Five years was a long time to be away from home and pride. Jensen’s fingers drummed on the steering wheel as he pushed down on the gas pedal, which rocketed his truck down the highway. The radio station was playing some loud song with a beat that made him want to clap his hands and stomp his feet. He nodded his head instead and rolled his shoulders a bit. He remembered dance nights with his pride, and wondered if Liza would take him out dancing again as a welcome-back. He grinned at the thought and the speedometer ratcheted up to eighty.
He’d gotten the call a few days ago. He’d been with a pack in Michigan at the time, lounging on a beach at one of the Great Lakes, when Jeff had called him and said, “time’s up, kiddo.” He’d packed his bags the next day and aimed his car toward Colorado.
Jeff had chosen him to be the next Pride Alpha when he was eight. One day he’d been sitting by his momma’s side on a couch at the Alpha’s house, trying his best to be good and quiet, and the next he’d been heading over to the Alpha’s weekly for lessons. Jeff had carefully taught him everything he could about pride and politics and leadership. He’d encouraged Jensen to join Leadership in high school, as well as take speech and debate classes. Everything Jensen did had gone back to Jeff and was subject to review. “A leader,” Jeff had told him often, “an Alpha, will always act like a leader, whatever the situation is.”
During the five years he’d been away, he’d watched the Alphas of the packs he’d visited with close care. After all, his mating quest wasn’t just about mating; it was about politics and making alliances too. It was about learning what kind of leader he was going to be.
In his passenger seat, his cell phone rang. Keeping his eyes on the road, he leaned over to scrabble against the seat and pick it up. “Hello?” He answered, flipping the old-school phone open.
“How close are you?” Liza got right to the point, as always. To the casual observer, she probably sounded a bit bored, but Jensen could hear the carefully hidden excitement underneath her posturing.
“And hi to you too,” he joked as the exit sign for Willow Creek flashed by. There was a warning for the Yellow Valley Pride exit in half a mile, along with a warning that the territory was guarded. Jensen chuckled a bit at that one, activating his blinker and moving into the right lane. “I’m almost at the exit, Liza,” he said fondly. “That okay with you?”
She snorted and he could practically imagine her rolling her eyes. “Just come straight to your mom’s place. No stops.” She hung up on him with that, leaving him laughing as he tossed the phone back down on the seat beside him.
As he took the Yellow Valley exit, he watched as wilderness took over the landscape. Trees grew more frequent as the road wound back and forth until it was clear he was within a forest. He pulled to a stop at the checkpoint, where there was a blond kid smacking his gum loudly as he chewed it. The kid looked up, clearly bored, and then rolled his eyes. “Just what I need,” he muttered and then waved Jensen through.
“Thanks, Chad,” Jensen replied politely, because a leader was always a leader, even when dealing with a little blond brat who’d been scrawnier than a meercat the last time he’d seen him. Gunning the engine once again, he wondered who’d let the cub man the entrance. Obviously, Jeff was losing it if he let Murray have a job of such responsibility.
He drove for five more minutes before the trees disappeared and a clearing appeared in front of him. He drove slightly downhill into the center of pride ground, rolling his windows down so that the scent of pride could come in. People hollered when they saw his car, waving their hands as he drove down the main—and only—road. Grinning, he waved back, finally coming to a stop in front of one of the last houses along the road.
Pulling to the side, just off the road, he parked. He barely had time to pull the keys out of the ignition before his mom was yanking the driver’s side door open and pulling him out into a huge hug. “Ow, Mom!” He protested. He was still buckled in and his seatbelt was protesting as she embraced him. After a quick fumble, he managed to press the button and release the seatbelt. With a sigh of relief, he slipped out of the car and wrapped his arms around his mom.
“It’s so good to see you, Jensen!” She said, her voice muffled as she pressed her head against his chest. She was so tiny; sometimes Jensen had a hard time believing she’d actually managed to push any cubs out of her, let alone seven. Jensen had been the firstborn of his litter, weighing nearly double the amount of any of the other cubs. It had made sense; in a litter of one alpha and six betas, the alpha was bound to take up most of the weight.
His beta siblings were all mated off now. He’d visited each of their new prides. Betas didn’t necessarily have to go back to their alpha’s pride, but there was definitely a tendency to do so. Only one of Jensen’s littermates had remained at home after mating, the runt of the litter, little Teddy. Jensen had yet to meet Teddy’s Alpha, but he had a feeling he would shortly.
Sure enough, as soon as his mom let him go, Teddy was in his arms, soft beta scent making Jensen hug him closer protectively. As he did so, he felt the slight curve of his brother’s stomach. Pulling back, he blinked at his younger brother. “Pregnant?” He asked.
Teddy grinned, resting a hand on his stomach. “First try,” he said proudly. “Too early to tell sex and gender, but there’s three of ‘em.”
Jensen let out a loud whoop, picking his little brother up and twirling him in the air. “Congrats!” Carefully setting him back down, he grinned at Teddy. “Now, who’s the rogue that got you all knocked up?”
“That’d be me,” a husky Southern voice proclaimed, and an honest-to-god cowboy strode forward, complete with beige, ten gallon hat. He tipped it in Jensen’s direction, in deference to Jensen’s status. “I’m Chris Kane.”
Jensen held out a hand and the other alpha shook it firmly. “Pleased to meet you,” Jensen said, and he meant it. Teddy had always been the most delicate of the seven of them; him mating with a real Western hero made sense.
The rest of the pride was already gathering, calling out greetings and questions. Jensen waved at them before his attention was drawn to a little blonde beta, tapping her foot against the ground. “Don’t I get a greeting?” She groused.
Laughing, Jensen walked forward to hug his best friend and sort-of-fiancé. Liza hugged him back, grumbling lowly in half-hearted protest. She was just the same as ever, sweetness all hidden under a cover of grumpiness and sarcasm. He patted her on the head once after he released her, just to annoy her.
“I hate you,” she told him, totally deadpan. “I’m killing you before our wedding.”
Jensen felt a moment’s discomfort after she said the W-word. He and Liza weren’t mates, not like Teddy and Chris. He’d been on a five year quest to find his mate, but unfortunately, with millions of werecats in the world, it was impossible to meet every single one. It had long been agreed that if Jensen and Liza didn’t mate anyone, they’d marry each other. It had made sense because Liza was Jeff’s daughter and Jensen was going to be the Alpha. Jensen had known that since he was ten. He’d always been content with it because he’d always thought he’d find his mate. But he hadn’t. So here they were.
His mother shooed the rest of the pride off, stating loudly that this was ‘family time’. She hustled Jensen, Liza, Teddy, and Chris into their family home. All the windows were open, since no one had air-conditioning on pride ground. They had heaters for the winter but, for the most part, Jeff believed in living as naturally as they could. Unfortunately, Colorado winters demanded heat, and so did the people who lived through them.
As Jensen rounded the corner from the hall into the dining room, he called out a greeting. Jeff looked up at him, reading glasses barely staying on the tip of his nose. “Jensen,” he said calmly, shoving the glasses up with one hand. “Good to see you.”
“You too, Alpha.” Jensen nodded respectfully in his direction. “I’ve got a lot to tell you.”
“I’m sure you do,” Jeff said, smiling fondly.
Jeff’s wife, Hillary, swept out of the kitchen, flour on her face. “The cake is in the oven, so I think we can eat now.” She smiled warmly over at Jensen. “I’m assuming you’re hungry, sweetie?”
“You assumed right,” he replied eagerly, and watched as everyone piled in around the table. Liza slid into the seat at his right and he saw his mom flash an approving look at them. He swallowed down the lump in his throat and smiled over at Liza. Once the food was served though, he dug in, glad for any excuse not to focus on what being back at this table with Liza at his right-hand side meant.
Jeff was retiring. Jensen was going to become Alpha. To be Alpha, he needed to be mated or married.
He caught a glimpse of blonde hair out of the corner of his eye and the apprehension rose up again.
The day after his return, the wedding planning started. His mother, Hillary, and Liza had brochures and magazines spread out over the dining table at nine in the morning, and Jensen could sense that tempers were rising. For all that it was a marriage of convenience between friends, Liza had some definite opinions on how she wanted her wedding to be. Jensen’s mother was no better—she kept saying it was her son getting married and there were traditions to uphold.
Hillary seemed to be attempting to moderate between them, but it didn’t look like it was doing much good. Eventually, she rolled her eyes and looked over to where Jensen was cowering in the corner. “Get out of here,” she told him. “Go find something else to do while I take care of this.”
