Zach pops a candy-coated square of gum into his mouth, savoring the burst of mint, and the small wave of menthol fumes that clears the stench of humanity from his nose for a few moments. It’s still strange, even after so many months of living with Mari, to recognize how much he actually enjoys the little tasks that keep his senses on an even keel. It’s a surprise how much he likes the ridiculously false flavors in chewing gum, how he has preferences.
He walks nonchalantly down the street, eyes shaded by lightly tinted squares of nominally plain glass – an expensive vanity to hide his eyes, and imply that he’s addicted to a virtual reality projected on top of his real one. Passers-by ignore him, seeing the blue-white flickers on the inside of his lenses, assuming him distracted, and harmless as he wanders, apparently aimlessly.
They can’t see the grey-violet mists that churn at his feet, or the improbable, fractalloid shape that guards his back whenever he’s away from Mari.
“So what do you think I should get?” he asks, and no one so much as blinks as he speaks to the empty air. Zach feels like laughing. The prey are so unobservant. He hasn’t even got an earbud in, there’s no attachment. He could slaughter them all, end their droning little lives, and they would be surprised.
The Alpha chuffs, bumping his hip lightly.
He isn’t supposed to think of them as prey. He glances down into the eyeless, laughing infinite that guards his steps. To the Alpha everything is prey. Only Mari’s whims keep the Pack from hunting its fill, though she’s generous enough to look the other way as reports of mysterious deaths amongst the Institute’s staff begin to spread.
Zach scowls. He’s not allowed to kill people and call it a present. It’s grossly inequitable.
The Alpha butts it’s head against his hip again. Zach scans the street. There’s a bookshop, a florist, and an antique store. The florist has ridiculous decorations hanging from the storefront. Naked cherubs compete with spangled hearts, and looping, childish cursive announcing that if he loves her he’ll get her beautiful, near stenchless flowers for Valentine’s day.
Zach isn’t certain what the point of a dozen long-stemmed, out-of-season roses is, especially when they haven’t the smallest fraction of the heady aroma of the small, wild ones that grow down the hill from Mari’s cabin. And he’d still rather leave the corpses of their enemies somewhere where she can find them.
Grey-violet mists spill from the antique store, so Zach assumes that whatever the Alpha wants him to see is in there. He considers going into the bookstore instead; one never knows what one will find, after all.
“Whose present is this supposed to be?” Zach asks, not entirely rhetorically. The Alpha snorts, loping forward. Zach shakes his head, following. Bells chime as he opens the door, and he pauses as the crystalline notes harmonize in aching spheres, the light invisible surging and crashing over him as the Alpha gives a triumphant howl.
“Eh? What’s that?” croons a voice from the back. “An, who’s makin’ all that racket, I’ll be askin’?”
Zach remains quiet for a moment, since he’s clearly not the one silently screaming enough to wake the dead. The Alpha chortles, it’s massless form chasing through every slope and polyhedron in the store. Movement catches Zach’s attention, and he watches, somewhat dumbfounded, as the figure of an ancient crone seems to unfold from a mass of old furniture, paste jewelry, and knickknacks. It’s uncanny, like seeing the Pack unfurl from the angles beyond time.
“Now, who’s there, I asked! An’ I’ll not be askin’ again!” A small brown fist shakes in the dust laden air as the Alpha paces around her, gleeful fractals spinning.
“Um. Zach.” He says.
“Were that so hard?” the woman asks, a riot of paisley silks floating behind her. “Young’n folk these days. No respect for theys elders.”
Large, watery-blue eyes stare up at him from a withered-apple face. Carmine-stained lips tilt wickedly beneath garish purple eyeshadow, and white hair, but the woman is remarkable in her ancient beauty.
Her hand reaches out and pats the Alpha. “Ain’t seen you in a long roll o’ years, thing one.”
It purrs at her touch, and Zach can almost hear Mari’s voice. Close your eyes and see.
His vision shifts away from the receptors on the front of his face, and oh, the shop is filled with soul-light. The woman shines the way Mari does, whole and bright and beautiful, a galaxy of suns spread out before the gloaming dark of the Pack. And yet, it is unlike Mari at all. She does not carry a resonating splinter of a world unmade, not like the one that burns and aches in his own core.
The woman looks through him.
“Ain’t never seen you before, but I seen th’ like. Broken. But you be a different sort, ain’t you. Healin’ from a mortal blow. Now, ain’t that a thing?”
