The Equinox was coming. He could feel the tingle running through his skin that meant his body was returning. Warmth, he always forgot what it felt like to be warm. It took effort to remember how to do the simple things, like breathing, when he returned. Projecting an image was so much easier. It didn’t require him to remember that lungs needed air and a heart needed to beat and limbs needed to move.
Oenomaus usually stayed at his side when the change started. This year he would not hide away in Salem, would not be guarded by the security and pure love that was Melitta and Oenomaus’ home. This Autumnal would change everything, be it good or bad.
He couldn’t recall when it began, the need to protect Duro. It started long before he and Barca saw their relationship to its end. After the trenches in World War I, it was Duro who brought more smiles to Auctus’ lips than Barca. Following his years of fighting in World War II, nothing could break the fog that surrounded him. He returned home, seeking peace in the magic of the Other Side. He should’ve known, he forever able to see into the Beyond, that he returned to a whole different war.
Duro was never supposed to be on that battlefield. Agron would’ve never allowed it and Duro seemed proud that he escaped his brother’s clutches. It took all of Auctus’ considerable restraint to keep from knocking Duro out and forcibly returning him. It was Hamilcar who stayed his actions; he argued that Duro would do well to experience life on his own, to learn maturity and temperance. Auctus didn’t feel the cost was worth it but Naevia and Sura swayed him.
The visions made it worse. He knew his future lay with Duro and he knew he’d have to die. He thought it would be hard, to force his body to knock Duro to the ground, to take the spear through his chest. He thought it would take effort. In the end it was pure instinct, actions borne out of fear and horror. He didn’t realize it would be a silver spear until it was thrown, a horrid weapon outlawed in battles with wolves. It was the ultimate crime in their world, to knowingly use a weapon that would deny a creature the ability to become a ghost or a low-level Reaper. That last word he heard as a living man, over the sound of the blood gurgling in his wound, was Duro’s horrified yell of his name, followed by the soft, begging, whispers telling him to live.
It was Gene who met him on the other side of Life. Those eyes with the unfathomable depths of all the lives in all the worlds studied him . Death wasn’t what he expected, the complete absence of everything but that gaze.
He still held onto that moment when he needed the strength to stay.
It felt like Gene Roe was laughing at him. He knew the Healer and Reaper was deeply respected and powerful, he just never realized how powerful until now, seeing him completely revealed. A violet light surrounded his body sending waves of calm to Auctus.
“Most who come here are offered a choice; to be ghost, to guide souls as a Reaper’s assistant, or to take the Final Death until their souls are returned. Your choice was already made as one who sees Beyond.”
“I could not let him die.”
“You could not and thus your choice was made. It has its own cost though, for having made it while still alive.”
“He won’t remember,” Auctus said. It hurt to admit but that was how these things happened.
Gene nodded. “I would have welcomed you at my side.” He pointed to something behind Auctus. “He is here to lead you back.”
Auctus turned to find a large grey wolf waiting for him. The eyes were a familiar warm brown and full of worry.
“Auctus, meet Duro’s wolf. Right now the wolf is in control of his mind and soul. The wolf will always remember you, and your actions, even if the man does not.”
The wolf slowly padded over to him and sniffed Auctus’ hand. It shocked him when a tongue snuck out and lapped at his skin.
“You are corporeal over here,” Gene explained with a laugh. “A good thing considering the wolf insists on marking you.”
“At least he didn’t bite me.”
“Oh no,” Gene said with a very clear laugh that time. “I think he’s going to save that for the human side.”
Auctus knew he looked just as confused as he felt.
“From what I’ve been told, it’s an experience. One of the first steps towards a bonding.”
Auctus’ breath would’ve hitched if he still needed to breathe. It wouldn’t be possible. A ghost couldn’t feel touch. It would take years for him to develop the skills to just use his force of will.
“You will still resume a bodily form for the Equinoxes and Solstices. It’s something,” Gene said.
“I feel like I need a guide for my new life.”
“Aindrea’s Watch Keeper post should have a pamphlet. It’s ridiculously named but helpful.”
The wolf whimpered and nudged Auctus’ hand.
“It’s time for you to return,” Gene said. He pressed his palms over the space where Auctus’ heart once beat. The hands burned with cold. “I always believed that when we give our proverbial hearts away they live on in those we loved. Draw strength from your friends, Auctus, and they will see you through this transition.”
A green light broke through the grey fog surrounding them.
“Go now,” Gene urged. “I will greet you upon your return.”
Auctus nodded and gripped a hand in Duro’s fur. He held on until the light was too bright to see. Everything went dark again and then, suddenly, he found himself floating in a tent staring down at his dead body. Duro sat next to it, covered in blood, Auctus’ blood, completely catatonic, with Varro at his side.
Gene stood in the corner and welcomed him back with a nod.
