It was one of those once in a lifetime summers, the kind that left you begging for rainfall because you can never remember that rainfall also means humidity and suffering. Rhys was killing time at McG's with a cold beverage and a plate with a gargantuan pile of baked goods. He'd brought a book for a change but quickly found it didn't hold the kind of appeal he was looking for. Thankfully he was immediately supplied with paper and a mechanical pencil upon voicing his grievances, so he could sketch to his heart's content, and a banana-raspberry bread experiment that hadn't been for sale but which Sam swore had his name on it. His people knew him well, he thought fondly.
He was well into his third or fourth mask design when a great big shadow descended over him. That would have been perfectly fine, however this shadow swiped cookies. Because Rhys was well aware of exactly how much food it could put away he knew something would have to be done.
It had taken a lot of practice, but by now he was a professional. He waited patiently, biding his time and clutching his pencil tightly. Just as the hand hovered over the plate Rhys' arm shot out, pencil in hand, and with the grace of a martial artist he stabbed the offending appendage.
The hand was withdrawn with a hiss, followed by a low chuckle and a near-suffocating hug. "That wasn't very nice," his boyfriend whispered in his ear, nipping at the soft flesh of the lobe.
"I concede that point, but if there's something I've learned from being with you it'd have to be this—if I want to eat, I'll have to defend my food with deadly force," Rhys muttered. He turned his head to receive a kiss without thinking about it, quite used to his boyf-mate's ways.
Over the course of a year he'd learned many things about werewolves in general and even more about Max specifically. His list of general knowledge went a little like this:
1) Werewolves are nigh-invulnerable.
This he'd learned after he'd accidentally stabbed Max with a kitchen knife. Now, when he says 'stabbed', it actually means 'buried to the hilt into his boyfriend's stomach after tripping over a chair'. It'd taken him a second to realise he'd even done it because Max hadn't made a noise other than a kind of expulsion of air after which he'd asked Rhys if he was all right.
Rhys had almost convinced himself he was imagining things but then there'd been blood and Rhys had proceeded to panic and hyperventilate like a little girl while Max pulled out the knife and took off his shirt to throw it away, muttering in French all the while. Rhys hadn't been capable of speech but instead had flapped his mouth uselessly and pointed at a gaping wound which was closing before his eyes.
Getting over that incident had taken a little over two months, but get over it he had. Obviously, as he was comfortable stabbing his boyfriend/mate's arm or leg with a pencil or pen at any given time.
"Here I'd thought you'd be happy to see me home early, and you start stabbing me."
Max took a seat and swiped a cookie anyway, winking as he devoured it. He made exaggerated noises of enjoyment which made Rhys squirm and kind of forget he was supposed to be annoyed with him.
Max had started teaching recently, which meant he wore suits, which made Rhys' life exceedingly difficult. His enormous wolf lover in denim and cotton was already a sight to behold, but that same luscious physique in three-piece designer suits was a weapon of mass destruction. Unfortunately for Rhys, Max knew this very well and had expanded on his wardrobe considerably as soon as he could blame it on being newly employed.
In addition to Rhys' suffering, it had the following effect—Professor Ochoa had the largest fanclub of schoolgirls known to man. Actually, that was an addition to Rhys' suffering. This segues nicely into werewolf facts #2, #4 and #5.
2) Werewolves fall in love very rapidly and very permanently.
It was this complicated instinct-hormone-species thing Rhys had not yet had the patience to fully understand (he'd always been pants at theoretical biology), but the consequences? Those he understood very well.
When it was time for Rhys to get back to following classes, Max was lovingly supportive. He also found a school in need of a physics professor willing to take him on. In the same town. Within a week. This caused several complications.
The first complication made itself known a few weeks into classes and was directly connected to the 'Max + formal dress = Lethal' fact mentioned earlier.
It began innocently enough, with a standing invitation to lunch at any time they were both free for an hour or two. That went perfectly well for two weeks, more or less, until Max' students realised he could be found at a particular pub almost every other day and the horde of young girls descended en masse.
Once or twice, Rhys wouldn't have noticed. Every single time was a little more difficult to overlook. What made it even worse was that Max made no mention whatsoever of the herd of hormone-driven talking tits with lipgloss at all, like they weren't right there salivating over his un-professorish musculature which was not theirs to salivate over. Once they gathered enough courage to actually intrude on them with banalities about school which were quite obviously a cover for their lecherous motives Rhys became downright irritable and had no reservations about making it known.
