belly ever since they crossed the desert in Knight’s SUV.
Roman doesn’t wait. He feels the way her hunger is a quake, an ache that matches his, and sits them up. His arms circle her slender back, his fingers sliding along the nape of her neck until he can fist the blonde length of hair. She loops her arms around his shoulders, kissing him softer than she had intended to. She appreciates it when he bites her bottom lip; she likes it more when it’s rough, when she can feel the push and pull of him linger on her body.
“Your brother,” he says afterwards, when they are naked and lying close together, speaking against the curve of her arm, “do I have to call him Alpha too?”
Lene rolls her eyes. “Shut up.”
“He has longer hair than I pictured.”
“As if you ever sat around picturing my brother.”
“And his friend. He has long hair too.”
“Is this really what you want to be doing? Talking about men?” She shoves her wrist against his mouth, her skin knocking against his teeth. “Isn’t it feeding time?”
Roman does not respond to the bait. “I am wondering if you have a pattern. In the type of men who hold your affections.” He smirks, and she can feel the tiny stretch of his lips.
She punches him in the shoulder. “You’re a dick.”
His face splits when he laughs, his mouth wide and teeth white. His eyes crinkle at the edges. (This is how she likes to think of him when he’s being particularly difficult, when she’s having trouble deciphering whether his morals exist, or when his smug leers infuriate her. His laughter makes him surprising; he’s humanized by it.)
Outside the bedroom, all the way on the deck, Anders can hear the muddled sounds of Roman’s laugh traveling up through the maze of corridors. It pierces his ears like a warning signal.
The pack follows Anders. The majority keep their distance from Roman and are less than warm to Lene. They watch her with judgmental gazes. They whisper behind her back. But even this is a kind of homecoming. A familiar burden. It is Roman that she is unsure of, watching his tall figure stalking the trails, learning the area’s geography by night. She tags along too often, feeling like an unwanted shadow in her own house, showing him the paths from her childhood and the worn parts of the mountain that hide their secrets from the world.
After a week, she is still uncertain, still aware of the tense mood lingering around the trainers in the fighting pits, the old women stocking the storage units in the caverns, the children as they bathe, her brother as he watches.
She doesn’t think any of the pack has spoken to Roman outside of formal introductions, so she’s surprised to see a girl marching up to them as they descend a cliff path close to the main house, Lene’s boots skidding against the rock. Roman is a step ahead of her, pushing a hand back through his hair, glancing past the approaching figure to the giant face of the moon behind her. Lene realizes the girl is Rebecca, a brunette whose grown three feet since Lene saw her last, her body now at the brink of womanhood.
“Mama says you’re dead.” Rebecca tells Roman before Lene can even say hello, sure in her wording, her freckled arms folded over her chest in the age-old stance of adolescent defiance.
Everything about her is skinny, from her waist to her legs. Even her hair is thin, like straw, and Lene, still half-bent from where she’d been brushing the mountain grit off her legs, sucks in an air of breath without meaning too. He’ll eat her alive, she thinks, craning her head to the left to judge Roman’s reaction.
He arches an eyebrow but keeps his tone even. “Your mother sounds like an observant woman,” he says, glancing sideways at Lene with a hint of amusement in his hazel eyes.
“What do your teeth look like?” Rebecca asks, unabashed.
Lene waves her hands in the air in a gesture of shock. “Hello, rudeness alert. Young lady, you go tell your mama that I -” She’s cut off by the sound of Roman’s snarl and the way his body shifts in her periphery. He puts his hands on his thighs, crouching forward into Rebecca’s young face with the same predatory swiftness that Lene has come to know well. She finds herself holding her breath again, seeing his face contort, seeing the savagery in his expression and the glint of the moon on his descended fangs. Rebecca yelps in surprise, shrinking back.
Lene can see Anders, ten feet off, stalking towards them. She grabs Roman’s arm hard and pulls, but he is stone, not budging, and to her surprise Rebecca’s yelp has turned to giggling.
“Cool!” the girl exclaims with a grin, and Lene realizes Roman is smiling.
He doesn’t move when Rebecca touches one of his fangs with the tip of her finger, feeling the point.
“That’s enough,” Anders declares once he’s within earshot.
Rebecca lingers until Lene gives her a hard look, then she drops her hand reluctantly, stepping around and partly behind her legs. Lene places her hand atop the girl’s head, watching her brother watch Roman with open disapproval. Roman retracts his fangs before standing. He has to look down at Anders, a fact that Lene knows irritates him more.
“Is this where you tell me that I am a guest, and I should behave myself?” he asks, and Lene elbows his side.
Anders frowns. “You’re a guest,” he says, but nothing else.
Roman makes a noncommittal noise, not quite a hum, before continuing down the path towards the cabin. His shoulder hits Anders in passing, and he growls even though he’s staring at Lene.
“It will get better,” she tells her brother, squaring her shoulders despite her desire to expose the vulnerable white of her belly.
It starts with the children, so for a while Lene thinks she’s right.
Children are less carved by the word, more resilient and able to see past the fears of others. Rebecca becomes the ringleader, the springboard for the others to use as a gauge in ways that Lene can never be. Rebecca is not different; she was born into the pack and embraced by it – normal in all of their eyes. Willful. Beautiful only in her gracelessness and growing coltish limbs. She has a horse’s wild heart, the beast inside of her passed down from her father’s line, skipping the predator that is her mother’s shape.
She lingers near Roman during dinner hours, quiet except for the occasional smile she sends in his direction, until the lingering becomes a welcoming. When Roman slips down the mountain, headed towards the cold night sands of the desert, she follows his tracks dutifully. They return before dawn, sometimes side-by-side, sometimes with her legs thrown over his shoulders and her body hunched above him, her arms gripping his neck like winding ropes. They morph into one large figure, an amalgamation of monsters.
Before long, the pair doubles. Triples. Forms a group.
Harper has a lisp, but Roman smells scales beneath her skin, and a cunning that belies her shy speech. Isaac has eyes as dark as sage. He smells like forest things, like ancient oaks, but he barely comes to Roman’s thigh. Judah never speaks. He tags along reluctantly. Rebecca says he was rescued from the worst of the drifter cities only a few months ago; she’s surprised he follows at all. Bailey is the loudest – braying with laughter easily, the most untouched by hardship, the loveliest in her innocence – and she likes to cling to Roman’s elbow until he lifts his arm, her feet dangling above the ground, toes dragging over rocks and dust.
Lene keeps her face impassive except for when she grins at Knight’s raised eyebrow and shrugs a shoulder. She doesn’t say anything.
Sometimes she joins in their walks. Sometimes they tussle like she used to when she was their age. She lets their young bodies pile into and over her. She gets elbows in her face, knees in her ribs, laughter in her ear. Roman plucks them off of her one by one. He hooks them by their arms or the backs of their shirts and calls her name, searching for her beneath a pile of squirming kids. As easily as pulling weeds after a fresh rain. Their fingers splay, grasping at empty air. Once, Lene tackled Roman head-first, his arm still circled around Harper’s waist, and the three of them had caused tracks in the dirt.
He’d looked up at her from the ground, a smear of grit across his cheek, and laughed.
Harper had butted her head against Lene’s and scrambled over them, reaching for Judah’s nearby leg. When Lene stood, she’d offered Roman her hand like she’d done it a hundred times.
“Tell us about before,” Rebecca had demanded on their return back.
“Before?” Roman asked, picking a shrub from Lene’s hair.
“Before this, she means.” Bailey clarified.
“There was more color,” Roman said, “and men were kinder.”
Lene had looked at him with disbelief. Men had always burned hearts, her grandmother had said, but she appreciates the lie for what it is.
It’s better, she had thought. It’s getting better.
It isn’t the first time she’s been wrong.