This week's prompt is: Don't toy with my heart. Enjoy!!
The hug was constricting and tighter than I ever expected to be squeezed by a human werekin. It was actually hard to breathe for a moment before Ritch let go. He looked me straight in the eyes, a tear streaking down his cheek. He sniffled and worked his jaw.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
His mouth slowly dropped open, and then he snapped it shut. Ritch’s eyes narrowed. “Okay? My new mate left me for two days.” He smacked me on the shoulder, then held on and squeezed. “You left. I had no idea where you were. All I could feel was how much pain you were in. It hurt me, so much.” His voice hitched. “I couldn’t help you. You didn’t let me help you.”
“I know. I’m sorry,” I said softly. “Would it help if I said I wasn’t used to having a mate?”
Ritch scowled. “No. I’m not joking, Park. You scared the hell out of me. I thought… I thought you might not come back. The alpha said you would, but….”
I buried my muzzle against his neck, unable to take the guilt along with the pain. “God, Ritch. I just, I couldn’t handle it. What you said, it hit me like a nuke. I lost everything. I got my brother back, and then you came along. You’re the mate I’ve always been waiting for, but I can’t control anything. I couldn’t stop my brother’s kidnapping, or my mother’s death. I never even noticed my father turning into a traitor to his own family.
“As beta, I’m supposed to protect the streak. I supposed to be the one who everyone goes to when they need help. But I’m worse than useless, because they don’t know that they can’t depend on me until it’s too late. Like it was too late for her.” My mom. I’d seen it in her expression, the death she knew was coming. “What if the look in her eyes wasn’t knowledge of her fate and peace meeting it? What if it was confidence that I would save her from it?”
My eyes burned, and I lost the battle with the tears threatening to fall. My saving grace was the way Ritch let me keep my muzzle tucked against his neck, hiding my face. He softly stroked my mane and held me as I shuddered, my arms wrapped tight around his chest to hold him close.
“You didn’t fail her or your brother. Sometimes we can’t protect ourselves, much less those around us. Not when we’re betrayed. And no one saw what your father had become, if what I’ve heard is true. You’re a great beta; I’ve seen you with the others in the streak. They all look up to you, even if you’re younger than most of the adults in the streak. That’s because you are strong, and smart, and your steady determination comes through in everything you do. Look at what you did for me!”
I wordlessly shook my head, denying his words, unable to speak past the lump lodged in my throat.
“Yes. When I came here, I was afraid of my own shadow. You could’ve pushed me off on someone else, or in guest housing, but you brought me here. You taught me to value my contributions as a human werekin. You never looked down on me; you let me help you. Just a few weeks ago, I could barely stand to be touched. Look at me now—I’m mated to you. I can’t stop touching you.”
“That’s because I was selfish,” I said. “I knew from the first time I scented you that I wanted you for my mate. I had to keep you close.”
“You chose to. You made sure I knew that I could have objected at any time. And you didn’t take advantage of me or push before I was ready. You don’t toy with my heart.” Ritch tugged on the strands of hair he’d wound between his fingers until I lifted my head up. “If I’d known I’d expose this well of guilt, I would have been more careful about what I said. You aren’t perfect, no one is, and all that matters is that you do your very best every day for the people you care about.”
I heard the words, but how could I believe him? That my mistakes could be forgiven so easily? I took a deep breath and let it out as I shook my head.
“You may not think you deserve the same compassion as everyone else, but you’re only a man. A strong one, who cares about those around him, but a man nonetheless. No one can save everyone. One day you’ll learn you don’t need us to forgive you because you didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I left you.”
He made a face. “Okay, yes, that was wrong. We’re mates, partners. You need to come to me when you feel like you’re going to panic. But you didn’t mean to run from me. Being mates is new to you too. So you didn’t do something that was wrong… just not right.”
“Why did you have a gun?” I finally asked the question I should have lead with.
“Oh.” Kraig blinked then looked down at the table. He frowned. “Where—”
“I moved it. Did Deke learn something new from the alphas?”
“No.” Ritch shook his head. “It made me feel better, even if I know I’d never need it here.”
“I’m sorry you didn’t feel safe in our home. Is that why you were sleeping down here, so you could hear if someone came in?” Not that he’d woken up when I came in the house.
“No. I set the alarm like you showed me. The bed was just… too big.” He yawned.
“Let me take you to bed.”
Ritch’s eyes widened, and he sniffed. “I think you need a shower first.”
“Oh. I didn’t mean….”
“No, but I do. After you get clean.”
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