Breaking Tradition
2: Morning After

I woke up right before dawn.

Immediately after opening my eyes, my senses were flooded with it—with the smell, with the contentment, with the instinct. This was all right.

But after a few more seconds, my grogginess dissipated and the intermingled scents broke apart, and everything sank in.

He was not female, and he was most certainly human.

Fuck.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Piles and piles of steaming fuck.

Desperately, I rearranged my position so that I could nuzzle his hair. Inhaling deeply, I hoped—hoped harder than I had for anything I had before—that the smell of sex was just so thick that it was messing with my nose, despite the fact that hours had passed and the open air and musk of the forest had made it that the smell of sex wasn't nearly powerful enough to muddle up my nose.

Human, my nose confirmed. So human it was insulting.

That was wonderful. That was splendid. That was just downright glorious.

Panic settled over me. This was bad. This had to be bad. This had to be so totally wrong. I had fucked up. I had messed up.

Again: fuck.

My options rolled across my mind, lightning quick.

Wake the kid up. Talk to him. Explain what was going on. Tell him—what? Tell him what exactly? What the hell could I tell him that would make sense? Humans mocked us, made laughable myths and wrote pathetic horror stories. Telling the kid he was now part of that horror story wasn't likely to sit well with him. If I was lucky, he'd file a restraining order against me for being a stark-raving lunatic, and leave it at that.

Run. My gut instinct encouraged this idea fiercely. The kid was going to wake up and kill me. Vince was going to kill me. My mother was definitely going to kill me. A dead Hunter didn't make for a very promising Hunter. I could run and pretend like none of this ever happened—

I shook my head impatiently at my own thoughts. No, no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn't just run from any of this. The moment I sank my teeth into this kid, I solidified our link. If I abandoned him, would that kill him? I didn't know. Couldn't say. It wasn't exactly something that had previously crossed my mind to ask about—mostly because previously, I hadn't imagined I'd so royally screw up.

But besides that, the kid reeked of me. And I probably smelled like him. Even if I ran, my family would be able to put together this little equation and have me figured out before I even made it beyond the state borders. And then when my mother got a hold of me, after hunting me down across the country—

Running was totally out of the question.

So that only really left one other option: retreat, reassess, and reassemble. I needed time to think, time to figure this out, time to run to Vince for advice, and time to puzzle out the best way to approach this situation.

Right, then. First thing. I had to leave without getting caught. I was totally not ready for a confrontation with the kid yet—I mean, really, the hell was I supposed to say? This wasn't really the typical "morning after" scenario. How likely was it that he'd just nod if I told him, "Hey, so my name's Hunter, and you've just been dragged into the middle of an ancient magical ceremony. And basically, we're linked for life now."

Ha-dee-fucking-ha. The idea of the kid filing a restraining order against me flittered across my mind again. Definitely couldn't confront him about any of this yet.

As quietly and slowly as I could, I slipped out from under him—the kid had seemed to think me a teddy bear and had thrown himself across me at some point in the night—and shifted before padding over to my discarded clothing. As I shoved my legs through my boxers and jeans, I eyed him suspiciously. He was moving around the same way my brother did when he was waking up.

Not a good sign.

I was jamming my feet into my shoes, trying to yank out the twists in my shirt, when he stirred. Wide-eyed, I glanced at him for just a moment—he was starting to sit up, with his head in his hands, fingers knotted through brown hair so dark it looked black—and then I was a wild animal, bounding through the trees, racing away from him as fast as my legs would carry me.

-x-

My eyes darted to the clock again as I paced back and forth across the dining room floor. I was already showered and dressed for school—it was Thursday, and I had decided it would look peculiar to the pack if I skipped class, even if all I wanted to do was dive into bed and never get out again—and it was only a matter of time before the rest of my family woke up and shuffled out to cross-examine me about the previous night.

I still had no idea what I was going to tell them.

I needed to talk to Vince. Pronto.

I whirled around to start another bout of pacing, and nearly barreled over my brother.

"Well, 'morning to you too, tiger," Max grinned. And then he dived right in, asswipe that he was. "So, who was it?"