Jensen shot out of his seat like a bullet and launched out the door in record time. He could hear Liza screaming behind him to come back to come back and agree with her, but he just vaulted into his truck and gunned the engine. In seconds, he was roaring down the main road through pride ground.
Under any other circumstances, he would have gone to Teddy’s, but his brother’s house was only a few houses down from Jensen’s and it would be far too easy to drag him back from there. He’d go into town, Jensen decided. He hadn’t seen Willow Creek in forever.
Willow Creek was so close to Yellow Valley Prideland that kids from the pride actually attended school in town. There were two sets of schools—one that was human only, and another that was split between werecats and humans. Jensen had attended the latter of the two his whole childhood, and he grinned as he drove past Yellow Valley High. Maybe he’d bump into some of his human classmates in town. Catching up with them could keep him occupied for a while.
The town was typical kitschy small-town America. There was a central downtown made up of mostly local shops on one central street. At one end of Willow Creek Road was City Hall, and the hospital and supermarket were only a few streets over. The human high school, Willow Creek High, was only a five minute walk from downtown as well.
Jensen was grinning as he parked in front of the local diner. He wasn’t that hungry—his momma had fed him a proper breakfast, thank you very much—but it was a good place to bump into people.
He strolled in and immediately a few people hollered out greetings. Danneel Harris, the daughter of the owners, was bussing tables and she smacked her gum with a smile. “Jensen Ackles! Liza didn’t tell us you were coming back.”
“Danneel,” he greeted her. They’d been on the student council of YVH together and they’d always been on good terms. “Jeff only called me back a couple of days ago. I guess there wasn’t much time for news to spread.”
She gave him a skeptical look. “Please. News here spreads faster than rabbits pop out baby bunnies. Girl probably didn’t want anyone else trying to jump on her man.”
Jensen laughed uncomfortably. The humans had never really gotten the arrangement between him and Liza. Several of them had been convinced that Liza was in love with him, and Danneel had been one of those. He’d forgotten about that over the past five years.
He chatted with her a bit more, but his mood was spoiled. A few minutes later, he walked out and decided to stroll down the road some, check out the shops. The first few he stopped in were just the same as they’d ever been; change in Willow Creek came slowly. The same familiar faces greeted him, though everyone looked a little older. There was some news—so-and-so had gotten married, so-and-so had had children. Apparently there’d been a brief scandal a few weeks ago when some girl at WCH had pronounced her love for a were-boy from YVH, but their parents had been able to talk sense into them.
Werecats and humans could reproduce, of course, but joinings between the two were extremely taboo. Humans couldn’t mate, after all, and they couldn’t be turned into werecats either. In order to be turned, the werecat gene was necessary, and the only people with the genes that weren’t already werecats were half-breeds. Because of the close proximity of Willow Creek and the Yellow Valley Pride, there’d been a few incidents over the years, but most people took the hint and contained their lust to those of their own species.
Jensen thoughtlessly turned his head at the call of his name and instantly regretted it. It was Mrs. Murray and the rest of her group of friends—affectionately, or not-so-affectionately, known by the pride as the Honeybees because of the way they spread gossip. They were probably in town doing grocery shopping, and it was just Jensen’s luck that they’d spot him. Doubtless, they wanted to know about the wedding or Liza’s dress or some such nonsense, and Jensen did not want to talk about that.
He tried to pretend he hadn’t seen them, jerking his head quickly back to the front and speed-walking down the street, eyes scanning the stores for somewhere he could hide out. They were still calling out behind him and he could hear them getting closer, clogs clopping on the pavement. He sucked in a deep breath as he came to the end of the block and ducked sideways before falling into a full-out run. He zig-zagged through a few blocks until he saw a promising-looking antique shop.
He’d barely pulled the door closed behind him by the time the women made it to the block. He watched with baited breath as they ran past, only sighing with relief once they were out of eyesight. “Thank God,” he breathed.
“Hiding from someone?” came a voice from behind him, and Jensen spun around, claws sliding out with a hiss.
“Whoa!” The man said, jumping back. “Calm down!” He held up his hands peaceably. “You don’t have to—wait, you’re Jensen Ackles, aren’t you?”
Jensen just stared.
He’d heard a million times what it would be like when he found his mate. Everyone told it differently—one of his siblings had mentioned fireworks, another had said it felt like falling. Just the other night, Teddy had described it as feeling like a rope was pulling him towards Chris.
Jensen didn’t feel any of those things. For him, it was complete stillness. Everything seemed to freeze for an eternity, leaving him with all the time in the world to examine the face before him, with its high cheekbones and thin, almond-shaped eyes. You know this face, something in the back of his mind told him, but he paid it no heed. Thought had no place in this moment.
“Uh… Jensen?” The man said hesitantly, and the moment shattered to pieces. Jensen still knew this man was his mate but now there was thought and reality and—
“Oh, god,” Jensen said, and couldn’t quite hide the horror in his voice. “You’re Jared Padalecki.”
Talk about scandals; Jared’s birth was one of the biggest ones Willow Creek had ever seen. Apparently his mother had had a one-night stand with a traveling ‘were, and nine months later, little Jared had made an appearance. The humans and werecats had been equally scandalized to find a half-breed in their midst. Jared had been sent to the human-only schools for the first eight years of his education, until the bullying had apparently become so bad that he’d transferred to YVH for high school. The werecats weren’t that much more accepting of half-breeds, but it wasn’t like there was anywhere else for Jared to go.
Jensen vaguely remembered seeing the boy in the halls a few times; he had been a short, scrawny kid with big, frightened eyes and hunched shoulders. He’d made sure to say hi in the halls, like he did with most of the other kids, but Jared had just stared at him like he was afraid Jensen was going to eat him.
His mate was a half-breed. His mate wasn’t even ‘were.
Jared drew back, obviously stung. Absently, Jensen noted that he’d grown up tall. “Wow, man, fine then. I’ll just go back to—”
“Wait!” Jensen grabbed onto to Jared’s arm as he was turning away, and was momentarily sidetracked by the way the muscles rippled under his fingers. “Look, I, uh, didn’t mean it that way. I’m just kind of in a weird mood and I didn’t expect to see anyone I knew.”
One of Jared’s eyebrows rose. “You didn’t expect to see anyone you knew in Willow Creek?” He asked sardonically. “You are aware that the population here is, like, nonexistent, right?”
“Yeah, well,” Jensen stuttered, blushing a bit. Jared had caught him so off-guard that he couldn’t quite get his head together. He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly and tried to grin charmingly at Jared. “I just meant I wasn’t expecting to see you, you know, here. In an antique shop.”
“It’s my grandparents’,” Jared told him with a grin. “I started running the shop after I graduated. They wanted to sell it, but… What can I say? I’m fond of the place.” He looked down at Jensen expectantly. “Were you looking for something? Or just hiding?”
With a start, Jensen realized he was still holding onto Jared’s arm. He let it go abruptly and smoothed down his shirt nervously. “Just hiding, I’m afraid,” he replied, casting another glance outside. “They’re real gossips and I didn’t really want to deal with them asking me about the wedding and stuff.”
“Wedding?” Jared tilted his head to the side and Jensen was captivated by the line of his neck. “Who’s getting married?”
“Me, I guess,” Jensen answered without thinking. Although that might not be right. God, he’d found his mate. In any other world, with any other two people, that’d mean the wedding was off. But Jensen was going to be Alpha and his mate couldn’t be human.
“You guess?” That got him another eyebrow-raise. “I don’t think that’s something you should be really guessing about.” Jared waved a hand dismissively. “Besides, I thought the whole point of you leaving was to find a mate or whatever. Isn’t marriage kind of pointless after that?”
It wasn’t surprising for Jared to know any of this, but Jensen thought he sounded informed, like he’d been talking to another ‘were about the whole thing. “Yeah, it is,” Jensen agreed. “I’m not… I didn’t find my mate on my quest.” It was true. He hadn’t found his mate during his travels. He’d found him waiting back at home.
If only he’d just stuck around instead of going on a mating quest. Jensen kicked himself a bit in his head for the wasted time. Mate bonds couldn’t be recognized until after puberty, and the last time Jensen had seen Jared, the kid had been fourteen, too young for the mate-bond to stick. If Jensen had just stayed a year or so… the whole story could have been completely different.
Jared looked appropriately sympathetic. “That sucks, man,” he said. He paused, almost like he was hesitating, and then asked, “do you want to stick around here a bit? Almost no one ever comes in—we mostly just get orders. You can chill here instead of dealing with all that drama.”
