30: bonds for life

"Aryanna! Aryanna, are you ready yet?"

I sighed, shaking my head at the insistent knocking. After glancing once more into the mirror, I turned toward the door to put my sister out of her misery. "Yes, Kaia. You can come in now." Before the words were even fully out of my mouth, the blond burst into the room and stopped in her tracks when she saw me. Her eyes ran over me, taking in the dress she had forced me to wear for today's occasion.

"You look beautiful. Ty will be down on his knees begging for mercy," she said with a mischievous smile.

Heat filled my face and I looked back at the mirror. The dress really was beautiful, though it was a bit outside my comfort zone. It was held up by only the tie around my neck so my entire back could be left bare, the details of the tattoo Kaia had worked so hard on left on display. But the white material was butter soft against my skin and the skirt fell around me in waves. Looking at my face, however, kind of killed the picture. The angry line down my face had long since healed but the skin around it remained scarlet and puckered, as if it had only healed days ago. It didn't help any that my black hair was pulled back out of my face, either. Ty had all but begged me to keep it long and, though it was inconvenient at times, it made it easy to hide the scar so I had done as he asked.

It has been three months since my days with Troy had ended. Three months since I had taken the strike in Ty's place, but the scar was as obvious as it had been then. With the exception of the blood, of course. Even the teeth marks on my arm and the burns on my hands and wrists hadn't completely disappeared, though they were far less conspicuous. Amelia had done her best to take care of them, but the wounds had been left unattended to for too long for her to heal them completely. Ty always told me he didn't care about it. To him, the scars only showed how strong I was. But I couldn't stand them. It was a reminder of a time I would prefer to forget entirely.

"Aryanna?" I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Kaia standing just behind me with a sympathetic look on her face. "My brother loves you. A silly scar will never change that," she said softly, placing her hands on my shoulders.

"I know. I just wish I could get rid of it. It makes me think of what happened, too much."

Kaia looked thoughtful for a moment, cocking her head to the side. "I hate to say it because it sounds cheesy, but the humans were right about one thing. What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." Her voice went airy at the end and she looked at me gravely for a second before the two of us started laughing. When we had calmed down a bit she raised an eyebrow and smiled with a bit more sympathy. "In all seriousness, though, you should be proud of that scar. You got it protecting your mate. Think of it like that and maybe you won't hate it so much."

I blinked once before grinning widely and pulling her into a tight hug. "Thank you, Kaia. What did I ever do without you?"

"I have no idea, sister."

The two of us laughed once more before someone calling us from downstairs broke our moment of hilarity. "Kaia! Come on, it's time. Everybody's waiting."

"We'll be right there, Aaron!" Kaia called back out the door. Then she turned towards me, her excitement palpable. "You ready?"

"As ready as I'll ever be," I said shrugging my shoulders as the butterflies filled my stomach.

"Good," she said quickly and grabbed my hand before dragging me out my bedroom door and down the stairs. I tripped several times over the length of my skirt, but Kaia didn't seem to notice my struggle. She was a little too eager for today's event. However, that was probably because she had an excuse to make fun of Ty and me as much as she wanted. It was every younger sibling's dream, according to her.

Today would be the day of our bonding ceremony. I guess in a way, it's like a human marriage, except completely different. A human marriage is tenuous, breakable. Humans grow apart, divorce, die, cheat, etc. When a shifter bonds with their mate, it's for life and death. Of course, Ty and I were kind of doing things backwards since we had already bonded; which was obvious by the designs that had spread from my back, down to my left arm. It still enchanted me as much as it had the first time I'd seen them, despite the lines from Troy's teeth disrupting the delicate filigree halfway down my forearm.

Downstairs, Kaia's mate was waiting with Catarina bouncing in his arms, wearing a pretty purple dress, and Wesley standing impatiently next to him in khaki pants and a collared shirt. Kaia bounded over to Aaron and pecked him on the cheek before wrapping an arm around his waist and putting her hand on her son's shoulder. Turning to look at me, her smile brightened and she winked. "After we leave, count to thirty and then walk out. Your father's waiting outside for you. And breathe, Aryanna. You're not going to fall, just breathe." I nodded slowly, glancing at the front door and not really paying attention. Aaron threw me a small smile before dragging his mate out the door with their children. I watched them go and when they were finally gone the nerves started settling in.

As Ty's only family, Kaia and Aaron would go first to represent him in place of his parents. Together, they would walk to where Ty waited at the bonfire pit where the first celebration I ever went to was held. Behind them, I would follow more slowly. Walking from the house to the fire was supposed to symbolize the journey of our lives alone before the union between our families after today. Personally, I didn't see the point in the formalities, but Ty had wanted it. Now that it was happening, I wasn't so sure I should have given in.