WWHD?

What Would Hunter Do?

Hell if I knew.

Hunter was cocky, Hunter was confident, Hunter was always sure of himself. I was none of that. I was nervous, I was confused, I was terrified. But I had to pretend like everything was as perfect as it ever was. Time to be an award-winning actor.

And so I smirked at Max. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

He scoffed. "Puh-lease. Like I won't find out anyway." He gave me a knowing look and then continued, his tone way too smug for my liking, "It was Roseanne, wasn't it? A lot of us were laying bets that—"

He paused, blinked at me in a very obviously baffled manner, and leaned forward to give an exaggerated sniff.

"Oh. Or not." He blinked again, giving me a confused look. Then his expression morphed into annoyance. "Damn. I lost fifty bucks."

That got my attention. "You what?"

"Er—nothing. 'Morning, mom!" Max quickly turned towards our mom, who was shuffling through the dining room into the kitchen, and smiled widely at her.

"Good morning, dear," she returned, but her eyes were on me. She hesitated only a second, and I could see the question written across her face. She wanted so badly to ask me how my night went, but she pursed her lips and instead murmured, "Happy Birthday, Hunter. Congratulations."

Congratulations. She had assumed everything had gone as it should have, and that she didn't even need to ask how my night went—she just jumped right to the part where she congratulated me for… well, not getting myself mated to a human.

It hurt more than I'd like to admit to know that she had prematurely placed her trust in me. But I still had to put up that cocky-confident-sure-of-myself front.

"Thanks," I called to her, grinning widely.

Through the doorway that linked the dining room to the kitchen I could see mom going through the motions of starting breakfast. She glanced over at me, and I recognized the curiosity that lighted her eyes. She grinned devilishly. "It wasn't Roseanne."

"Jesus—no." Had everyone assumed it was going to be her? "She's—dominant, I'll say that," I admitted, "but that doesn't mean anything."

Mom whisked what I assumed was pancake batter. "Mm-hmm," she hummed, sounding more than a little amused. "Well, humor your mother, won't you? Do I at least know this lucky person?"

"You'll find out soon enough," I assured her in sing-song. Not too soon, though, if I had any say. Or ever, actually.

She frowned at me, tsked her tongue, and poured batter into a skillet. Definitely pancakes. "The suspense will kill an old woman like me."

"You are not old," I hedged.

"Flattery gets you nowhere," she sing-songed back to me.

"Hunter, c'mon. Just tell us," Max whined. "I lost money on this one. I deserve to know."

"You what?" Mom frowned from the kitchen.

"Er—c'mon, Hunter, think of mom's health. Too much excitement isn't good for middle-aged women," he hedged.

Mom was suddenly behind her youngest son, hitting him upside his head and scowling. Moments like those made me marvel at my mother's inhuman speed. "You do not call a woman middle-aged! Especially your mother. Remember who's making your breakfast!"

Max rubbed at his head. "Ow—you did it first!" he whined.

Mom frowned at him. "I never used that word. I said old."

My oblivious brother's eyebrows knitted in confusion. "They're practically the same thing—ow!"

"Hush, child, before I do damage to your skull," mom warned him. And with a final challenging look, she turned and headed back to attend to breakfast.

And just like that, any thoughts about my human mate dissolved and I was laughing with my family, scarfing down seven blueberry pancakes, guzzling down half a gallon of orange juice, and stabbing my brother's hand with my fork when he tried to steal some of my bacon.

"Boys, boys, boys! Please! I didn't raise animals!" mom called from the kitchen.

Max and I both snickered at that.

-x-

Lay low.

That was pretty much the entirety of my plan. Lay low. Act natural. Get through the day and talk to Vince. And then I could fix… whatever went wrong. Not exactly a fool-proof plan, but it was all I had.

"I don't understand," Max whined as I was driving to school.

Neither do I, was what I almost absentmindedly responded, but then thought better of it and swallowed it back. No way was I talking about this to anyone but Vince. He was the only one who would understand—my only hope at figuring this out.

"Why can't you just tell me who it is?" he persisted. "I mean, I'm your favorite brother, right? Aren't you, like, supposed to talk to me about stuff like this? Brother bonding and all?"