When that only served to confused Max, they had their first ever proper row. When that only ended (admittedly it took a good while because while Rhys rambles when he's nervous he is mostly incomprehensible when angry) in Max laughing uproariously and kissing the life and lucidity out of him, Rhys learned that his mate simply didn't see anyone but him. Oh, he wasn't blind or stupid—far from it—but he was mated. That, apparently meant Rhys was the be all and end all for him. Forever.
Now, while he didn't see anyone other than Rhys for him personally, he did take offence at anyone/thing within a mile radius of Rhys, which brings us to complication the second and fact the fourth.
4) Werewolves are very possessive.
After the revelation of permanency and because of the lunchtime difficulties, Max decided that carpooling was the way to go for them. As this meant Rhys would be spared the frustrations of public transportation, he readily agreed. It was one of those famous 'it seemed like a good idea at the time' things, because for a while, it actually worked out well. They got to see each other often without interruptions from either curious friends and relatives (Rhys) or deluded admirers (Max), and their travelling time was cut in half and/or made more enjoyable.
Then, the rumours started.
Rhys Blevins, unassuming young student of the arts, was connected to an underground crime syndicate. Or, Rhys Blevins, mysterious artist with a dark past, was really the heir to a rich family/Mafia boss/company owner/super spy. Oh, and there was also Rhys Blevins, prince of a small country somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Suddenly, he was the most popular student around and he had no idea why.
Eventually Rhys convinced himself he wasn't imagining the whole thing and asked one of his classmates, albeit clumsily and with a lot of helpless hand gestures, what was going on. The answer was not what he'd expected but in retrospect, should have.
"It's all because of that enormous bodyguard of yours. He looks at anyone near you like he's ready to rip them apart if they so much as twitch at you. Everyone's curious about him."
That had caused Rhys to first gape like a fish, then stammer nonsense and finally flee the scene with a profound need to learn the subtle art of hiding.
He began to watch for it and indeed, anyone standing near him would be stone cold dead if looks could kill (and as he was still working on Werewolf Facts, he hadn't been entirely sure Max' couldn't). It was one part funny, one part disturbing, and two parts sexy as hell. He decided to take things into his own hands.
The next time his boyfriend arrived to collect him after this revelation, Rhys flew at him, ramming him against the car, and kissed him deeply for everyone to see.
His reasoning went something like this: Kissing Max should a) dispose of the bodyguard theory and all subsequent rumours, b) reassure Max of his position far above everyone else, and c) be really, really nice.
He didn't fear any homophobic backlash for his actions. Why should he, when badass bodyguard was actually badass boyfriend? His only worry was that Max wouldn't be as receptive to a greeting of that kind in public, but he pushed the fear down and went for it.
He needn't have worried.
Badass boyfriend wasted no time to assert his dominance and lifted Rhys up, forcing him to wrap his legs around Max' waist for a little stability. He was fairly certain they would have pushed the limits of decency had he not put a stop to it, and he'd only been able to put a stop to it by suggesting they relocate to a place where clothing was optional.
His brilliant plan had two noticeable consequences. One was, well, let's put it this way—the rumour did not, in fact, die. Two was that Max now enforced his claim with public affection instead of the threat of violence. Speaking of affection, fact #5.
5) Mate and home are Everything to a werewolf (unless they are wanderers like Les Enfants, then mate=home).
What this translated to was the following—Rhys had the most attentive boyfriend in the Universe who was literally in tune with his emotional and physical needs. Fortunately, this went both ways. Rhys would have thought it incredibly unfair did it not.
Apparently this was a rare and beautiful thing as generally humans didn't feel the bond at all. His mother in law had even suggested Rhys had possible werewolf ancestry, citing his sensitivity as well as his last name as reasons. He thought it was unlikely, but he'd also believed werewolves were a myth so who was he to judge?
Rhys realised he was thinking far too hard when he saw Max had freed himself of his tie and several shirt buttons without him noticing. That was not to be borne, watching Max, his mate (even after a year he was still a little embarrassed using that word, but he tried) slowly remove the trappings of professorhood was the highlight of his day. He frowned a little at himself and got a nudge for it.
"Something the matter, Rhys? You've been staring into space for a while now," Max said, sounding a little curious. He was too used to Rhys to sound worried these days.
Rhys smiled a little. "Just brushing op on my knowledge of werewolf sociology."
"Feel free to continue," Max offered altruistically, taking another cookie off the nearly empty plate. Rhys squeaked and pulled the plate closer to him.
"Damn werewolf fact #3," he grumbled, making Max laugh softly because yes, his mate was entirely aware of his growing list of Werewolf Facts and for some reason it amused him greatly.
"I never hid it from you."
