Alexandra Ivy & Carrie Ann Ryan
Sometimes covering a scar, a brand, didn’t feel like a thousand needles pressing into flesh and tearing through a person’s soul; sometimes, it added something new and precious. Something with promise.
At least that’s what Gibson hoped.
A breeze slid his hair in front of his face, and he blew on it before pulling away from his friend’s arm and knocking his head back so he could see again. His bangs were getting too long, but he didn’t have the time or inclination to cut them.
Anya, the mate of his best friend Cole, stood behind him with a hair tie and pulled the strands back. “You need a haircut, Gibson.”
Cole, the man he was currently tattooing, watched Gibson with narrowed eyes. They might be best friends, but Anya was a little too close to Gibson for comfort apparently. That’s what happened at the start of new matings. The males—and hell, the females, too—got a little territorial when it came to what was theirs. Gibson couldn’t really blame Cole for wanting to rip out his throat right then.
“You might want to take a step back there, momma bear,” he said casually.
Anya, a slender, decently tall woman, stood back and moved so she was in Gibson’s line of sight. Her two cubs from her disastrous first relationship bounced around her feet in bear form. They were seriously adorable.
She looked between Gibson and Cole, her brows raised. “Seriously, lazy cat? I was just putting his hair back so he didn’t mess up your mating tattoo.”
Cole blinked up at her, a smile lazily forming on his face. There was a reason Anya called her mate lazy cat, the man moved slowly and with a sense of ease Gibson never understood. Of course, that was only when there wasn’t danger to Anya, the cubs, or the Pack. If someone came after them like they had before, well, no one would ever call Cole lazy then.
“I just love watching you get angry,” Cole said before he winked. “You get all hot and bothered.”
Anya snorted but didn’t look angry at all right then. Their cubs, Owen and Lucas, rolled around on the floor around them, oblivious to the current conversation. At least he thought so, since the cubs were oddly observant when he wasn’t paying that much attention.
Since the newly mated pair was currently in a deep conversation about nothing, Gibson set his tattooing equipment down and rubbed the back of his neck. Of course, he probably could have redone his hair in a new ponytail, but he liked the fact that Anya had done it, merely because it rankled Cole. That’s what best friends did, after all, bugged the shit out of each other.
Before the three Packs—Canine, Ursine, and Feline—had been forced together in the single compound a few months ago, Gibson never thought to find friendship with a Feline Tracker. Now, he couldn’t imagine his life without the other man.
Cole understood Gibson in ways others didn’t because he didn’t push. The other man let him be; let him breathe. Gibson liked being alone, watching from afar. He didn’t get too close to others, and other than his Alpha, Holden, he didn’t speak to the other wolves much.
He never felt like he could honestly. Because he was the one in the Pack, and now the entire compound, who had the ability—and responsibility—to mark those who had already been branded.
When the Verona Virus had hit the human population a quarter of a century ago, his people had been forced out of hiding in order to save the human race. He’d only been ten at the time, but he remembered it vividly. He remembered the fear, the death, and the entrapment. When the humans found out about the existence of shifters, they created the Shifter Accommodation Unit, aka the SAU, and forced everyone not like them into compounds.
Gibson’s family had died in the ambush, and he’d been forced to find a way to live without them in this new world. Until recently, he’d only seen the SAU guards and wolves. Now with the bears and cats with him, he had a little more variety, but it was still a solitary existence.
Mostly because it had to be for him.
When the humans took their freedom, they’d also forced the shifters to wear collars like animals and bear the brands of their species. And because those in the SAU were sadistic weasels, they forced the wolves’ Alpha, Holden, to be the one to brand them. His friend and Alpha was made to burn the flesh of his people in front of the Pack so the humans could feel superior. As children were born in the den, they were forced to wear the brand, as well. Thankfully, the humans didn’t understand Pack magic, and didn’t know that Holden was the one who felt the pain with each brand. Holden had to hold back the screams and teach the children to play at being in pain so they wouldn’t get caught.