"Max," Jen snapped from the backseat. "Pardon me, but I don't want to hear about Hunter's—Hunter's—"

Max shot her an incredulous glance. "You don't want to know who the new mate of our Alpha is?"

"I don't want to hear about Hunter's—"

I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw her lips purse like she was sucking a lemon wedge.

"My brother's sex life," she finally finished after a pause, and then tacked on, " 'Sides, you're his only brother."

She muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "While I have two of that particular breed of idiot," and Max sneered at her before turning his attention back to me.

"Seriously, Hunter. Brothers in blood and solidarity, right?" And then the dick tried to shoot me puppy eyes.

With an annoyed sigh I pulled into our high school's parking lot and made for my parking spot. "Jen, is mom picking you up after school?"

"Mm-hmm," she hummed happily. "We're getting our nails done for the party."

I winced. "Right. Then it's just you and me, Max."

Max shot me a look and started again, "So does she go to school with—?"

Pretending like he wasn't even saying anything, I parked the car and got out, grabbing my bag from the back. "See you later, guys."

I should've known it wouldn't be that easy to lose my annoying brother. I made it to the school entrance when he caught up, opening the door for me and smiling innocently. "Now, about your—"

I had never been so thankful for our keen sense of smell. Nik and Casper—my best friends since I was a toddling tike—always arrived at school before me (not surprising considering I always showed up at the last minute) and hunted me out the moment they scented me. And so it was those two who unknowingly came to my rescue.

"Did you do the lab report for physics?" Nik greeted me, interrupting Max' persistent inquisition.

I shot him a curious look and turned towards the senior locker hall. "You didn't?"

He shuffled guiltily as he followed after me. "Well. I kinda forgot about it…"

Caspar snorted, and elaborated, "He fell asleep last night at the computer, typing it up. Woke up well late since he didn't hear his alarm go off."

"Ah." I nodded understandingly. "Slacker."

"Like you don't procrastinate," he grumbled.

"I had my report done two nights ago, thank you very much." I smirked. "I was too busy last night to worry about physics."

Max apparently followed us, like the wanker he was, and chose that precise moment to speak up. "Speaking of last night, Hunter won't tell me who his you-know-what is—his own brother, and he treats me so coldly. Think you can weasel it out of him?"

Gotta give the kid brownie points for remembering not to use suspicious words like mate in public. Still didn't mean I was impressed at how stubbornly he was pushing the issue.

Nik shot me a curious look. "If Hunter doesn't want to tell us yet, it's not our place to question him," he told Max slowly.

Max scowled, obviously not pleased with that answer. "Whose side are you on? Aren't you curious? It's our right as pack to know who—"

Nik frowned, looking as annoyed as I was feeling. "And it's Hunter's right as Alpha to decide whether or not to tell us. He is your Alpha, Max, so you can't fight his decisions. We'll find out eventually—if he isn't telling you, he probably has reasons."

Max looked properly chastened by Nik's scolding. "Yeah, I guess." And then he shot me an abashed look, not quite meeting my eyes, which more than surprised me. My brother never showed such acts of submission. "Sorry," he muttered. "See you after school."

And then he dissolved back into the crowd.

Jealousy momentarily sizzled at the back of my mind. I was the Alpha, and Max didn't show me such obedience. Yet Nik offered a few words, and he had Max eating out of his hand. And regardless of whether or not Nik was my Second—

"It's just because you're his brother," Caspar told me suddenly, as though reading my thoughts. "He's not used to you holding authority over him. He'll get used to it."

Nik agreed. "And after our first hunt together— What the hell?"

My eyebrows peaked as I took in the scene that had grabbed Nik's attention. Amid a small crowd of people shuffling to class, Seth had someone up against a locker, and—

Oh, hell.

"Uh, Hunter," Caspar cut in, perplexed, "is that your…?"

Panic, raw and suffocating, settled over me. "Is that my what?" I snapped.

The hell was I supposed to say if Caspar outright asked me if the dark-haired, blue-eyed human, who being harassed across from my locker by none other than Seth, a pack mate, was my mate?