"Yes, but you eased me into it which is nearly the same as hiding it," Rhys said, glaring at him. "It took weeks before I realised you always ate at home before you met up with me for dinner or whatnot and even longer before I knew how bad it actually was."
Werewolf fact #3 was, predictably, 'Werewolves eat A Massive Fuckton Of Food' and it included everything from meat to cookies to fruit to their mate (but that last one only figuratively).
Max, very much amused, pretended his hand hurt. "Is that why you've taken to stabbing me with writing implements?"
"Wait a minute! Do mine ears deceive me?"
"Cerwyn," Rhys groaned, because of course he would arrive at exactly the wrong time and hear exactly the right thing to make Rhys' life even more miserable than he did by just being himself without added weaponry.
His soon to be ex-best friend flopped down in a chair and set his large bag down with a thud. "No, no. This has to be clarified. Our Rhys went from nauseatingly sweet to a domestic violence offender?"
"Did not!" Rhys protested. "Context, Cerwyn, context! Do they teach you nothing at that joke of a university?"
Cerwyn raised his eyebrow, Rhys' least favourite expression on him. "How many ways could one take 'stabbing with writing implements', Rhys? Hey, freakishly large boyfriend, are you really being abused by this noodle? I need to know for my novel."
Rhys tried to drop his head on the table but was prevented by a large hand. He tried again, knowing it was useless but still feeling the need to make the gesture. Then, Max proceeded to make things worse.
"I don't mind suffering a little for love. It's very poetic."
Cerwyn burst out in laughter. "Wait until I tell Gwen and she goes all knight errant."
Rhys immediately stopped banging his head against Max' hand and grabbed Cerwyn by the shirt, pulling him closer. "Don't. You. Dare. I'm still trying to live down the Valentine's Day fiasco."
Cerwyn merely grinned widely at him.
"I mean it, traitor," Rhys hissed. "I will disembowel you."
"Ooh, so violent," Cerwyn teased. "What's it worth to you, Blevins?"
"Your continued good health," Rhys forced out. "Max, a little help?"
Max, well used to their antics, merely finished off the remaining baked goods on the table while trying not to laugh. He let them hurl insults and threats for a while longer before clearing his throat, getting their attention.
"I heard Florian is due for a visit this week," he said casually, then sat back to observe. The effect was instantaneous. Cerwyn looked for all the world like he'd just been hit with a double dose of lust and confusion and Rhys' irritability melted away to allow for knowledgeable smugness.
Max had seen it coming, of course. Even before he'd actually spoken with Florian he could smell it on them, see it even. Once they met properly it became an ironclad truth, Florian's attitude had been as obvious as anything. The German White Wolf had been none too pleased with Max' attitude towards Cerwyn, which he had to concede hadn't been one of his better moments. They reached an understanding easily after the initial scuffle.
Max could have made the German wolf submit—he was stronger, larger, had more authority. He hadn't, choosing instead to humour the man and let him take out some of his frustrations on an opponent who could easily take it. It was a courtesy, mostly for Rhys' sake as Cerwyn was his best friend, but one he would not mind giving any decent wolf.
Rhys, of course, had been appalled. It was probably the violence of it, something difficult for most humans to make peace with. After a long, long explanation, Rhys accepted certain things just were as they were for a reason. A mate was a mate and certain things were understood. Werewolves, were weird.
So, Rhys knew about the whole thing and thought it was amazingly funny that Cerwyn was in for a 'capital 'D' Destiny' all of his own. In his words 'he deserves it, the meddlesome bastard, and I hope Cupid shoots him right in the bollocks'.
Cerwyn was as clueless as Rhys had once been and neither Max nor Rhys (although reluctantly) planned to explain a thing to him—that was all up to Florian. That being said, they would take all the enjoyment they could from the poor boy's floundering. The merest mention of the White Wolf would leave Cerwyn in confused anticipation to everyone's amusement—but especially Rhys's.
Sadly, Cerwyn managed to compose himself very quickly.
"That's right. He's bringing something for Llewellyn," Cerwyn said as nonchalantly as someone whose cheeks were red could.
"More work for me," Rhys lamented.
"Oh quiet, you love it," Max said, stroking his cheek.
Cerwyn made a gagging noise. "Blaargh, the nauseating sweetness is back. And here I was hoping to catch a glimpse of abuse. You two are no fun at all."
"If you want fun, you should make them come to church," Gwen said, appearing out of nowhere as usual with her strange powers of girl. This perked Cerwyn right up.
"Please?" he said, turning large eyes on Max. "It would be worth a lot to me," he added.
"Harlot, why do you insist on making my life difficult," Rhys whined. "We are not going to church. I haven't been in years, I don't plan to start now."