“That’d be… that’d be great,” Jensen said, stumbling over his words a bit. He tried not to look like an over-eager kitten as he followed Jared towards the back of the store, where he saw a cozy little office. When Jared opened the door, a burst of heat and scent came flooding out. Jared’s warm, sweet scent, which had previously been almost drowned out by the smell of the old furniture, was concentrated inside this room. Jensen sucked in a deep breath before he remembered how rude it was, and then he remembered that Jared was human and probably wouldn’t notice anyway.
“Have a seat, man,” Jared invited him, gesturing to a cozy armchair shoved into the corner of the room. “Sorry the place is so small. I can barely fit in here myself some days.”
“You don’t need to apologize,” Jensen assured him hurriedly. He liked the room that smelled like Jared, all homey and cozy. It felt how a den should. He wondered if Jared’s bedroom was the same way, if the latent feline parts of Jared had caused him to subconsciously den down. “It’s nice.”
Jared laughed and Jensen was entranced. “Sure it is,” Jared said sarcastically, but there was a pleased smile on his face, content in the way only a beta could be after an alpha’s compliment. “Feel free to settle in. We can chat or eat or something. Or, I can shut up, if you want. My granddad says I talk too much sometimes.”
“I like the way you talk,” Jensen said without thinking about it. He would have been embarrassed if it hadn’t been for the pleased flush that rose up on Jared’s cheeks. He could have purred from contentment. “Tell me what you’ve been doing since I left.”
Jared needed no further encouragement.
He floated home on an almost-high. He hummed as he drove the truck down through the woods to pride ground. It wasn’t until he broke into the clearing that he remembered there were actual issues he’d have to deal with.
“Fuck,” he whispered to himself. Just a couple of hours with Jared and he was already totally fucked. If he’d left the antique shop as soon as he’d realized, he might have been able to go through with the wedding. With the way it was now, there was no way he could do it. He’d listened to Jared talk for hours about the antique shop, about his dogs, about his grandparents. He loved the way Jared gestured as he spoke, all-encompassing and welcoming, like everyone was in on the story. He loved his wide grin, so big and yet so shy, that’d he’d flashed at Jensen a few times. He loved—
He was so fucked.
He parked his car in front of his house and sat in the driver’s seat for a few moments. He had to go in and tell them that the wedding was off. Regardless of what happened with Jared, he couldn’t marry Liza, not knowing that his mate was only a few miles away, so sweet and precious. Much as he loved her, it was only as a friend, and it couldn’t withstand this new, soul-devouring infatuation.
“Get out of the car, Jensen,” he told himself, and grudgingly did so. He shoved his hands in his jean pockets as he strode towards the house, ignoring calls from other ‘weres. He was sure he’d get flack about that from Jeff—a leader was supposed to always be a leader, after all—but he didn’t give two shits at the moment. He wanted to immerse himself in his misery or run back to town and wrap Jared up in his arms.
He barged into the house and noticed it was strangely quiet. “Hello?” He called out. “Anyone home?”
“Hey, Jensen!” Teddy popped his head out from the kitchen. “Welcome home!”
“Hey, you!” Jensen said and headed into the kitchen. There were several pots on the stove and something in the oven. “What’re you up to?”
“I’m making dinner for us all,” Teddy said cheerfully. “Mom and Liza are busy looking at some flowers for the wedding or some such thing, so Mom asked me to cook.”
The mention of the wedding made Jensen groan. He rubbed at his forehead. “Thanks for doing this, Teddy,” he said wearily and turned to head upstairs to his bed. He’d nap or something so that he’d be in a better mood by the time his mom and Liza got back.
“Hey, hey, wait!” Teddy caught his elbow gently, and his features pinched together with concern. “What’s up? Is there something wrong?”
Jensen scrubbed a hand across his face. “It’s nothing, really. I mean, it’s something, but I really shouldn’t—” He pulled in a deep breath, calming himself, then looked up at the ceiling in resignation. “I found my mate.”
“Holy shit,” Teddy hissed, and then he was pulling Jensen out of the kitchen and pushing him to sit on the sofa. Teddy immediately sat down next to him, grabbing Jensen’s hands in his own and rubbing them soothingly. “Is that why you smell so overwhelmingly of… something?”
“Yeah,” Jensen admitted. “I spent the day at his place.”
“Why didn’t you bring him back home with you?”
The naive, earnest curiosity in Teddy’s voice made Jensen groan once more and slump back against the sofa. He covered his face with his hands before muttering, “it’s Jared Padalecki.”
“Holy shit!” Teddy fell back against the sofa with him. Peeking between his fingers, Jensen could see his eyes had gone wide. “Now that I didn’t see coming.”
“Me either,” Jensen agreed, then snorted. “Obviously.” He sighed, throwing his hands down in his lap. “Now I’m fucked.”
“You’re not totally fucked,” Teddy hedged, but as soon as Jensen threw him a sharp look, he sighed and nodded his head. “Okay, you’re a little fucked.”
They sat in silence for a few moments before Teddy hesitantly asked, “did you tell him?”
Jensen shook his head quickly. “No. I’m sure it’s him, but…” He didn’t bother finishing his sentence. Teddy knew what he was implying. Half-breeds didn’t feel the mating bond the same way werecats did. They felt something, sure, but they could ignore it easily enough. He’d heard enough stories of half-breeds turning down werecats and leaving them to pine for the rest of their lives to make him cringe away from telling Jared without the whole stigma against turned ‘weres in general.
As a future Alpha, he was expected to have a strong mate. Most ‘weres believed that turned werecats could never reach the same strength as those that had been born that way. They were looked down upon—not to the same degree as half-breeds, but looked down upon nonetheless. Where half-breeds could hide their status if they moved away from prides, ‘weres would always know a turned werecat. For that reason alone, many half-breeds were reluctant to be turned.
“We haven’t even talked about the bullying he experienced in school and stuff, but I remember him. He looked so frightened every day.” Jensen thought, with a pang, that he should have done more than just said hi. If he was going to be a real leader, he needed to look out for the downtrodden. He should have taken the kid under his wing, helped him out some.
Still, Jared had managed without him. The confident man he’d met in the antique shop was nothing like the frightened child he’d been before. Somewhere along the way, Jared had put himself back together—without Jensen’s help.
“Yeah, I remember him too.” Teddy shook his head, brow crinkling. “I haven’t really kept track of him since high school, though. All I know is that he’s friends with Chad.”
“Chad Murray?” Jensen asked, astonished, remembering the kid who’d let him onto pride ground the night before. “That kid? Are you serious?”
Teddy nodded. “Positive. His mom is always bitching about how her kid goes off and hangs out with the half-breed. I think she was afraid they’d mate for a while, but…” Teddy bit down on his lip. Obviously, Jensen thought, they hadn’t. No, Chad and Jared hadn’t mated—Jensen and Jared had.
Even the thought of Chad mating with Jared set Jensen’s teeth on edge. If he’d had fur, it would have bristled. Though he knew that Chad wasn’t any competition, he still felt like he had to fight him, take him down and prove that he was superior Alpha. “Fuck,” he muttered, shaking his head, “I fucking hate mating instincts.”
“They suck,” Teddy agreed grimly. He rubbed his small hand up and down Jensen’s back, and Jensen sank into the comforting gesture. “You need to tell him,” Teddy said quietly and Jensen tensed up again. “He’s your mate,” Teddy added, and that was really all that had to be said.
Now that Jensen knew Jared was his, he’d never be content with anyone else ever again.
“I need to tell Mom and Liza first,” Jensen hedged, because every part of his being shied away from the thought of telling Jared and being rejected. “And Jeff. God, Jeff.” Liza was Jeff’s daughter, after all. Mate or no mate, he was going to be pissed that his little girl had been dumped.
Teddy grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “Do you want me to be there when you tell them?”
“Yes, please,” Jensen answered, grateful for his brother’s support. Filled with affection for his little brother, he leaned over and rubbed their cheeks together, purring all the while. Teddy let off a low, pleased scent and it reminded Jensen of the look he’d seen on Jared’s face—a beta happy to have pleased an Alpha. “He’s gonna be great once he’s turned,” Jensen whispered.
Teddy smiled at him and squeezed his hand once more. “I’m sure he will be.”
Neither of them mentioned the fact that he might not agree to be turned at all.
“Jared Padalecki?!” Jensen’s mother and Liza both screeched at once, and he winced at the sheer volume. Beside him, Teddy buried his face in Chris’s chest.