Lay low, I reminded myself firmly. Lay low, lay low, lay low. Lay low meant not getting involved. Lay low meant watching as a bystander and doing nothing. Lay low meant ignoring every instinct that was adamantly urging me—protect, protect, protect. Protect mate. Protect, protect, protect.

"Alright, kid," I heard Seth saying to… my mate whose name I didn't even know, come to think of it. "This jacket of yours. Where'd you get it for real? Quite lying."

Jacket?

Relief flooded through me when I noticed the kid was wearing my favorite jacket—the one I must have forgotten on the mountainside that morning in my haste. Caspar hadn't been about to ask, Is that your mate, he'd been trying to ask, is that your jacket?

The kid looked ashen and terrified, yet oddly defiant. "I told you I found it."

He sounded so small and desperate. It stirred something in my mind—protect, protect, protect.

But I stayed rooted to where I stood, watching the interaction through narrowed eyes, unsure how to best proceed.

Seth snorted. "I happen to know for a fact that this jacket belongs to my Al—friend."

Oh, smooth, Seth. Real smooth.

The kid sounded slightly disdainful when he said, "Oh, so there's only one jacket like this in the world? And it so-happens to belong to your friend, so obviously I stole it?"

No, but that was the only jacket like that which was so-very obviously drenched in my smell. It was only painfully obvious whose jacket that was. And I couldn't believe the idiot kid wore the thing to school.

That was suicide, suicide, suicide. I was suddenly rather surprised that only Seth was out for blood, and glanced around to surreptitiously take count of my pack.

Nik and Caspar weren't the only ones watching on curiously. Noah, Cosette, and—hell—Roseanne were watching attentively, and their eyes were on me. The kid apparently stole my jacket, so what was I going to do for damage control?

Seth, though, was at his wit's end. A guttural noise rumbled in his throat, and it sounded way too much like an actual growl to make me comfortable. Instinct roared up in me again, insisting I intervene—insisting I protect, protect, protect.

Seth slammed the kid into the locker rather forcefully, his arm pushing into the smaller boy's chest, pinning him in place. From the wince that crossed my mate's face, Seth wasn't being gentle, either, but using more force than necessary to hold him down.

It was when Seth bared his teeth—the intention behind it pure threatening—that I lost the battle of instincts. Something roared furiously, clawing for dominance, pushing aside human reason, and left no room for argument.

"Seth." My voice was icy and authoritative—Alpha.

Seth flinched and turned his head towards me, as tense as a bow pushed to its limit and ready to break, and it was belatedly I realized just how much dominance I was exerting. A furtive glace to the other packmates showed that they were all at attention, looking at me expectantly—but not quite meeting my eyes. They felt the shift in atmosphere, as well.

Seth said nothing, but his hold on my mate—I really needed to figure out the kid's name—loosened significantly.

He was waiting for an order, I realized, because I was exuding authority. At that moment, I was every inch an Alpha—and even though I had told myself that I hadn't wanted to get involved, it felt right, ridiculously so, to see Seth submit so completely after threatening my mate.

But Seth was waiting for me to direct the situation, so I coolly asked, "Trouble?"

Seth was looking in the general direction of my ear—looking at me, but not making eye contact. Something within me purred with pleasure at the obvious show of ingratiation. This was my pack, and they showing me that they were mine, mine to control, mine to demand submission from—mine, mine, mine. Just like my mate, human as he might've been.

Seth didn't say anything—the situation felt too tense for words—but pointedly looked at that jacket under question.

My eyes deliberately fell to my mate, who stared back at me shyly, and even if he looked flustered, the fact that he made eye contact with me when the rest of the pack couldn't was oddly pleasing—right.

Hell if I knew what to say after that, though. My mind was more or less still rolling around in pride over my pack and mate, and I was too distracted trying to figure out how to go about this in a way that was neutral to both parties.

Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on how I looked at it and the series of events that followed—my mate just blurted, "I found it when I woke up, and I—I liked how it smelled, so I figured you wouldn't mind if I gave it back to you… at school."