"I've never been, outside of weddings," Max said.
All three of them stared at him in wide-eyed alarm.
"Never tell anyone," Cerwyn told him, his voice grave.
"Not even under threat of torture," Rhys backed him up.
"Unless you're tired of living," Gwen, too, agreed.
He gave them an amused smile. "I'm sure it can't be that bad. After all, we haven't encountered resistance yet," he said, putting his hand on Rhys'.
Cerwyn shook his head. "That is completely different. I know the town has been very accepting of you two queers, but that has a lot to do with Rhys' charming Grandmother and shitty childhood. We stick up for each other around here, it's just how things are. The homosexuality issue, well, some are fine with it just because, others are fine with it because they blame it on his lack of male role model, and yet others just don't say anything because he's part of the community. Then there are those who don't want to be roughed up by an old lady or large Frenchman. Whatever the reason, you're fine because it's you."
"The worship is a whole different kettle of fish," Gwen jumped in, Rhys nodding along furiously.
"They make allowances for me because I'm troubled, but a good boy deep down," he said, rolling his eyes.
Cerwyn chuckled. "Yes, our troubled young artist, who is also queer—damn television is ruining society."
"But religion?" Rhys cut in before Cerwyn really got going. "That is one thing you don't touch around here. Play along nicely and everyone gets along fine. Deny their Lord, and you might as well pack for you'll be living in Hell otherwise."
Max wanted to laugh but refrained. He understood perfectly even if it was a little ridiculous. A religious physics professor was a rare thing to begin with and then there was that little thing where he wasn't even their species. What did religion really mean in the scheme of things when that had to be taken into consideration? He winked at Rhys and grinned, showing his teeth off a little. Rhys rolled his eyes at him but smiled back.
"At least you're respectable," Gwen pointed out. "A professor always is, especially in small towns."
Cerwyn saw that in a completely different light. "The Professor and the Art Student—they're not respectable, they're a romance novel or porn film waiting to happen."
"It's not like they waited, there is no waiting. It's happening," Gwen quipped.
Rhys wanted to argue, Max could tell. He was quietly amused by the whole thing. They were far worse than the professor and the student—they were mythical creature and mate, scientist and artist, sunlight and moon. He took Rhys' hand and nuzzled it, catching his mate's eye and sharing a look which only they could understand.
"Right, I am leaving before things get worse," Cerwyn announced. "Please eat face only after I'm well out of sight."
Rhys stuck his tongue out at him. "You've had sex in my bed, you jealous prick. I'm allowed so much leeway, you've absolutely no ground to stand on."
Cerwyn froze mid-move and dropped his bag. "H-how? What? Preposterous."
He was sure saying 'my boyf-mate smelled it on the sheets you prick, and right before he was going to plough me like nothing else, but then we had to have a screaming fight—a screaming fight with a two hundred-plus pound werewolf, Cerwyn, who thought I was sleeping around with my best friend and some girl, I could have died, Cerwyn' wasn't going to work out, so Rhys smiled enigmatically and wiggled his eyebrows a little. "I have my ways. If I didn't know for sure before, I do now," he said, pointing at Cerwyn's face.
It was a shame Cerwyn was so quick on his feet otherwise it would have been a flawless victory—something Rhys didn't have too many of. Cerwyn picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder, then turned to smile kind of seductively at Rhys.
"Did it turn you on, baby? I bet it did."
That unmitigated ass, Rhys thought. He was unforgivable. With a growl and a little flailing, he shot out of his chair and gave chase while Cerwyn ran, laughing all the way.
"Will they ever grow up?" Gwenllian complained, stealing Rhys' fruity drink for herself.
"I doubt it. They're having too much fun to bother," said Max, who of course knew the truth behind the whole thing.
She glanced at Max, who was observing the chase with a smile. "Aren't you going to fetch him? It's past time for dinner."
Max shook his head. "No, he'll come back on his own when he realises what he's doing. Ah, there, you see? He stopped dead in his tracks. It's dawned on him."
Gwen whistled appreciatively. "You've got a master's degree in Rhysology. It only took me fifteen years and here you are, done in one."
"Ah, but I'm cheating a little," Max said, placing his hand on his heart. Gwen didn't get the chance to ask what he meant because Rhys arrived right then, breathing heavily and looking mortified. He didn't protest when Max pulled him onto his lap but rather slid into place like he had always been meant to be in that particular spot. It was one of those things people liked to comment on, but really, it was only natural for them to be hyper aware of each other. They were fated and their connection was infinite. There could never be any less.
"Are you satisfied, love?"
"You could have stopped me," Rhys muttered. "I saw old McG bent over and clutching the counter, he was laughing so hard."