I stood in the middle of the empty hallway for a few moments, my arms crossing over my chest. It had probably been more than thirty seconds but I needed the extra time to get myself under control. I couldn't say I was having one of those bridal freak outs I heard so much about growing up; not really. There was no way I would leave Ty standing at the altar, so to speak. My worry had more to do with the crowd I knew was standing just outside. Almost five months of living among them and I still wasn't used to the attention. Plus, like Kaia had predicted, I was afraid of falling on my face in front of them all.

Sooner or later, though, I had to get out there.

Taking a deep breath, I dropped my arms to my sides, pressing them into the fabric of the skirt to hide the slight shaking, and lifted my chin before pushing open the door. The sun was bright in the afternoon sky, the harsh light blinding me after the dimness of the house. I paused at the top of the stairs for only a minute before lifting the hem of my dress and taking the three steps down to the ground. Then my bare feet touched the soft dirt and I finally looked up at the people around me.

All of the Clan had come out for this day. The bonding of their leader's daughter. Less than half a year ago, most of them hadn't believed this day would ever come, but here it was. They stretched along the path all the way to our destination, waiting for me. I smiled uncertainly at those close by before turning my head to see Devlen standing on my right. There was a grin on his lips but, in his eyes, I could see a hint of the sadness he was trying to hide. Reaching out, he offered me a hand and I placed my palm in his. For a second, he just held it in both of his, looking into my eyes, before lifting it up to place a kiss on the back. "You look beautiful, my daughter. So much like your mother. I know that, if she could be, she would like nothing better than to be here for you on this day more than any other," he said lightly, brushing one hand along my cheek and pushing back the stray hairs that refused to stay out of my eyes.

Over the last few months, Devlen and I had gotten closer. It wasn't the same kind of relationship a normal girl would have with her father but then the two of us aren't exactly normal anyway. He has continued to teach me about the clans like he had before the incident as well as the laws of the people. I understood him better now. These laws were all Devlen knew for sure. The Constitution and Bill of Rights meant nothing to him seeing as he was older than all of those who had written the new government as well as the king the patriots had fought against. All he had to go on was what was in front of him. It was possible to see why that might be an issue when it came to certain things. But Devlen had been listening to me as much as I had him and I believe he was beginning to see some laws are better to be overlooked.

While the two of us were more comfortable around each other now compared to the way we had been when I first arrived, however, there were still the memories of the dark days of my life. Maybe one day that would be in the past for good but, for now, it was too soon to forget entirely. Today, though, I was going to put that behind us and enjoy this special time.

I managed a small smile for my father, but my throat was thick with emotion and I couldn't manage even a thank you. He seemed to understand, though, as he squeezed my hand and started pulling me through the two lines of people waiting. "It's time. I'm sure your mate is growing impatient to see your face already." Giving him another weak smile, I looped my arm through his and let him lead me towards Ty.

As we walked, the others fell into place behind us until we finally reached the end of the line and I had a clear view of the middle of the circle they had formed around the bonfire pit which was already blazing. In front of it my mate stood tall and proud, his chest left bare so the sun reflected off his bronzed skin. Looking at him, I found myself thinking of the time I had caught him naked in the river when he had been rescuing me. Just thinking about it made an uncontrollable smile dance across my lips. Our eyes locked and Ty smiled back widely, seeing my amusement even though he had no idea what I was thinking about.

Devlen pulled me through the last of the crowd until we stood in front of my mate. He paused for a second, his eyes giving Ty some kind of message before taking my left hand and placing it in Ty's right. As he circled my fingers in his, the vines on our skin melded together in a way that made it hard to tell where one stopped and the other began.

Ty's eyes danced when he took my hand and I almost sighed as his familiar calming presence spread through me so it was as if only the two of us standing here. Vaguely, I noticed Devlen moving back to stand with Kaia and Aaron just behind us. Then, I was distracted by Ty pulling me forward until we were standing before Oliver's massive form. Usually, Devlen would be the one bonding us but, since he was my father, the job fell to Oliver as the head of the Protectors. He flashed us a quick, wide smile before schooling his face into a more serious expression.

After a moment, he started speaking solemnly in an ancient language I couldn't understand; only switching to English for those words that didn't have a direct translation. I didn't really pay attention to it anyway. The heat coming off Ty's body distracted me so the words would have sounded meaningless even if they hadn't been in gibberish.

Oliver stopped talking to take breath and nodded at the ground in front of us. Following Ty's lead, I kneeled on the soft grass next to my mate. The large man said more words over us, touching the tops of our heads in a way that made me feel like he was blessing us. Then he stepped back and a woman came out of the crowd holding a piece of gold ribbon. She looked like she couldn't have been out of her thirties, but I knew better now. This woman had lived for just under a millennia and her sleek black hair and russet colored skin were as pristine as they had been when she was young. Still standing tall after so long, this woman, Celia, was the elder of the North Clan. She came over to us, ribbon in hand, and smiled at us like we were her own grandchildren.

"I believe the two of you are owed a congratulations on this joy filled day," she said, her voice deep and gravelly. "Not many are put through such hardships so early in their bonding as you. But times of trouble only serve to make our hearts fonder of what is important." My eyes moved to my left and I found Ty grinning at me as Celia spoke. "So, today," she started, now speaking to the crowd, "we witness the bonding of two of our own, the start of this young couple's new life. This ribbon," she held up the yellow string. "is gold for the power that flows within them and the strength of their hearts. It also represents the fragileness of their lives together. You must work every day to keep it from fraying. But if you do, it will remain as beautiful and pure as on this day."

Kneeling in front of us, she wrapped the ribbon around our clasped hands, blending it with the gold and silver vines of our tattoos. Oliver spoke again from behind her when she finished, his voice seeming much too loud for this moment. "Who speaks for this woman?"

"I do," Devlen said from where he stood behind me. Even without turning to look, I knew he would be standing at his full height, his expression nothing but serious. Never letting the mask slip; always acting the part of the strong leader he is.

"And who speaks for this man?"

"We do." Kaia's voice came from just to the right, the excitement in her tone obvious.

"Is there any objections to this union any of you wish to bring forward?" There was a pause as the three of them stayed silent before Oliver nodded. "It is done, then," he said, bowing his head to us.

Celia smiled once more and placed her hands over ours. "We wish you good luck, today. Treat each other well. Now rise, not as two, but one, and join us as mates of this Clan."

Squeezing my hand in his, Ty grinned as he pulled me gently to my feet. His eyes met mine for only a moment before he jerked me forward so fast I fell against his chest. Then he leaned down and kissed me, right there in front of everyone. My face burned when he picked me up and spun me around, skirt flapping around my legs while my lips stayed firmly pressed to his. All those around us applauded, some of them whooping with laughter. Any other time it would have been devastatingly embarrassing. But, today I couldn't really care too much. I had my mate for forever now. There was nothing that could ruin my mood knowing that.

Ty didn't leave my side for the entire time we stayed for the celebration afterwards. We still didn't have a lot of time alone together, because whenever one person would leave us, another took their place. Kaia kept coming over to harass Ty every once in a while, but he never seemed bothered by his sisters antics.

Emma and Grant stopped to talk with us briefly, to congratulate us. In the past few months, Emma and I had gotten closer. We were still far from being the best of friends, but she wasn't overly proper around me like most of the shifters, now. I had a feeling it had something to do with not going along with Devlen's orders, though I've never had the courage to ask. In reality, I didn't really care about the reason behind her behavior. I was just glad she treated me like a normal person. The fact that she understood the world I had grown up in, even if it had nearly a decade since the last time she was around humans, was just a bonus.

When they left us alone once more, I looked up to see the soft grin firmly in place on Ty's face. It was a welcome sight and one I had seen often since the moment we'd been officially bonded. I don't think he had stopped smiling once all day. Even when the sun finally set and I could no longer see his face clearly, I knew it was there.

It only got more prominent when a figure slipped out of the woods and walked straight towards us. The man looked the same as he had the first time I met him, except he was wearing plain jeans and a t-shirt as opposed to of his uniform. His smile was also a little more somber than it had been in New York. That didn't surprise me. What did was the fact he was here in the first place. Knowing what I did about his mate, I never thought I'd see the day he would step back on Clan territory, again. But, other than looking a little uncomfortable, he seemed as fine as I suppose was possible.

"Ben?" Ty said, the shock in his voice making it clear he hadn't been expecting his bear of a friend either. "What are you doing here?"

Ben smiled and reached out to clasp arms with Ty. "You didn't think I'd miss this, did you?" he said with his light Irish accent. "Not every day your best mate bonds with his mate, after all." The man smirked at his own joke and Ty shook his head, smiling as he clapped a hand on Ben's shoulder.

"How long are you staying for?"