I could feel my pack's confusion at his words.

His face immediately went red—I adamantly told myself I didn't think that was outright adorable—and I just stared at him. He was remembering last night—I knew he was. I could feel it. Hell, I could smell it. His scent quickly grew enshrouded in a heady blanket of lust, and I reeled in all my self-control.

It did not turn me on to know my mate enjoyed last night. It did not turn me on to know my mate enjoyed last night. It did—

I took a deep breath and held it when my body rebelled like a preteen boy's did after getting to second base for the first time. Of course it turned me on to know my mate enjoyed himself during the mating ceremony. It pleased the wolf in me like nothing else ever had, and it was suddenly hard to keep myself from praising him—hopefully in a way that didn't involve as much clothing. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to see my mark, to know that he was mine and I was his and—

And the small hallway suddenly smelled a lot like lust—mine and his, mingling together. It was a heady smell, sharp and spicy, and—

Seth drew in a sharp breath, taking a step away from my mate like he had been electrocuted.

—and we were still in school. More importantly, we were still with my pack—who were all staring at me in varying degrees of confusion and shock.

Because really, an Alpha doesn't seriously think about mating with anyone other than his mate. So the only explanation as to why we both suddenly smelled like a couple of deer during rut season was—

"Hunter?" Nik murmured, casting me a curious glance before turning his attention back to the kid. Seriously, I had to figure out his name. It was more than humiliating that I had to call him kid.

I could feel my pack figuring it out—could feel the shift in their emotions when they tested the air, realized that I smelled as much like the human as he did, realized that our both our scents were equal parts lust as they were each other, realized who this human was that he had something of mine.

I didn't say anything, because what was I supposed to say? But the fact that I didn't deny anything was answer enough, apparently, because a guttural, furious snarl tore through the hall. My eyes flicked to Roseanne for only a moment before returning to my mate.

"You're kidding me," she snarled. From my peripheral, I saw Cosette quickly step next to her and squeeze her arm—reassuringly or as a friendly reminder of watch who you're talking to, I couldn't say.

I was still unsure what to say—because seriously, what was there to say?—and the middle of the hall at school wasn't the best place to explain anything, so I kept silent. My eyes slid possessively from my mate's eyes to his shoulder where I knew my mark was, hidden from view by pesky clothes—namely, my jacket that started this whole predicament.

A surge of ridiculously ill-timed pride washed over me: My mark, my mate, mine.

Said mate, who looked uncomfortable with everything going on, noticed my shift of attention and his hand came up to touch the spot almost self-consciously. His fingers slid under the jacket to touch his probably-still-sensitive skin.

If that didn't confirm everything, I didn't know what did.

"I can't believe you!" Roseanne snarled at me from across the hall, and then I heard her approach. I paid her no mind because, really, it wasn't like she could openly attack me. I was her Alpha, and such a public display of disloyalty would jeopardize her place in the pack.

Knowing that, I should've known that it wasn't me she would go after.

My mate looked torn between annoyance and terror when she stepped up to him, glaring daggers and a low growl resonating in her throat. "Who are you, anyway?"

I opened my mouth to give a sharp retort of My mate, but remembered at the last moment that there were humans acting as audience who were not pack.

My mate stared at her, frowning. "Karsten," he offered simply. "Who are you?"

Karsten. I rolled that name over in my mind, over and over again. Karsten, Karsten, Karsten—mate, mate, mate. The two were synonymous, and I found both equally pleasing.

Immediately, I felt an odd rush of gratitude towards Roseanne. Not only did I now know my mate's name, but I wouldn't run the risk of having to ask for it in front of my packmates—because, seriously, that would've been a highly humiliating predicament.

I took a step towards them, intent on getting Karsten away from Roseanne, but she wasn't done yet.

"And how long," she demanded, her hazel eyes flashing dangerously, "have you known Hunter?"

Karsten's brilliant blue eyes flickered to me, and I just knew the next words out of his mouth were going to make this whole situation so much worse.

My mate didn't disappoint me.

"Hunter? That's his name?"