“Half-breed Jared Padalecki?!” Liza repeated, throwing her hands up in the hair. “For God’s sake, Jensen!”
“Well, it’s not like I had a choice!” Jensen huffed. “It just kind of… happened.”
Liza rolled her eyes. “It just happened, he says.” She scowled at him darkly. “That is not an excuse!”
“Well, it, uh, kind of is,” Teddy piped up timidly, only to cower under the dark looks his mother and Liza sent him.
“Teddy’s right.” Chris Kane, bonafide cowboy, seemed to be the only calm person left in the house. Jensen was inclined to be very, very grateful. “You both know mating isn’t a choice. Screaming about it isn’t gonna help matters.”
Pursing her lips, Jensen’s momma looked over at him. “Are you sure he’s your mate?” She asked skeptically.
“Mom!” Jensen frowned at her. “You always told me ‘when you know, you know.’ And I knew, okay? I practically drowned in it. He is my mate.”
“Have you told him yet?” Over the past couple of minutes, Liza had gone from clearly incensed to blank. Looking at her, Jensen couldn’t tell what she was feeling at all. Her arms were crossed across her chest like armor.
Jensen looked down at his hands in his lap and shook his head. “No. I was too surprised. And… after that…”
“Do you plan on telling him?” Liza asked, features still emotionless.
Jensen studied her for a minute and then sighed up. He heaved himself up off the sofa and crossed over to put his hands on her shoulders. “I don’t know, Liza,” he told her honestly. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I never thought this would happen to me.” He drew in a deep breath and leaned down to press their foreheads together. “I don’t know and I could really use my best friend right about now.”
She held sullenly firm for a few more moments before she huffed out a breath and shoved him away, glaring at the wall as she spoke. “Fine, whatever, idiot. We’ll talk about what to do with your half-breed mate.”
Smiling affectionately at her, Jensen squeezed her upper arm in gratitude before releasing her. “Thanks.”
“Well, it seems pretty clear to me.” Jensen’s mother was carefully rearranging her hair. It had gotten a bit out of place in her rage and surprise. “You have to tell him and turn him. Obviously.”
“No!” Liza said shortly, shaking her head vehemently, even though she had just spoken about helping him. Jensen blinked at her a couple of times, surprised. “That would be disastrous! The pride won’t accept an Alpha with a turned mate. We should talk to my father and see if there’s any way to break the mate bond.”
“Break the mate bond?!” Teddy squeaked, the blood rushing from his face and turning him deathly pale. His gaze shot to Jensen, laced with horror. Jensen simply stared back, unable to think through the sheer wrongness breaking the mate-bond. “Jensen, you can’t do that! He’s your mate!”
“I guess it depends what Jensen cares about more,” Liza snapped, furious in a way Jensen had never seen her before, “his half-breed mate or the pride!”
Normally, Teddy and Liza got along like oil and water. Liza was too blunt and sarcastic for peaceful, loving Teddy. Through their childhood, he’d often cowered before her and slunk away with his tail between his legs. Jensen had tried to fix this, to no avail; they were just too different.
He’d never seen Teddy stand up to Liza before, but today, instead of backing down, he stood up and glared her down. “You don’t understand what it’s like. No one would want to give up that bond, regardless of their mate’s situation. It’s precious. What you are suggesting is an abomination!”
“Look, kitten,” Liza sneered, and then Chris was lunging towards her, fangs bared. She growled back, swiping out with her claws and Jensen didn’t even want to know what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten in between them.
“Whoa, whoa!” He held out his hands, keeping his brother’s mate away from his best friend, and vice versa. “Calm down, guys. It’s a big deal, but it isn’t—fighting isn’t going to help!”
“Jensen,” Teddy hissed. “You can’t be considering it!”
Jensen looked over at his brother mournfully and couldn’t help ducking his head a little in shame. Even though his instincts were raging against the idea, he had to admit that he was thinking about it. “Look, Teddy, I’ve got to consider every option here. I’ve been training to be Alpha my whole life. Jared is—it’s not like he can feel the bond anyway.”
Teddy’s cheeks were a burning, angry red. “For fuck’s sake, Jensen! Don’t be an idiot!”
“Wha—” Jensen started but his brother easily cut him off.
“Jared’s had a crush on you since his freshman year of high school!” Teddy spat out. Liza let out a low warning snarl, and Jensen darted a surprised look her way. Teddy continued, fangs flashing as he spoke; “almost everyone in the whole pride knew about it! You were the only one oblivious enough not to notice. I dare you to tell me now that he couldn’t feel anything!”
Jensen kept his eyes on Liza, who was glaring at Teddy as if she wanted to rip him apart. “Did you know?” He asked her.
“About the stupid half-breed’s little crush?” Liza laughed, loud and high. “Yeah, sure. Why the fuck do you care? That’s not proof of anything!”
Jensen sucked in a breath, scrubbing his hands over his face. “Okay, okay,” he muttered, mostly to calm himself down. Drawing himself back together, he set his shoulders back, nodding. “Everyone is going to stop fighting. I wanted your opinions—I have them. Now, I’m going to think on this a bit and then I’ll… I’ll tell you what I decide to do. Until then…” He looked over at Liza, whose upper lip was still curled back over her teeth. “The wedding’s off. I don’t know what I’m going to do about Jared, but I can’t marry you. Not knowing this.”
If anything, this only seemed to incense Liza more. “Jensen—” she got out, but Jensen held up a hand, silencing her.
“I already told you the plan. It’s not up for negotiation,” he said sternly. He turned to where his mother was standing in the corner, looking fairly displeased. “I’m going to spend the night at Teddy and Chris’s house, Mom. I’ll be back here for dinner tomorrow.”
“Are you running away?” Liza jeered behind him.
The glance he gave her was unamused. “No. I’m not. I’m getting my thoughts together before doing anything rash. Like a leader should.” He knew she had understood his point when her shoulders slumped. “Do me a favor and don’t tell your dad about this. I’d like to talk to him myself.”
“Fine,” she snarled and stalked out of the room. Seconds later, the front door slammed behind her.
“Well,” Teddy said, voice still a bit shaky. “That went well.”
Grinding his teeth, Jensen turned back to his littlest brother. “Why didn’t you tell me that stuff about Jared before?” He asked bluntly.
Cringing, Teddy fiddled with the sleeve of his shirt. “Look, I just thought… it seemed like you were already really confused about it. I didn’t want to add anything else to that. I didn’t know you were going to talk about breaking your bond.” Teddy’s lip curled up as he spoke, as if even the idea made him sick. “You can’t do that, Jensen,” he said, both commanding and imploring by turn. “You can’t.”
“That’s my choice to make,” Jensen answered firmly, but he was getting the feeling Teddy was right.
The next day, Jensen ended up back in Willow Creek, standing in front of the antique shop. He stared at the door for a moment then muttered to himself, “This is stupid, Jensen.” Nevertheless, he carefully pushed the door opened and called out, “hello?”
“Ah, fuck!” Jared stumbled out from behind a set of older bookcases, hobbling a bit. “Fuck, man!” He glared at Jensen petulantly. “You startled me.”
“Um, sorry?” Jensen edged closer. “What did you do to yourself?” Jared mumbled something that Jensen couldn’t make out, even with his werecat healing. “What?”
Sighing, Jared looked up at the ceiling as if hoping that the heavens would send down some help. “I stepped on my own foot,” he grumbled. “Okay? I’m a klutz. I can’t help these things.”
At seeing Jared’s obvious embarrassment, Jensen’s lips twitched up into a soft smile. “That’s okay,” he said. “As long as you don’t get yourself hurt often.”
Jared coughed, cheeks flushing, and Jensen suspected that he did, in fact, often manage to injure himself. “Anyhow,” Jared said loudly, as if he thought that would distract Jensen, “what are you doing back here anyway, man? I thought you had a wedding to plan.”
Jensen opened his mouth to tell Jared that he’d called the wedding off, but snapped his jaw shut at the last minute. He wanted to ease Jared into things, not just spring it on him. “Looking for refuge again,” he hedged. “Someone told me that it would be okay if I came back.”
“Someone did, huh?” Jared’s lips curved upwards even as he raised a brow. “That someone might not have offered if they’d known you’d cause them to injure themselves.”
“I’m pretty sure they could hurt themselves without my help,” Jensen said wryly, and the blush on Jared’s cheek confirmed his suspicions. He took another step closer, unable to help himself. “If you really mind, I could go…” He offered, leaving it open-ended, even though he really didn’t want to leave.