She looks at the Alpha. “You found her, didn’t you? Oh, an’ ain’t that gonna set the hounds among the foxes, eh?”
“Ain’t callin’ me ma’am, boy.” She shakes her head. “Devana – Devana Venatori.”
“Ain’t that unusual a last name.”
“No… my,” he stops, unsure of what to say, or how to say it. “I have a Diana. She’s… she’s a Venatori.”
The crone’s eyes twinkled. “You have a Diana?”
“A Diana, an Artemis, a goddess of the hunt.”
“Most boys’d say they had a girlfriend.”
Zach makes a face. Mari isn’t anything so limp and insipid as a girlfriend. There was only one word that encompassed everything she is to him – his light, his love, his fragile grip on his very self, on his humanity – and it’s a word he’s never heard used for humans.
The old woman hums, looking into his face.
“Ain’t your girlfriend, at all, is she. Your goddess and your other, is like.” Her voice lowers, to a place humans cannot hear. “Alpha.”
He nods at her.
“An’ why you here, little Orion-boy,” the old woman looked down. “Why bring him, thing one?”
The Alpha chuffed and flopped down on its back, the way it did when it wanted its belly rubbed, and the old woman sighed.
“I see it, I see it. You went and found him, too.” She knelt and gave the begged for skritches.
“It’s going to be Valentine’s day,” Zach blurted.
“Is that so?” The woman cackled. “Well, now. If’n you’ve got yourself a Diana, an Artemis… a Venatori, well, I suppose my shop is a good place to start. Better’n that floral eyesore next door. You love her, your goddess? She make you happy?”
“Well, I’ll be honest, boy – she probably don’t want nothing else, ‘cept maybe a good honest fucking,” she tells him. “An’ if she’s marked you, she’s likely satisfied with your dick. Still…” her hands moved over to the shelves, and she pulls out a small, red-bound tome. “…this might give you a few useful ideas. As for the day… well flowers is common, but I got a few things as is more useful.”
She putters about, pulling out little boxes from tables here and there. “Got a few o’ these – some likely more useful than others. On th’ house, this time – since you come so highly recommended.”
Zach blinks and looks down at the Alpha.
Pack, it rumbles in his mind, nudging his hand for a pat. Elder.
Zach threads his fingers through the fractals of infinity, giving them a good, hard, scratch, and smiles at Devana, feeling good, and pleased and centered in his skin.
The old woman is right, Zach finds, as he lays spent and sweat-soaked upon Mari’s chest, fingers sliding wetly along her clit to pull one last, shuddering orgasm from her body. He murmurs words of love along her collarbone, smiling softly as she catches his hand, pulling it away from spent, and aching flesh to lick his fingers clean.
“What’s the occasion?” she asks, finally, threading their fingers together. Zach laughs against her skin, drinking the light of her soul as she frowns.
“It’s Valentine’s day,” he tells her, resting his forehead against hers.
“Yeah?” She squirms a little. “We’ll have to buy chocolate tomorrow.”
“Zach.” She looks up at him, chocolate eyes dancing. “So you got me really good sex for Valentine’s day.”
“I give you good sex all the time, so I got you great sex for today.”
She hums. “I don’t know… I think the thing with the rope and the feathers last week….”
He rolls over, so she’s lying on top of him and runs his fingers lightly down her ribs, making her writhe and giggle just before she goes after his armpits. Zach laughs – joyful in the light she sheds with each heartbeat, shining crystal spheres that splash around him, and she stops, staring down at him.
Mari touches his mouth, eyes wide and filled with awe.
“I love you,” she says, so quiet he can barely hear her over the thunder of his heart. “You’re happy?”
He slides his hands up her ribs, sliding over sweat-slick skin to cup her neck. “Yes.”
Mari’s eyes fill, overflowing with liquid stars as he tugs her down, their salt mixing with her skin in an alchemical ambrosia Zach drinks gently from her cheeks.
“The only thing I could ever want,” she breathes across his skin. “They took so much from you. So much.”
“You’re crying,” he murmurs in response, getting a watery giggle.
“I’m happy, too.”
“I got you something,” he tells her, thinking of the odd, almost-pentacle he’d gotten from the old woman – Devana – that sits in a velvet box inside the bedside table’s drawer.
“It can wait.” Mari tucks her head under his chin, and just breathes, joy cresting with every shell of light. Zach wraps his arms more tightly around her, kissing her hair, more content than he can ever remember being.