Roseanne threw him up against the lockers in a way that was oddly reminiscent of Seth, and her arm flew up to press against his windpipe. Seth gave a helpless yelp and grabbed a hold of her other arm, trying to pull her away, but she batted him off, snarling in Karsten's face.

"Yes, his name is Hunter, you sunnuva bitch. And I don't know what you did—"

But Roseanne never finished her sentence, because I had launched myself across the hallway and tore her away, not even trying to be gentle. Fury vibrated in me, all the way done to my bones. That wild instinct in the back of my mind told me to punish Roseanne—that she needed to have pain inflicted upon her—because she had dared try to hurt Karsten.

But we were in school, around humans, so I just forcefully moved her so that a good six feet separated her from Karsten. She struggled against me, so I had to wrap an arm around her and slam her body into mine, her back to my chest, holding her still. Roseanne was very obviously seeing red, though, because she desperately clawed at the air despite being restrained, as though she hoped she might land a blow on Karsten despite how much distance separated them.

I grabbed one of her wrists with my other hand and held her steady, growling, "Roseanne."

My voice was even icier than it had been when I admonished Seth. From my peripheral, I noticed all my packmates present had averted their eyes at my display of dominance. Having an Alpha have to forcefully dominate a packmate was equal parts humiliating to the one being dominated and those witnessing—it was common knowledge that no one but the Alpha had the strength to fully restrain another packmate so thoroughly—and guilt clawed at me that I even had to it at all.

If I hadn't mated to a human, I wouldn't have gotten myself into such a situation.

Roseanne was still thrashing like a wild animal, flailing and struggling. I held her tighter and released her arm—the other one hadn't stopped clawing at the air—and instead opted to place my hand over her eyes, effectively shutting her off from her surroundings in some way, hoping to ground her, hoping she'd calm down enough that I could stop this embarrassing display—because I knew without a doubt that when she came around, she would be more than humiliated. Another stab of guilt sliced into me because I hated having to do this to any of my pack.

Karsten remained unmoved through the spectacle, and I was struck by how confused and terrified he looked. He was lost as to what was really going on. What did he imagine this whole thing was—that I had cheated on my girlfriend with him and now she was out for his blood?

Well, she might've been out for his blood at the moment, but I had a sneaking suspicion it was because of his heritage—he was painfully human and painfully mine. And it was painfully obvious how little he belonged in our pack.

All things considered, I'd probably leap at the throat of a human who tried to tell me he was now part of my pack. There was a reason we weren't human—we didn't belong with them.

Puzzling out my mate's frame of mind was a decent distraction from the task at hand, and it felt like only a few seconds before Roseanne's desperate attempts to break from my grip subsided, and she just stood, pressed flush against me, trembling as she slowly gained control of her mind. When her trembling subsided, she slumped against me, defeated.

It felt equal parts right and wrong to assert myself like I was. It felt right, obviously, because she had crossed my mate, and—human or no—I still had strong instincts that dictated no one touch the Alpha's mate. Yet the fact that I subjected a packmate to my will like I was, forcing her to submit to please my inner wolf, left a bad taste in my mouth.

I hoped I never had to do it again, but I knew that, as Alpha, I probably would.

Roseanne tilted her head, completely baring her neck to me (vaguely I wondered what Karsten made of that) and she submitted completely to me.

The righteous fury that had burned within me dissipated, and all I felt was the desire to make amends. With a quiet sigh I dropped my mouth to the junction between her neck and shoulder. She tensed but showed no signs of struggling. I even felt her expression tense under the hand I still held over her eyes, fear over how she had crossed me made her dread that I'd punish her—tear into her throat in a brutal display of dominance—but trust and loyalty made her retain her open position.

Affection for her flooded me and I left a chaste kiss on her skin before releasing her completely. "Go to class, Roseanne."

She recognized the command in my tone and didn't hesitate to obey. She did send a poisonous glare to Karsten as she walked past him, but other than that offered no other resistance.

It was then that I really noticed how the hall had become stuffed with other students, who had crammed their way closer for a good view, probably hoping to witness either the cat-fight of the century or a good brawl. Several of them murmured in disappointment when Roseanne left, because she would have obviously been the one to start the cat-fight, and the situation hadn't escalated enough for a brawl.