“Oh, no!” Eyes gone wide, Jared held his hands up. “No, man, I couldn’t kick you out. Come one back to my office. I have some coffee brewing, if you’re interested.”
If he’d been in his feline form, Jensen’s ears would have pricked up. “Coffee is good,” he said, even though that was about the understatement of a century.
Jared chuckled as he held the door to his office open for Jensen to walk through. Immediately, the scent of a good coffee blend hit him and he breathed it deeply. Thoughtfully, Jared didn’t say anything, just eased by him to pour the coffee into two mugs. “Sugar or milk?” He asked and Jensen shook his head. He clutched his mug in his hand and closed his eyes as he sniffed it. It was with a low purr that he finally took a sip.
When he finally looked at Jared again, the man’s eyes were wide and his cheeks flushed once more. His own coffee was abandoned on his desk. “What?” Jensen asked curiously.
That seemed to snap Jared out of it. He shook his head sharply and grabbed for his own mug. “Nothing,” he said hurriedly. He squirmed back in his seat a bit, then licked his lips. “Look, to be honest…” He looked to the side and sighed. “Chad told me there was a fight over at your house last night. Involving your… fiancée.”
“Oh.” Jensen said and silently cursed Chad’s gossiping. Apparently he wasn’t much better than his mother.
“I’m not going to make you talk about it or anything,” Jared reassured him, looking down at the cup in his hand. “I’m just saying that if you want to talk about it… you don’t have to fill me in on the back story.”
Jensen rubbed a hand over his face. “Liza’s just a little… high-strung right now, that’s all,” he grumbled, still wishing Jared hadn’t brought it up. He hardly wanted to talk about his ex-fiancée with his mate. Still, Jared had invited intimacy and Jensen wasn’t going to turn him down. “Some new information came to light and I think the two of us are just kind of questioning things.”
“That’s rough, man.” Jared dumped a spoonful of sugar into his coffee and then stirred it briskly. “I know you two are close. I remember you were almost always together in high school.”
“She’s my best friend,” Jensen agreed, because regardless of whether they were getting married or not, that hadn’t changed. Licking his lips, he spotted a way to change the subject and took it. “Speaking of high school—”
Jared let out a long heavy sigh. “Let me guess. You want to hear my sob story.”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it that way,” Jensen said, but wilted a bit under a skeptical look from Jared. “I just… you’re not what I remember,” he said lamely. “I’m just curious what changed you so much.”
“Chad, for one thing,” Jared said matter-of-factly and Jensen bristled a bit. Luckily, Jared didn’t notice. “He was my first real friend, you know. Once the other kids saw that I was just a normal kid too, they stopped being such bitches.” Jared shrugged a bit, taking another sip of his coffee. “My mom moving out of town helped too.”
“Your mom moved?” Jensen asked, surprised. He hadn’t heard that from Teddy.
“Yep,” Jared replied nonchalantly. “People seemed to remember about me less when my mom wasn’t around. I love her to death, but… I think her leaving was good for both of us.”
Jensen vaguely remembered Jared’s mother, a tall brown-haired woman with deep lines around her eyes like she was always worried. He couldn’t remember ever having seen her smile. He did remember the names people had whispered behind her back, the nasty things people had said.
Frankly, he was surprised it had taken her that long to leave.
Jared interrupted Jensen’s musing by continuing his story. “I also took up self-defense. It became a bit of a passion for me. I continued on to learn more martial arts, and before I knew it, I’d bulked up and shot up. After that… well, I didn’t really care what people said anymore.”
Jensen smiled at him. “I’m glad. They all suck anyway.” He fidgeted with the empty mug in his hand. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t—”
“Stop.” Jared held up a hand with a roll of his eyes. “You had other things on the mind, dude. Like learning to be Alpha, for one. You didn’t have time to take care of the scrawny little half-breed kid.”
“Part of being an Alpha is taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves,” Jensen argued.
Jared looked at him with some amusement. “An Alpha’s job is to take care of their pride, from what I understand,” he said. “And, dude, I’m not pride. You don’t need to beat yourself up about not noticing. Besides, you were nice to me, which was more than anyone else did.”
“Still—” Jensen protested, but Jared just shook his head.
“Drop it,” he advised. “It’s ancient history.” He eyed Jensen’s empty mug. “Want more coffee?” He asked, clearly changing the subject.
“Yes, please,” Jensen answered politely. He wasn’t stupid enough to push where he wasn’t wanted. He watched as Jared poured him more coffee and almost said it. You’re my mate, he thought in his head. But by the time Jared turned back around, the impulse had been pushed back down. He smiled as he accepted his coffee and kept silent.
On the drive back down into Yellow Valley Pridelands, Jensen alternated between humming happily and worrying his tail off. After all, he still hadn’t told Jared about the whole “mate” business, but he had a good feeling about things. Their conversation today had gone well and confirmed what he’d already known deep down—he wanted Jared and he’d have him however he could. If Jared didn’t want to be turned, they would deal with that. Just because he wouldn’t feel the mate bond as a human didn’t mean he wouldn’t be able to love Jensen.
As he pulled out of the woods into the clearing, he frowned. At the other end of the valley, some of the other ‘weres were scurrying around, setting up chairs and decorations like there was going to be some sort of ceremony. They used that space only for big events—otherwise it remained empty except for children playing. Curious, he drove all the way to the end of the road and hopped out of the car, jogging over.
Liza was in the center of things, directing the other ‘weres. She raised her eyebrows when he stopped at her side. “What are you setting up for?” He asked. He noted absently that the decorations were very… white.
She rolled her eyes and linked her arm through his. “I’m setting up for our wedding, idiot.”
“Our—what?” Jensen jerked away from her in shock. “What the hell? I told you to cancel it.”
She shrugged nonchalantly, but he could see a line of tension in her shoulders. “And I ignored you. Deal with it.”
“Why the fuck would you do that, Liza?” Jensen ran an exasperated hand through his hair. “Why would you ignore me about canceling our wedding?”
She pinned him with her gaze, eyes steel sharp. “Because you obviously weren’t in the right place to be making that kind of decision. I made the executive choice to keep with our original plans until you saw sense.”
“Saw sense?” Jensen sputtered, throwing his hands up in the air. “Are you fucking—he’s my mate! I’m not going to marry you!” Out of the corner of his eye, Jensen saw they were gathering a crowd. He could make out Mrs. Murray, head of the Honeybees, inching closer, but he ignored everyone. He couldn’t let Liza continue with her delusions. “Look, Liza, you’re my best friend in the world. But I shouldn’t have agreed to marry you even before I found my mate. And now that I have? It’s definitely not gonna happen.”
There was a moment of utter stillness, and then Liza’s eyes narrowed into feline slits. “Are you telling me—” she hissed “—that you are going to choose a half-breed over me?!”
“I’m choosing my mate over you!” Jensen snarled back. His hands were fisted, nails biting into his palms. “Why do you even want to marry me?!”
“Because I love you!” She screamed. Jensen froze at the strength of the pain and anger in her voice. “I’ve loved you since I was sixteen! And all you’ve ever talked about is finding your mate—as if that matters! It shouldn’t matter at all when I’m right here!”
“Liza,” he whispered hoarsely. “Liza, I never knew.”
“No,” she said harshly, lip curling up to reveal her teeth shifting into fangs. “No, you just never looked. Why do you think I asked my father to arrange this?”
Jensen shook his head, backing away. “Fuck, Liza. You shouldn’t have done that. You need to stop this. I can’t—I love you, but I don’t love you. And I have a mate. There’s no way he could—” He shook his head again. “I’m going to ask Jared to turn and be with me. This wedding isn’t gonna happen.”
There was a moment—just a moment—when Jensen thought he saw tears in her eyes. But in the next moment, all the emotion had fled from her face and her expression was cold and blank. “Fine then,” she said, with a slight sneer. “Mate the half-breed. Do you think the pride will accept an Alpha with a turned mate?”
“Well, I won’t!” A voice called out from the sideline, and Jensen turned around to see half the pride circled around them.
“I won’t either!” Someone else yelled.
“Shut up, assholes!” On the edge of the crowd, Chad Michael Murray scowled at the rest of the pride. “Just because you’re speciesist fucks doesn’t mean that—”
Voices were bursting out from every side, arguing back and forth and back again. Smirking, Liza turned her back on Jensen and sauntered away. Jensen looked back at the crowd to see one of the Honeybees on the phone. Probably gossiping.
