A slow murmur of agreement. Some of them were grieving the loss of friends and colleagues. But not one, not one suggested that perhaps they'd taken the wrong path, that blood and death wasn't the right way.
In truth, it was likely that the idea hadn't even entered their minds. They were too blinded by the knowledge that the Psy Council was beginning to falter in its totalitarian rule, that the changelings were slowly gaining ground. Things were in flux, as they had not been for centuries. For a race that had spent eons in the shadows, it was a heady time, a time when empires might be felled... and power might be taken.
Perhaps I shouldn't have told him. But how could I lie to him, to my mate? His hurt is a bruise inside of him, his beast forever trapped. To me, he's perfect, but I know that in his soul, he feels torn apart.
- From the encrypted personal files of Ashaya Aleine
Dorian was sitting outside the cabin in the middle of the night, drinking a beer and attempting to get his head around the gift Ashaya had offered him, when a black panther prowled out of the forest. Dorian had caught Lucas's scent long before his alpha appeared before him, and now waited as Lucas shifted to human form.
Changelings weren't particularly concerned with nudity, but since Dorian's cat got snarly at the idea of Ashaya walking out and seeing Luc that way, he went back into the cabin on silent feet and found a pair of sweats. Lucas pulled them on with a nod of thanks, and took the beer Dorian threw him, continuing to stand while Dorian sat.
"Let me guess," Dorian said. "Sascha sent you after me." He adored Lucas's mate, but Sascha's empathy tended to make brooding difficult.
"Actually, I figured this one out all on my own." Lucas took a drink. "I think my first clue was when Nate called you Boy Genius this afternoon and you didn't threaten to throw Tally in a lake."
Dorian grunted, staring out at the forest. "Where's Sascha?"
"In the aerie."
"You left her alone?"
"As my mate would say - she's a cardinal, fully capable of protecting herself."
"So you left at least two others on watch."
"Of course I did." Lucas took another swallow of beer. "Why am I here in the middle of the night?"
"I didn't call you."
Lucas just waited.
Dorian was a sniper. He could've outwaited his alpha, but the truth was, he needed to talk. "Shaya's figured out how to fix the misfire in my body, so I can shift."
Lucas's face went very quiet. "Well, hell."
"Yeah." He dropped the hand holding the beer bottle between his raised knees.
"You don't want to?"
"I don't know what the f**k I want." He thrust his free hand through his hair. "All this time, I've done everything I could to be better, deadlier, faster." Talin called him Boy Genius because she thought he was a compulsive overachiever. She was right. "It wasn't enough that I was good at computers, I had to become a top-level hacker. Not enough that I got into architecture - I had to ace every exam. Hell, I even became a f**king pilot because it was a skill none of the other sentinels had. That drive - it was because I couldn't shift."
"Made you one tough son of a bitch, even as a kid," Lucas agreed. "Now you're wondering if you'll lose that drive if you gain the ability to shift?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Dorian, that's pure bullshit. We both know you're too f**king hardheaded to ever be less than the best." Throwing Dorian the empty beer bottle, Lucas folded his arms. "You're scared, man."
Dorian's leopard growled. "And you know shit, Luc." He got up and went into the house, closing the door behind him. He felt Lucas shift back into panther form and disappear a second later.
But as he slipped into bed beside Ashaya's curvy body, soothing his beast with the lush warmth of her, the words of two very different men kept circling around and around in his head.
... people aren't ready... to go out into the unfamiliar darkness.
Turning, he propped himself up on his elbow and looked down at Ashaya's sleeping face.
Her eyes opened a second later. "You're thinking too hard." A complaint followed by a yawn.
"Sorry." Their bond wasn't telepathic in the true sense, but it had become obvious that they picked up thoughts from each other at random times.
"You're still worrying over the shift, aren't you?" Her eyes darkened. "I should've kept silent. You were hap - "
He pressed a finger against her lips. "When you want something so bad it hurts," he said quietly, "and you bury it, bury it so deep that you convince yourself it no longer matters... and someone tells you you can have it, it's terrifying. What if you take the chance and you're wrong? What if you let yourself feel the loss and it's this huge pain and you can't put it back in the box?"
Ashaya kissed his finger and moved his hand so it lay over her heart. "I'm not an expert on emotion," she said in her honest way. "Most of the time, I have no idea how to deal with the storm inside me."
"You're doing fine."
"But see, Dorian, I know one thing." She pressed her hand to his chest. "There are two huge hurts in you. You let yourself cry for Kylie but you've never let yourself face the other loss."
The way she'd simply accepted Kylie's memory as a part of their lives made him love his mate even more. "You accepted my sister," she'd said when he'd asked her about it one night, "how can I possibly do any less for yours?"
His guilt, too, was gone. It had burned away during that same conversation - when he'd told Ashaya about Kylie's fierce spirit. "She hated bullies," he'd said. "She was ten years old when she saw some kids picking on another boy at school. She flew at them, scratched them up, got into trouble for fighting. But she didn't care. She made friends with that kid, stuck with him until his family moved to another town."