"I don't understand why you still let him rile you up like that every time," Gwen said. "He only does it every chance he gets. One would think you'd be used to it by now."
"I still have the fondest hopes I'll get to beat him with a stick one day," Rhys explained. "I can't let opportunities like this pass me by. We're men, Gwenllian. Just because we don't plait each other's hair doesn't mean we don't bond."
"I bet you would if one of you grew it out more," she said and stuck her tongue out at him.
He wasn't mature enough not to return the gesture. "We're both ass at it, but I can paint a fabulous toenail," he retorted.
Max laughed, nodding in agreement. "He's not joking about that. I've been so fortunate as to see a different colour every day when I look down on my feet."
"I told you, I have to test out colour combinations before I actually use them for an important project," Rhys bristled. "It's been weeks. You can stop laughing by now, can't you?"
"Hmm, I'm not sure. Can I?" Max teased.
"You better, or I'll beat you until you cry," Rhys threatened, not that he thought he had a chance in hell of actually executing said threat. "I can't believe that after all this time you are still a source of my humiliation. One would expect things to go in my favour once I offer up my body to the cause, but no, of course not, let's all mercilessly emasculate Rhys because he's such an easy target for verbal and mental abuse," he muttered.
"Rhys," Max said with exaggerated patience, "my toenails are currently candy apple red with teal stripes. It's not your masculinity that's in question."
Gwen whistled appreciatively. "It has to be love. Either that or blackmail."
"You shouldn't have chewed up my book, no matter how you thought Andrew supposedly looked at me," Rhys mumbled too softly for Gwen to hear.
Max winked at her. "A little of both, but that keeps things interesting."
Gwen groaned and leaned back, looking up at the sky. "Are there any more of your kind where you came from? I could use one. He doesn't even have to be as pretty as you are, I'm not that greedy. Honest."
Rhys lost it, almost falling off Max' lap with how hard he was giggling. "You have no idea what you're asking."
She rolled her eyes. "Love, devotion, inhuman tolerance, a godlike physique—I have a pretty good grasp of the basics with how often I see you two. What of that wouldn't a sane girl covet?" She pouted prettily. "Rhys, I did good, didn't I? Without me, you'd still be flailing around not getting shagged on the regular by a god."
Rhys shared a look with his mate, focusing on those dark sunset eyes, the thrum of their bond and most of all, that shadow of that something other always present in the background. "You're quite right on all counts," he admitted. Max was certainly inhuman, in a most positive way. He just wondered how she'd feel about pups. "It's just that there's so much more," he whispered, thinking of teeth and claws this time, of running wild, of strength, and yes, of blood, because sometimes their shared dreams gave him chills.
Gwen groaned. "Sometimes I regret everything I did for you, because the envy? The envy is eating me alive."
Rhys smiled, touching his forehead to Max' cheek. Thinking back on the whole mess, he was profoundly grateful to her for everything—not that he'd ever mention it, out of sheer terror of the possible consequences. He wished she would get everything she wanted in life, because she'd certainly helped him get most of everything he'd wanted in his.
It wasn't perfect, unsurprisingly. Sometimes it was extremely difficult to handle dating a bloody mythological creature because it meant he was part of that world, like it or not. He'd learned over time there was far more between heaven and earth than he might, strictly speaking, be comfortable with. Then there was the fact that Max, as son of the previous pack leader, would have to return to France at some point and lead his people. Rhys would have no choice but to go with him or doom them both to feeling empty for the rest of their lives, which was another problem—their life spans differed somewhat.
Oh, but there was love. It was a beautiful thing, love. Both warm and comfortable, and burning hot and terrifying. Having come to terms with it, there was also a forever he was mostly looking forward to and not in the least because he couldn't imagine anything ever being better than what he had, except for the thing he had, with time. He imagined it was somewhat like wine (and no, that had nothing to do with the whole French thing, thank you) where the flavour changed and improved while the ingredients were the same. Max, of course, had laughed, but he'd agreed. It was known to his people that a bond evolved for the better if the feelings were strong, and theirs most definitely were.
There would be more problems and life changing revelations, there would be France, there may even be enemies, but none of that mattered. It didn't matter because there was love, family and friendships. It didn't matter because there was destiny, and Rhys had accepted it. To be honest, he was even looking forward to it.
Gwen was still talking, not paying attention to him in the least. He smiled a little and very softly said, "Thank you, Gwenllian. I will always remember."
His mate tightened his grip around his waist. "We will always remember."
They would remember. And if she or any of their friends ever needed anything, they would be there. A mate was a mate and some things were understood, by both species.