"I'm not sure." He shrugged and dragged a hand through his thick red mane. "We need to talk later, you and I. For now, though, enjoy the time with your woman. This is your night." His eyes shifted from Ty's to something behind us and I saw a mischievous light touch them, briefly. "I'll distract the family so the two of you can slip away." He smiled once more and nodded his hand at me. "I look forward to getting to know you more, Anna. Maybe I'll tell you some embarrassing stories about your lad here." Ty frowned while Ben laughed at him as he started to walk away. But just when he'd gone a few feet he paused and turned once more to look at my mate. "Take care of her, Ty," he finally said after a moment of silence, the joking completely gone from his voice now.

Ben didn't wait for an answer before heading off to where Kaia was to distract her from us. I glanced around for Devlen but he had disappeared into the mob a while ago. Ty's eyes watched his friend for a moment with a strange look on his face before he seemed to shake himself from his thoughts as he looked down at me. His smile came back and his eyes glowed bright in the night, reflecting the light from the stars.

"Come on," Ty said, tugging on our hands that were still tied together.

I willingly let him lead me away from the light of the celebration towards the woods we often took refuge within. Without even having to look at one another, we shifted at the same time and raced towards the clearing where we had first been bound.

Like every time, I felt a rush of relief run through me when I shifted and my mind remained completely my own. When we had returned to the Clan, Ty had told Amelia about the átorcyn in my system. Immediately, she had given me some other potion she pulled out of a bag her daughter had brought for her. I had no idea what it was—Amelia said it was a secret among casters—but I hadn't attacked my mate when I changed since then so it didn't matter much to me.

At our clearing, we shifted back and Ty's arms circled around my waist at once. The ribbon that had been tied around our hands was now held between my fingers. Before I could forget about it, I slipped it into his pocket so we wouldn't lose it and turned my attention back to the man in front of me.

"It is finally done. You are mine forever."

Grinning, I stood up on the tips of my toes and pressed my lips to his cheek. "I think it's the other way around," I said, raising an eyebrow.

Ty laughed and kissed my forehead, his breath whispering against my skin as he spoke. "Whatever you say, my mate." I poked him in the gut, frowning at his tone. "Ow," he said, rubbing his stomach as I smirked. "That hurts, Anna."

"Good."

Rolling his eyes he leaned down and captured my lips with his, effectively shutting me up before I could say anything else. The heat of his kiss sunk deep into my bones until I was practically shaking from the intensity of it. By the time he finally pulled away both of us were breathing hard and my knees were weak beneath me. Sighing, he leaned his forehead against mine and caught my eyes with his. They had turned darker than normal, even for the night. His hand trailed down my cheek, following the scar that covered half of my face. I let out a deep breath at the feel of his touch on my skin. I still didn't like the scar, but the adoration I could see in Ty's expression made it feel insignificant. Plus, Kaia's words had got me thinking about something.

"You know, sometimes I think it was a good thing that Troy sent me away."

"Why?" Ty's eyebrows pulled together as he said it, but he didn't look mad. Simply curious.

I shrugged and leaned against him, my arms going around his waist. "If he hadn't, things might not have ended up the same. I might have been brainwashed into thinking that Troy or someone like him was better for me than you."

Ty smiled, though I wasn't sure why until he put his lips to my ear and whispered against it. "It does not matter if you did or not, Anna. Nothing could have kept me from you for long. As soon as I knew who you were I knew I would never be able to let you go."

The tension fell from my shoulders and I melted against him as I moved my arms up to circle his neck. "I love you, Ty,"

"And I you, Anna," he said softly before lowering his face closer to mine. Just as we were about to kiss once more, however, there was the crack of a twig somewhere off to my right. My eyes darted in the direction of the noise and I cocked my head to the side.

"What was that?"

"I do not know," Ty said, shrugging his shoulders as his eyes followed mine.

Then there was another snap, closer this time. "Who's out there?" I called out to the seemingly empty forest. My eyes narrowed, changing from grey to yellow as I tried to see through the thick blackness under the trees.

"It is probably just an animal, Anna—" Ty had barely gotten the words out when a figure stepped towards us through the trees.

Kaia giggled at the glares on both our faces as she came bursting into the clearing, catching us locked in our embrace. "You guys do know there's a party going on, right? Your party." She raised her eyebrows at us, not taking the hint to leave.

Ben came after her, more slowly with an apologetic look on his face despite the amusement in his eyes. "I did try to stop her, but you know how she is," he said with an exasperated tone before Kaia reached out and smacked the back of his head.

At once, the two of them started arguing like twelve year olds. Ty's gaze met mine with a knowing look and I could only smile as he rolled his eyes at his sister and best friend. Judging by the look of things, we weren't going to get another chance to slip off again. Strangely enough, though, I didn't feel too bothered about that fact.

We had forever, after all.