Auctus despised car rides. It took far too much will to stay in it as it moved. Trains were easier somehow, if only because the train cars themselves were usually old equipment which constantly covered the same tracks.
He sat in the backseat next to Nasir while Duro drove and Agron criticized. The brothers were currently howling along, at the top of their considerable wolf lungs, to Werewolves of London. Auctus took a moment to admire the power of Nasir’s concentration. With his long hair piled on top of his head and pen clutched between his teeth, he looked like your typical Art School student as he leaned over his music sheet pad to compose. Nobody who drove past them would guess that the car held three mythical creatures and a ghost.
“Are we there yet?” Auctus asked, mentally cringing that he’d be the one to utter such a phrase first.
“You really don’t like car rides,” Agron teased.
“It would’ve taken less energy for me to just appear at the cabin but I decided to be polite and give into your insistence for automobile karaoke torture time.”
Agron’s typical curse-laden response was silenced as the car filled with the musical sound of Nasir’s laughter.
“You are all ridiculous,” Nasir said. He remained focused on his work. “Answer his question, Agron, and respect the amount of will it’s taking for him to project his image.”
“We’re about fifteen minutes out, Auctus. And I know this isn’t easy for you, we’re all out of it this close to the Veil Drop. Glad you came along for the ride.”
“Gratitude,” Auctus said.
He was only slightly amazed at Nasir’s own power over Agron. He shouldn’t be surprised; it was something that happened between mates. Somewhere in the apartment building he still had those old copies of the Welcome to the Afterlife and Mating Manual for Non-Wolves pamphlets which detailed such things. He just never expected to see it with his own proverbial eyes.
“You okay?” Duro asked. He’d turn his head around to judge Auctus’ state on his own.
“He’ll be much better if you put your eyes back on the fucking road,” Agron yelled as he leaned over to take the steering wheel.
Auctus turned to Nasir. “It’s not too late to find you a nice, normal wolf pack.”
Nasir smiled. “Oh, I like this pack just as is.”
Later, after they finally pulled up to the cabin without incident and all supplies were packed away, Auctus walked outside to watch the sky. They already had a plan in place. The sun wouldn’t set for another three hours and Auctus needed the time alone.
The sounds of Gannicus’ I Know Too Many Wolves mix drifted out of the cabin, carrying the hilarious and familiar sounds of Shakira’s She Wolf to him. He only hoped poor Nasir wasn’t being subjected to Agron and Duro’s idea of dancing. That left scars on the soul.
It was good that he could still think such nonsense while preparing himself. The first breath was always the hardest, painful and harsh, almost like suffocating. The first few minutes of returning to flesh and blood always meant panic.
The hours passed and the sun moved closer to setting. A tingle started in his soul and kicked off the initial stages of recreation. He let go the distraction of projecting clothing on his body and let it be. He paid little attention to Agron when he emerged on the steps. He participated in their conversation by pure instinct. Still, Agron was a much needed familiar presence, his words as distracting as Gannicus’ were during all the previous Veil Drops.
After his body returned and he dressed in the clothes Melitta provided, after he held a shaking Duro in his arms, matching him breath for breath, after Agron and Nasir wandered back inside, Auctus took a moment just to be.
He couldn’t stop touching Duro’s skin. It was far warmer than he expected. He logically knew the wolves had a higher body temperature, an asset when stuck together in foxholes, he just forgot how much heat they gave off. Duro’s skin was surprisingly soft, even covered with scars, callouses, and newly formed bruises and scrapes from running in wolf form. His neck was one of the most sensitive spots on his body and he whimpered and tilted his whole upper-half whenever Auctus’ fingers skimmed the area.
Auctus couldn’t stop touching and Duro couldn’t stop sniffing and tracing his scent all over Auctus’ body.
“I wish your scent could stay on me,” he confessed even as he laughed at the quick lapping of Duro’s tongue on the inside of his arm.
Duro paused and lifted his head. The eyes that met Auctus showed a mixture of the man and the wolf.
“Do you mean that?”
“Yes,” Auctus said without hesitation.
Duro nodded and sat up. He leaned over Auctus, pushing him back until he was flat on the floor. Duro paused with his mouth right above Auctus heart.
“You’re positive that you want me?”
“For however long the gods grant me you.”
Duro smiled before turning serious again. “I’m sorry,” he muttered into Auctus’ skin before bearing down with his teeth.
It was more shock than hurt that overtook Auctus in that moment before it gave way to a pleasant heat that suffesed his whole body. He could feel the magic in the bite, the bodily vow, as its willed intention burrowed deeper than mere teeth in skin. Duro let go with a growl, a satisfied smile on his face.
Auctus sat up and stared at the bite mark. He expected blood and was surprised to find none. It still throbbed though, all the way down to his very soul.
“It will not fade,” Duro promised. He pressed his fingers to the large bite. “It’s a mark, my mark, completing the circle started by my wolf when you were between worlds. Think of it as a homing beacon, forever calling your heart home.”
“Perhaps Nasir can tell me how to deal with the throbbing.”
“Nasir does not bear such. Agron would not willingly place such a mark on him when he knows Nasir will be on the other side of the Veil come Mid-Winter. It would drive them both to madness, to bear the mark and be separated by such distance.”
The intricacies of a wolf declaring its mate would forever baffle Auctus. It was full of politics, ritual and ceremony. It was a decision he was told often took years to finalize. Agron and Duro clearly decided to buck tradition as was their norm.
Auctus laughed and pulled Duro into his lap. “Perhaps we should’ve asked if you were sure about this.”
Duro playfully bit Auctus’ neck. “Never say that in front of anyone not pack. They won’t know you’re given over to dark humor and sarcasm. It’s an insult to doubt a wolf’s devotion. Allow me to stay your fucking worries. I haven’t been with anyone since we returned. I didn’t, it didn’t, no one appealed to me. I never thought of it because there was always some job, or welcoming Pietros into the fold, or healing Oenomaus. I never felt myself at a loss or missing something.”
“Until your brother met Nasir.”
Duro nodded and his hair rubbed against Auctus’ chest. “When they met it was obvious they would bond. I knew the day would come that my brother would go somewhere I couldn’t follow. In all our years together, minus my time at war, we’ve only voluntarily separated for two weeks at most.”
“Why do you fear he will leave you?”
“Because Nasir is a Puck and makes his living as a Bard. Right now he may be content to stay here, but he has never lived anywhere for long since childhood. Eventually he’ll have to roam or else the Wanderlust will completely consume him. Agron will follow; he won’t take any long separation well.”
“He will not abandon his pack.”
“Abandon? No. Leave in the care of beloved brother and packmate? Yes.”
It would have to be Duro. No matter how much he trusted and respected Donar and Saxa, Duro held a blood tie, a wolf clan claim to power, and was the other most important person in Agron’s life.
“Gods save me, I have married a politician.”
Duro patted his cheek. “Your mother would be so damn proud of you.”
Auctus shuddered. “Do not mention my mother when you’re sitting on my lap, just having given me a bite that is still throbbing.”
Duro’s laugh was silent as he somehow managed to work his way even closer to Auctus. His eyes were heavy and his breathing started to steady out. It must’ve taken all his energy to force that mark so deeply down; and on the Equinox of all days when maintaining human form was its own task.
“Sleep,” Auctus urged, patting down Duro’s hair. “I’ll be here when you wake.”
Auctus startled awake when he felt eyes on him that were not Duro’s. It amazed him he could already feel the difference.
“It won’t fade,” Agron said from the shadows. He pointed to the mark on Auctus’ chest that glowed silver in the moonlight. “Duro’s completed the bonding claim the wolf started. You could say you now have one foot in the grave and one out, ghost.”
“Pardon?” Auctus asked.
“That mark will not fade,” Agron repeated. “Even when you resume your ghostly form, that mark, that part of your body, is tied to Duro and this plane of existence.”
Auctus was speechless. He expected it to be a new mark on his projected image not a part of him forever tied to the living.
“Can he do that,” he stuttered out.
Agron nodded. “Under the full moon on an Equinox? Hell, yes. He can only start the process; you’ll need a Reaper to complete it.”
Agron walked over to them. He pushed the hair away from Duro’s face and tucked it behind his ears. Duro growled in his sleep and his nose wrinkled until he caught his brother’s scent. He snorted and settled down again. Agron turned to Auctus, matching his smile to Auctus’ own, and patted his shoulder.
“This will change you both. I have no doubts that you can more than handle the challenge.”
Auctus studied Agron. There was something distinctly more about him in the night. He wasn’t seeing the half-crazed, foul-mouthed, boisterous wolf he knew. This was the older brother, the pack leader, and a wolf of more influence and power than Auctus ever realized. He, who had always seen into the Beyond, never caught all these immense details until now.
“It’s because you are now marked and claimed as one of us,” Agron explained. “I told you, so much of what we do is through scent and touch.”
“If you start singing A Whole New World I will move Duro off me and punch you in the balls.”
Agron's surprised laugh filled the cabin.
“Oh shit,” he muttered when a door opened.
“Go,” Auctus said. “Get Nasir back to sleep.”
“Yes, please, do,” Nasir’s sleepy voice ordered from the hallway.
Agron winked at him before he rose and left.
There would be much to discuss in the coming weeks. He leaned down and rested his chin on Duro’s head, taking in a deep breath full of his scent. He planned to spend all night like this, committing everything to memory as something to hold on to until the Solstice.
He placed his hand over Duro’s heart, not in the least surprised to find that the beating rate matched the throbbing of his mark.
It felt good to be claimed.