“I need to go,” Jensen muttered to himself, and he bolted towards his car. It was only once he got there that he realized he had no idea where to find Jared if he wasn’t at the antique shop.
“Dude!” Chad popped up beside him and shoved a piece of paper into his hand. “That’s the address to Jared’s apartment. Try and get there before he hears all this shit.”
All Jensen could do was nod, get in the car, and stomp on the gas.
Five minutes down the road, Jensen’s phone started ringing. Or, more accurately, it started roaring. “Shit,” he muttered and scrambled to pull it out of his pocket and flip it open. “Jeff,” he said grimly, “I’m assuming you heard.”
“If there’s anyone who hasn’t heard in this pride, then Mary Murray is losing her touch,” Jeff replied wryly. He was silent for a moment and then huffed out a big sigh. “Damn, kid, did you have to—”
“I didn’t choose who I mated with,” Jensen snarled instantly, cutting the Alpha off. “And even if I could, I wouldn’t choose differently. Jared’s my mate and everyone’s gonna have to deal with that.”
Jeff snorted and Jensen could imagine him shaking his head wearily. “I was going to say, did you have to make the announcement quite so public?”
“Oh,” Jensen muttered, a little ashamed. “I didn’t mean for it to be?” He volunteered hesitantly. “It’s just that Liza—”
Another sigh came from the other end of the line. Jensen winced. Liza was Jeff’s daughter, after all. “I’m well aware of the mistakes Liza made,” Jeff admitted. “And I shouldn’t have gone along with her plan and arranged your marriage. I’d hoped, if you didn’t find your mate, that your feelings for Liza would develop into more. Obviously, that isn’t going to happen now.”
“No, it’s not,” Jensen confirmed. He steered his car off the exit for Willow Creek for the second time that day. “Look, Jeff, how worried do I have to be about these challenges?”
There was a rustling sound on the other end of the line. Jensen imagined Jeff getting up from his desk and moving to stand by the window that looked out on pride ground. “I’ll be honest with you, kiddo,” Jeff said bluntly, “it’s gonna be a tough one. There’s a lot of young foolish Alphas signing up and a few older ones. I even know of a few betas that are thinking of getting involved.”
“Fuck,” Jensen cursed and wished he could beat his head on his steering wheel. Instead, he took the next turn with a bit more violence than was necessary.
“You’re looking at ten to twelve challenges,” Jeff told him. “Now, I’ve got faith in you, kid, but going up against that many people back to back would be tough for anyone.”
“Any of them you think could be talked down?” Jensen asked. Twelve was a lot. If they could just get it lower than double digits…
“Maybe,” Jeff answered evasively, voice crackling over the line. “It’d sure be a lot easier if your mate was turned by sundown tomorrow night. I think some of the older ones are only up in arms because there’s a chance Jared won’t agree to being turned.”
Jensen sucked in a breath. He’d planned to just tell Jared, not pressure him into being turned, before the events of his confrontation with Liza. Obviously, that was all out the window. He’d need to get down on his knees and beg, because as much as he’d said he’d give up his pride for Jared, he really didn’t want to.
The address Chad had given him led to a small apartment complex just outside the downtown area. Jensen pulled into a parking space up front and turned his engine off. He sat there for a moment. “Fuck, Jeff,” he muttered, “how the hell am I supposed to do this?”
“For one thing, you’ve got to calm down,” Jeff advised him. The older man chuckled a bit, not like he found the situation funny but like he found it absurd. “I don’t know, kid. Most of the time, our mates feel the bond back. You’re a bit handicapped here.”
“That is not helpful!” Jensen hissed, and slammed the phone shut. “Shit,” he grumbled and slid out of his car, jogging across the street to the apartment building. Apparently, Jared’s room was one of three on the fourth, and top, floor. The building was too old to have an elevator, so Jensen took the stairs two at a time. At the top, he took in a breath and he caught lingering traces of Jared’s scent—he hadn’t been home long then. Quickly, Jensen strode over to Jared’s door and rapped three times. “Jared?” He called. “It’s me. Jensen.”
For a few seconds, it was silent, and then there was the pounding noise of angry footsteps and the door was yanked open. Jared stood just inside the doorway and his rage radiated off of him.
So much for getting there before he found out.
“You,” Jared snarled. “You need to get the fuck out. Now.”
“Jared—” Jensen protested, alarmed. “Jared, if we could just talk—”
“No,” Jared cut him off harshly. “We are not talking. We are not doing anything. Haven’t you and your people fucked up my life enough? God only knows you’ve tortured me for the past nineteen years for just being born; did you honestly think I’d agree to be turned into one of you and be stuck dealing with your bullshit the rest of my life? Did you?”
“I—” Jensen started, but Jared didn’t give him any time to reply. Instead, he continued on with his rant as if Jensen hadn’t spoken in the first place.
“And if that’s not bad enough… The past two days I actually thought you genuinely liked me! Me, just for me. But no, of course not, because this is my life and nothing is that good. No, you were just hanging around because apparently I’m your mate—but I wasn’t good enough to tell that; no, you were so ashamed that you kept it a secret and stuck around to evaluate whether the half-breed was good enough for your highness!”
“That’s not how it was!” Jensen broke out desperately. “I wouldn’t—I wouldn’t fucking do that, Jared.”
“Sure,” Jared sneered, and Jensen saw all his hopes for his future life with his mate begin to crack and crumble. “Sure you wouldn’t, Jensen. You know what? Why don’t you and your bullshit go somewhere else and leave me the fuck alone!”
With that, Jared slammed his door in Jensen’s face and Jensen was left standing there. Alone.
He could give up, he thought blankly. He could turn around and walk away like Jared wanted him to. He could go back to Liza and tell her he’d thought the better of things—see if she would take him back, try to learn to love her. He could get back on the approved path and just start marching.
But Jared was his mate. And, beyond that, he was someone Jensen genuinely liked. Someone that he would have felt a connection with, mate bond or not. Someone who didn’t deserve to be given up on.
“Jared,” he said to the door and he hoped Jared was listening. “Look, I… I know why you’re upset. I know what you think of me and my people. I know we’ve been nothing but cruel. Like I told you the other day, I should’ve done more. I should’ve been the one to help you make things better, not Chad. Some mouthy little beta shouldn’t have been a better person than our entire pride. I know that. I recognize that now.”
Taking a deep breath, he pressed on, leaning up against the door as he did so, hoping his words carried to Jared’s heart. “You are my mate. And I’m not ashamed of you. I was never ashamed of you. I was…” He paused and closed his eyes. “I was afraid, Jared. I was so afraid, because I knew you couldn’t feel the bond like I could. I was afraid that I’d tell you and you’d react… well, like you did, I guess.” He let out a choked laugh. “No one wants to be rejected. And I knew that… that you might reject me. And I wasn’t sure I could bear it.”
He thought he heard a slight shift on the other side of the door, but then it was quiet again. Still, it gave him the courage to keep going. “I do like you, mate bond or no. I’m just so lucky because the mate bond made me look and see you for who you were. I wish I could’ve seen that from the beginning. I wish—well, you already know I wish I could change things. I just… I want us to be mates. I came here to beg and grovel and I’m not too proud to do that.” His voice was shaky as he said, “so, please, please, Jared. I don’t care if you don’t want to turn. I don’t care if you want me to leave my pride—well, I do, but for you… For you, I’d do it. I choose you, okay? You. And I hope that you’ll choose me.”
At the close of his speech, he hovered by the door, hoping, hoping, hoping—
“Go home, Jensen,” Jared whispered, just on the other side of the door.
It was an order Jensen couldn’t ignore. Rejected by his mate, he slunk out of the apartment building and drove away with his spirits at an all time low.
Jensen went back to pride ground that night, because not going back would be a sign of cowardice. He snarled at those who dared jeer at him. The challenge fights might have started early if Teddy and Chris hadn’t gotten in the middle of things.
“Jesus, Jensen,” Teddy murmured. “You’re a wreck.”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Jensen snapped, and went to try to sleep on the couch. When he woke up the next morning—after not being able to sleep for half the night—people were tearing down the decorations for the wedding and setting up the field for the challenge matches. Jensen sat by Teddy’s window and watched with a muted sort of apathy.
When Teddy tried to feed him breakfast, he refused to eat. “You need to keep your strength up, Jensen,” he urged worriedly, darting glances at the field every so often. “You can’t fight them on an empty stomach.”
“I’m thinking of not fighting at all,” Jensen answered blandly.
There was a gasp, and then Teddy smacked him over the head. “Ouch!” Jensen protested, glaring up at his little brother. “What was that for?”
“Because you are being an idiot!” Teddy hissed, slamming the plate full of eggs and fruit down on the table in front of him. “Just because Jared’s in shock and doesn’t want to deal with you right now doesn’t mean you can give up on everything. Get out there and fight, if only to prove to them that Jared being your mate doesn’t make you weak!”
That was actually… a fairly good point. Jensen waited until Teddy left the room to dig into his breakfast, mostly out of lingering petulance. He kept an eye on his challengers, strutting around and bragging, and began to plot his moves for that night.
When sunset came, the whole pride piled outdoors, situating themselves in a rough ring around the fighting area. Jensen stood with Jeff on one side and the challengers on the other. Liza was conspicuously glaring across the circle at him, eyes following his every move. Jensen watched her back sadly until Jeff nudged him with his elbow. “She’ll come around eventually,” Jeff said. “Once she finds her mate and settles down, it’ll all be like dust in the rearview mirror.”
“I hope so,” Jensen murmured back, but took his attention off of her. He couldn’t afford to be distracted.
As the sun began to dip below the horizon line, Jeff strode out into the middle of the circle and the pride fell silent. “Welcome!” He announced in his loud, booming voice. “Concerns have been raised regarding the future Alpha. My judgment in choosing Jensen to secede me has been questioned.” He flung his arm out toward the challengers. “These eleven alphas”—only eleven, Jensen noted, so one had dropped out—“have demanded the right to fight for the Alpha position and Jensen has come here to answer their challenges. Should he defeat them all, no one shall doubt that he was meant to be Alpha. Should he fail… the one who defeated him will fight the rest of the challengers for the position.” Jeff gazed out at the pride and then asked, “are the rules of the challenge understood?”
“I have a question.”
The voice felt familiar to Jensen, in a way that made it clear exactly who had spoken. Sure enough, gasps rang out from the pride as Jared elbowed his way forward, Chad on his heels. Jensen straightened up at the sight of his mate, tense and clearly pissed. Jared had obviously been there for a while—no doubt Chad had used his job to sneak Jared onto pridelands.
Jared walked straight to the front of the crowd and crossed his arms over his chest. “I want to know why these alphas are challenging Jensen.”
“Because of you, half-breed!” Liza snarled from where she was standing a hundred feet or so away. “Because you are weak. No Alpha can have a weak mate.”
“Is that so,” Jared said, clearly not asking. He moved closer to her, hips moving with a kind of feline grace Jensen hadn’t seen in him before. “Then why,” he emphasized, “are they challenging Jensen?” A hush fell over the crowd as they—along with Jensen—waited to see Jared make his point. Jared tilted his head to the side with a half-smile. “It seems to me that it’s not Jensen’s strength that’s being questioned, but mine.”
“What are you trying to say, Jared Padalecki?” Jeff asked warily, eyes remaining trained on the man.
Jared turned to him, still smiling oddly. “I’m just saying. If I’m the one whose strength is being questioned, maybe I should be the one fighting.”
Liza snorted. “You can’t beat an alpha, idiot. They’d chew you up and spit you out.”
One of Jared’s eyebrows rose, and Jensen got the feeling that he was about to pounce. “I wasn’t talking about fighting alphas,” Jared told her. “After all, a mate doesn’t need to be alpha strong. I’m talking about fighting you.”
The crowd broke out in hisses and whispers. Liza’s jaw dropped open. “Are you kidding?” She shrieked. “You think you can beat me?”
Jared shrugged nonchalantly. “Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. But since you were Jensen’s proposed wife before he met me, then I think it makes sense to fight you. After all, if they were content with Jensen being Alpha with you at his side, then beating you proves I’m good enough for the pride.” He turned back to Jeff with harsh eyes. “Right?”
Jeff was silent for a moment, as if he did not quite know how to handle the situation. He looked over at the challengers and nodded once. “If the issue is with Jensen’s mate, then Jensen’s mate should be allowed to fight. His reasoning stands. Do you accept this?”
There was some hesitance, but each of the challengers agreed. Jensen lunged forward to object, but both Jeff and Jared cut him off with a single look. Chastised, Jensen took a step back to stand next to Teddy, nearly vibrating with anxiety.
Teddy was watching with wide eyes. “I hope Jared knows what he’s doing,” he whispered.”
“Me too,” Jensen agreed grimly.
“Can Jared Padalecki and Liza Morgan enter the ring please?” Jeff asked, and both did so. Jeff looked at Jared. “Jared, because you are not ‘were, you are recognized as handicapped in this match. Would you like to choose a weapon?”
Jared smirked and shook his head. “I think I’m good, thanks.”
Jeff raised his eyebrows but did not ask again. He turned back to regard the both of them equally. “This will be a fair fight. You should not wound more than necessary.” He paused and looked at Liza a little harder. “That means you should keep the claws to a minimum.” Liza nodded once and Jeff continued, voice hard. “The fight will be over when one of you surrenders to the other or I deem one of you unfit to continue. Understood?”
Both Jared and Liza nodded. Jeff backed out of the ring until he was once more by Jensen’s side. “Fighters, prepared yourselves!” He called. “And… begin!”
It was Liza who attacked first. If Jensen had been the fighter, no one would have dared to use that move. It was a head-on charge, the first thing ‘weres learned to do when they were cubs. ‘Weres were faster, stronger, than humans. No doubt she wanted to take Jared down with the simple move to prove just how easy to beat he was.
But Jared didn’t seem afraid. In the split-second between her launching herself at him and his reaction, he seemed utterly calm.
It was with a loud thump that Jared jammed his elbow into her collarbone, sending her stumbling backwards. She screeched in pain as Jared followed up the move with a hammerfist to the right side of her head and a forward kick to her ribcage with his left foot.
The last kick caused her to hit the ground on her back. She tried to spring back up, but Jared preempted her by leaning down and striking her in the face, once, twice, three times. With her still in shock from the punches, he grabbed her by the hair and forced her over onto her stomach, burying her face in the ground. He slid down until he was sitting on her back, one hand in her hair and the other holding her hands above her head. “Give,” he snarled.
For a few moments, Liza continued to struggle before she apparently realized her inability to escape from Jared’s hold. She went completely limp and hissed, “I give” into the ground.
Jared didn’t let her up immediately. He kept her in his hold until Jeff cleared his throat. “Jared,” Jeff said, and Jared’s gaze was almost feral as he turned his head. “Let her go,” Jeff commanded, and with a sneer, Jared did.
Liza was covered with dirt and her hair was in disarray. There was a large bruise forming over her right cheek. She stood in complete contrast to Jared, who hadn’t obtained so much as a scratch in the fight. “God,” Teddy muttered beside Jensen. “I would kill to know where he learned that.”
Jared looked out at the crowd with a savage snarl. “Does anyone else want to challenge Jensen or I?” He growled. Not a single soul answered.
With a sharp, satisfied nod, Jared said, “good.” He strode over to Jensen, the energy around him still manic from the fight, and said, “you’re coming back to my apartment with me tonight.”
It wasn’t a question.
Jensen lunged forward, grabbing Jared’s face and pulling him into a desperate kiss. Jared kissed him back with a snarl, grabbing onto his hips and pulling him in as they savaged each other’s mouths.
When Jared finally pulled away, his lips were puffy and red. “Where’s your car?” He gritted out, and Jensen practically dragged him over to the truck. He didn’t even bother to put his seatbelt on before kicking the truck into drive and pressing down on the gas pedal. *
It took Jensen a couple of minutes to get over the shock of everything. In fact, it wasn’t until they were exiting the forest that he turned to Jared and said, “dude. That was badass.”
Jared cracked up, tossing his head back against the seat and just laughing unreservedly. Jensen watched the long line of his neck for as long as he could before he had to look back at the road. Looking at the road wasn’t so bad either, because he could still hear Jared’s laughter.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Jensen could practically hear the grin in Jared’s voice. “Self-defense. And then some other martial arts. And a lot of anger. It makes for some kickass fighting skills.”
Jensen shook his head, a bit bemused but happy. “You can do all the fighting from now on. I’ll just sit back and admire.”
“Uh-huh,” Jared replied skeptically. “I’m sure that’ll make the pride happy. Turned human doing all the alpha-men work.”
“Turned?” Jensen questioned cautiously, because Jared had brought it up after all. He risked a quick glance to his side to take in Jared’s expression. He still looked pretty content and settled, despite what he’d said. “You think that might actually be something you want?”
“Yes,” Jared said simply. “And not just for you.” He paused a moment, clearly thinking and then continued slowly, “Chad came over last night and we talked a lot about what went down when I was a kid and how I felt about it. And what it could mean for me, being your mate. I want to prove to them—to all ‘weres—that being turned doesn’t mean being weak. That half-breeds… I know they aren’t your guys’ ideal, but they’re going to happen. And they should be treated better than I was.”
Jensen would have apologized again, but somehow he felt that wasn’t what Jared wanted. Instead, he reached over and squeezed Jared’s knee gently. “They should,” he agreed. “But hopefully you still want to be a turned a little for my sake?”
Laughing again, Jared nodded. “Yeah, yeah, I want to feel this mystical crazy mate bond too.” He elbowed Jensen gently, clearly conscious that he was driving. “I had the biggest crush on you in high school, you know.”
“So I’ve heard,” Jensen replied, heart thumping a bit. “I didn’t… I didn’t actually realize at the time. Teddy said I’m pretty oblivious.”
“That you are!” Jared affirmed cheerfully. “But that’s okay because now I’m here to make sure you don’t walk into tree branches or stumble over roots or—”
“Hey!” Jensen protested, darting a wounded look at his mate—his mate! “Let me remind you who stepped on his own foot—”
“Anyhow,” Jared interrupted loudly, “the point is that we are going to go back to my apartment and have a lot of sex so you can prove to me just how into me you are.”
Jensen hoped Jared was mostly joking, but he couldn’t quite tell. He knew all the issues Jared had brought up in his speech hadn’t been resolved by one little fight. They’d have to talk about them later, but for now, Jared was in a good mood and seemed to have thrown himself into their relationship with fervor. Jensen didn’t want to dump on that by bringing up old wounds.
When they got to Jared’s apartment, Jared decided to attempt to race him up the stairs. They were snickering like little kids as they each tried to elbow the other out of the way. One of Jared’s sharp elbows caught Jensen’s side at the last moment and Jared crowed out his victory a second later, doing a silly dance in front of his door in celebration. “Suck on that!” He said, sticking out his tongue.
“I’d rather suck on other things?” Jensen offered, because it really was too good of an opening to resist. Unfortunately, Jared doubling up with laughter was a bit of a deterrent to getting inside because, well, Jared had the keys.
Eventually they got through into Jared’s apartment. The moment the door closed behind them, they were exchanging sloppy kisses, wet and full of tongue. There was no finesse to their caresses—every bit of skill Jensen had ever acquired went out the window. Luckily, Jared seemed to be in a similar boat.
“Mmmm… bedroom,” Jared murmured, so Jensen followed in the general direction Jared was tugging him. Somehow, they managed to shed clothes on the way—Jensen wasn’t quite sure of the logistics on that one, given that most of the attempts attempts to undress had involved more flailing and groping than undressing—but by the time Jared fell backwards onto his bed, he was down to just his jeans and one sock. That Jensen could see, of course.
Jensen took a moment to admire the sight of Jared sprawled out shirtless on the bed, from the way his hair was mussed to the pink tint of his cheeks, before crawling on top of him. Instantly, Jared pulled him down into another kiss. Quite frankly, Jensen couldn’t get enough of their kisses either.
“You’re gonna fuck me, right?” Jared whispered against his lips and Jensen nodded. “Good,” Jared said, smiling smugly. “Get my pants off.”
Jensen had no problem at all doing that. Jared’s pants and boxers were gone in a flash. Jensen couldn’t help ducking down to nuzzle Jared’s cock as soon as it was exposed—such a pretty beta cock, although from what Jensen understood, all human males had beta cocks. Still, it was pretty and smooth and hard under his lips and cheeks, so he gave it some more encouraging nuzzles to get it going.
“God, that is so fucking hot,” Jared told him, hands instantly grabbing at his hair. Jensen looked up at him through his lashes, which made Jared’s hips buck in the most pleasing way. “Gonna kill me, man,” Jared panted just before Jensen began to suckle on the tip of his cock.
Just like his smell, Jared tasted delicious. Jensen licked across the slit of Jared’s cock a few times, coaxing out a couple drops of pre-come. It didn’t take him long to decide he liked it and that he definitely wanted to give Jared more blowjobs in the future.
As for the moment, though… Jensen gave Jared’s cock a few parting licks before he eased back up Jared’s body. Jared kissed him vigorously, almost as if he was trying to pull his own taste from Jensen’s mouth, which made it rather hard for Jensen to get his own jeans and boxers down like he wanted. Eventually, he managed to kick them off and heard the satisfying sound of them hitting the floor.
“Oooh, naked, I like,” Jared proclaimed, reaching down to grab Jensen’s ass and roll their hips together. “Sexy time now,” he commanded and Jensen laughed breathlessly.
“Lube,” he said, because he’d read human gay porn before and he knew that, unlike betas, they did not slick themselves. “I need lube. To stretch you and things.”
“Right, right,” Jared agreed and rolled over onto his front to grab at something from the bedside table. “Here!” He thrust a clear bottle back at Jensen and then shoved his ass up against Jensen’s cock. “Do it fast.”
“Pushy beta,” Jensen muttered happily, because he really didn’t mind. Slicking up his fingers, he started with pressing two into Jared and found he opened up quite easily. “Do this to yourself a lot?” He inquired hopefully, because the idea of Jared fingering himself was very hot.
“Mmmhmmm,” Jared purred, pressing back on Jensen’s fingers with a feline arch of his back. “Someday I’ll let you watch me do it.”
Jensen let out some strangled sound that was an odd combination of a grunt and a squeak, and fucked Jared with his fingers a bit faster than he’d intended. Luckily, Jared mewled quite happily and the faster pace became even faster.
It quickly became clear that Jensen was just not going to last, because Jared was obviously some kind of sex kitten sent from outer space to ruin Jensen. He pulled his fingers out of Jared, wiping them on the bed sheets, and asked, “are you ready?”
“Yes, definitely, totally,” Jared answered hurriedly, leaning down on his elbows so that he was in the breeding position. Jensen had no idea whether Jared even knew about the breeding position or whether his instincts had just guided him there, but either way, it caused Jensen to lunge forward with a growl and slide into Jared with one thrust.
“Ah!” Jared gasped, like it was some sort of surprise to find a cock suddenly in him. Jensen gave him two seconds to adjust before pulling back out and setting a quick, hard, brutal pace.
For a second, he worried he was going too fast, but then Jared started babbling out obscenities. “Crazy cock, oh my god, Jensen, you’re killing me here. So fucking good, fucking hell, do that again!”
Jensen couldn’t keep from growling, low and continuously, in the back of his throat. He was an alpha, taking his mate. If he hadn’t been growling, he would have been worried.
When Jensen felt the barbs on his cock stiffening, he pulled almost all the way out before surging back into Jared one final time. Jared yowled at the sensation, bucking under him, but Jensen held him firm as his barbs set in.
“What—” Jared asked breathlessly, but then the barbs worked their magic and he was coming, spilling against the sheets and wailing as the barbs sent pulses of pleasure through his nervous system. Jensen hissed and snarled as Jared’s hole milked him, squeezing his cock rhythmically as Jared came.
Jared’s whole body was trembling from the climax when Jensen pulled out. His barbs had gone down just seconds after Jared had come, and Jensen watched with interest as Jared’s puffy hole pulled closed after him, ensuring his seed would stay inside.
“Wazzat?” Jared slurred as Jensen carefully laid down next to him. Jensen pulled him close, putting one hand around his waist and easing the other under his head. “Jens’n,” Jared said demandingly, even as his eyes began to slide shut. “Wha?”
“Barbs,” Jensen told him, and laughed a little at the tired face Jared made. “Like cats, except ours don’t hurt. They basically just dig into your muscles and your nerves and make your hole close up after sex is over. It has the nice side-effect of feeling pretty good, I’m told.”
“You’re way too coherent,” Jared informed him with a yawn, bringing one hand up to rub at his eyes. “You know I can’t get preggers, right?’
“Not right now you can’t,” Jensen affirmed softly. “But after you’re turned...”
“After I’m turned, we’ll talk,” Jared agreed and scooted closer, ducking his head under Jensen’s chin. “Sleepy-time now.”
Jensen closed his eyes and breathed in his mate’s scent. Talking had never sounded so good.