Ignoring them for the moment, I jerked my head dismissively, a gesture that wordlessly told my pack that they needed to get to class, too. Seth, Cosette, and Noah wasted no time in squeezing through the crowds to get to leave, but Caspar and Nik lagged behind.

"Show's over, folks," I announced to the crowd. More murmurs of disappointment, though much louder than before, accompanied by groans and catcalls.

Someone wolf-whistled and called, "Never a boring day for you, huh, Hunter? Keeps me entertained, though."

I paused mid-step and allowed the guy a glance. I think he was on the football team, which was why he was acting so familiar—a lot of my packmates were on the football team.

"Don't you have a girlfriend to keep you entertained, Zed?" I called back, vaguely wondering if that was the right name. I couldn't recall off the top of my head if his name was Zed or Steve.

"No, but looks like neither do you now," he chortled. He didn't correct me on the name, so I assumed I guessed right.

Roseanne had never been my girlfriend, but humans didn't understand how our relationship as a pack worked, so I didn't bother responding. The last of the lollygaggers wandered off when they realized my playful banter with one of the school's star football players was over, deciding the show really was over.

I stepped over to my mate's side, casually quirking an eyebrow at him despite how my stomach flip-flopped at our proximity (mate, mate, mate, mate). "Karsten, right?"

Karsten looked up at me unabashedly. "Hunter, right?" he mimicked, quirking a brow the same way I did. I gleaned pleasure at that—at how he sassed me despite everything, like an equal.

But he wasn't an equal—not really, I reminded myself sternly as I eyed him. He was human.

Nik and Caspar silently flanked me, and I didn't have to look to know they were watching me—I could feel their eyes on me.

Things were falling apart, and it was my duty as Alpha to keep it together and keep things under control. They had no idea how to proceed, no idea who this kid was who was mated to their Alpha, and so they'd look to me for guidance in this sticky situation.

The bell rang, and we were all officially late for class.

A small part of me marveled at the fact that the entire debacle had taken only fifteen minutes, but I pushed that observation away. Not the time for that.

"Yeah, name's Hunter. Remember that, because we're going to see a lot of each other in the future, I can promise you that." I offered him a friendly smirk and decided that I liked our friendly banter a little too much.

"I'll remember that, then," Karsten assured me. "Wish I'd known your name last night, though."

I snorted. "Oh, and keep the jacket. Usually the only person to wear my clothes is me, but I'll make an exception."

His face heated at that, and I left, deciding that if I stayed around him any longer I'd be too tempted to skip school with him, which I most definitely couldn't do.

Nik let out a breath when we were well out of earshot of Karsten. He said nothing, but cast me a worried look. Fortunately, he didn't have to verbalize anything for me to pick up on his mood and thoughts—he was worried I had opened a whole new can of messed up with this Karsten-the-human-as-my-mate thing.

"I know," I murmured, frowning.

On top of everything, the fact that a large part of my pack found out in the middle of the hallway, and that we caused a scene…

I sighed.

So much for my plan of retreat, reassess, and reassemble. So much for my plan to run to Vince before I confronted Karsten.

So much for my plan to lay low.

-x-

A/N: Um. Right. Explanation for why this took a year and a half to update:

Back when I first posted the first chapter, I wrote a good 75K words or so of the story, and I was vaguely contemplating writing the whole thing before I posted any more, but the more I thought about it and reread the rough draft, the more I realized that what I had written of the story just sounded… wrong. So I spent a while thinking about it, and I tried writing this story from Karsten's perspective, which just seemed even more wrong—this is Hunter's story. So after a year of hair-pulling and teeth gnashing, I think I figured out where I messed things up, deleted everything I had written up to that point, and started fresh.

Annnnnnd basically I'll seriously try to update this more frequently. I'm making it my summer project. No clue what that means exactly, but we'll see.

TL;DR? I'm seriously going to try to update this more often that once every other year. No, really. I am.

Also, any thoughts on this chapter? Has my year and a half… hiatus-or-whatever ruined this story for you? D: