Chapter 9 –
When Sarai got back to the hotel in the morning, somehow all of the stress I had let go went to Darius. Sarai heard him pacing in the room from across the parking lot.
When Sarai scratched at the door, he cursed violently. A second later, Darius flung the door open, and the smell of panic made Sarai’s nose twitch. He stared at her for a moment, and the sour scent faded as his shoulders relaxed. But then his entire body tensed, and anger replaced the anxiety.
That’s not good, Sarai murmured.
Since it was actually getting light outside, Sarai pushed past him and trotted into the room. Without a word, he closed the door behind her. He didn’t say anything as Sarai gathered up my clothes in her mouth, and he didn’t say anything when she went into the bathroom and nudged the door shut. The silence was unnerving.
I probably should have told him where I was going, I thought ruefully. And then I frowned. I was a big girl, and he was not my keeper. I didn’t have to tell him anything.
When I opened the door of the bathroom, Darius stood in the middle of the room with his hands on his hips. There were shards of gold in his dark eyes as he glared at me, and the hair on the back of my neck prickled. But I glared right back, daring him to accuse me of something.
After a few seconds, he managed to ask, “Where were you?” His voice was strained, as if he was fighting not to growl.
Sarai certainly wanted to growl at him.
“I couldn’t sleep. So I went for a run.”
He ground his teeth together. “Really? And that seemed like a good idea to you?”
“It was better than sitting in the bathroom having a nervous breakdown at 4 in the morning.”
“You want to talk about nervous breakdowns?” He shot back.
I rolled my eyes. “There isn’t a pack for 50 square miles. You were perfectly safe.”
“I woke up and you were gone!” He snarled. “I couldn’t even look for you because we’re still in wolf territory, and I had no idea if you’d been kidnapped or had just decided to cut and run!”
I opened my mouth to argue, but an unpleasant feeling stopped me. Guilt, Sarai said helpfully. What you’re feeling is guilt.
Now that I thought about it, I could understand him being worried about the whole kidnapping thing. But running away? That was something cowards did. Not me. I hadn’t thought that was how it’d look.
I felt my shoulders sag a bit. We really didn’t know each other at all. Trying to understand Darius’s point of view couldn’t be too difficult compared to driving to enemy territory in order to end a war that had been going on for centuries.
“I wasn’t leaving,” I murmured as my temper fizzled away. “I just… I needed air. But I’m back now.”
Darius shook his head and turned away from me. I waited for a couple of seconds, but when he didn’t move, I asked, “So are we good now? Because I thought we had your mother’s Pride to crash.”
For a second, it looked like Darius was carved out of stone, his golden eyes hard and unyielding. After what felt like an eternity, he sighed and closed his eyes. “Let’s go.”
I feel like I should say something, I told Sarai, glancing at Darius from the corner of my eye. I was surprised the dashboard hadn’t melted yet from the force of his glare.
Definitely a bad idea, Sarai replied. Let him stew.
Stewing is not a healthy way to deal with emotions.
Last time I checked, being killed by a grumpy lion wasn’t healthy either.
Instead of driving towards the highway, Darius turned into the drive-thru of a fast food joint. At the window, he ordered practically three of everything. After he paid, he passed me the bags and two Styrofoam cups of coffee. The smell of fake cheese, bacon, and hash browns flowed over me, and I felt my mouth water.
Darius pulled out of the drive-thru and parked in the one spot with shade. “Half of that is yours,” he said stonily.
My stomach shouted, “Yes!” But my pride said, “No way. No handouts allowed.”
I opened my mouth to say something when Darius beat me to it. “Eat the damn food,” he growled.
Well, if he insisted…
After divvying up our breakfast, we ate in silence. My stomach sighed in contentment. That was better. Pride was overrated anyway.
Darius finished before I did, but I was done by the time we got back onto the highway. With a little sigh, I settled back in my seat, ready to watch the unending plains of southern Idaho.
“We need to talk,” Darius said, without preamble.
I swallowed and ignored Sarai’s suggestion to stay quiet. “About what?”
“We need a convincing story,” he said, “one that will explain why we decided to mate now. Without it, you’ll make an easy target for any cat trying to make a name for themself.”
I frowned. “Why do we need a story? Can’t you just order them not to kill me?”
Darius shook his head before I was even done speaking. “No. That would undermine my authority.”
Just how that would happen eluded me. “Tell them I’m your mate.”
“And why did we mate?”
“To end the war.”
Darius snorted. “No cat would believe that I would mate with a wolf just to end the war.”
He raised one eyebrow at me. “Because cats like to do this little thing called ‘following your heart’.”
Do you have any idea where he’s going with this? I asked.
Sarai shrugged. Not a clue.
I sighed and decided to take the bait. “So what does that mean?”
“It means we have to make them believe that we are in love.” Darius said the words clinically, without any emotion, but his knuckles were pale from clenching the steering wheel.
“In love.” I didn’t see that one coming.
Darius nodded. “The only way you can stay in Pride territory and stay alive is if every cat we meet thinks that I will eviscerate them for touching you.”
“Because… we’re in love?”
“So, we would actually have to be real mates.”
“Right,” I said, feeling oddly detached. “And how do we do that?”
Darius shrugged a little, and I couldn’t tell if he was uncomfortable with me or just our whole situation in general. “Well, think about all of the mated couples you’ve seen. How do they act?”
Like idiots, Sarai muttered.
I thought about Maria and Renaldo. Whenever they were in the same room, it was like they were dancing, never getting in each other’s way, but always somehow knowing exactly where the other was. I remembered watching them, impressed by the synchronization.
Dutifully, I answered, “It’s like they’re magnetized or something.”
“Exactly. They orient themselves around the other. Something like that shouldn’t be too difficult to fake, but we are going to have to be constantly aware of it whenever we’re in public. What I am worried about is the touching.”
I frowned. “Why?”
Instead of answering, Darius moved his hand towards my head. I reacted instinctively, flinching back against my seat and knocking his arm away. Sarai growled loudly in my head.
He chuckled. “See what I mean?”
I sat up again and tried not to stick my tongue out at him. “Maybe.”
“Lions tend to be pretty generous with touch because it’s comforting,” he explained patiently. “For the most part, you should be forgiven if you balk at that because you’re a wolf. It would be better if you didn’t, but it wouldn’t be terrible if you did.”
I tried to piece together what he said and failed. “Wait, I’ll be forgiven if I balk at what?”
“I guess you could call it casual touching: a hug, a kiss on the cheek, a pat on the shoulder, stuff like that. The lions at Pride manor will touch you, if only to test how worthy you are of me.”
“I thought you said I would be forgiven.”
Darius shrugged. “For the most part, you should. Like I said, it would just be better if you could handle it. But if you flinch away from me like you just did? Kiss any chance of living long enough to end the war goodbye.”
Sarai grumbled, wary at the idea of physical contact with cats she didn’t know. I wasn’t even sure we could handle physical contact with the one cat I did know. I tried to sound reasonable as I asked, “Couldn’t we just be mates that don’t like public displays of affection?”
Darius looked at me pointedly. “We’ll be able to get away with a less overt display than lions are used to because you’re a wolf. But they will expect there to be some form of physical contact since I’m a lion.”
Stupid lions, Sarai grumbled.
“Anything else?” I asked acidly.
“Yes. Give me your hand while I try to explain Pride hierarchy.”
Logically, I knew he meant well. We couldn’t pretend to be in love if we weren’t used to touching each other.
C’mon, Sarai said bracingly. This isn’t the first time you’ve touched him.
Strangely? That’s not helping.
Biting my lip, I held out my hand. Darius laced his fingers through mine and gently rested our hands on the center console.
“This is weird,” I murmured.
The corner of his mouth pulled up into a little grimace. “Trust me. It’ll only get weirder. Now, in every Clan…”
I tried to concentrate on what he was saying, I really did, but holding his hand was so distracting. His skin was warm against mine, and the contact kept shooting strange tingles up my arm. Every now and then, he would rub the back of my hand with his thumb, and my pulse would spike. It took every ounce of self-control I possessed not to rip my hand out of his.
This was going to be so hard.
Although not as hard as deciphering Pride hierarchy.
“Wait,” I said. “Say that last bit again?”
Darius took a deep breath. “In informal gatherings, age trumps dominance for most of the Clan.”
“We’re still talking about Clan Lion, right?”
“Yes,” he said patiently. “So if we all went to a barbeque, my Grandmother Hazel would be the most dominant lioness there, except for my mother and me. But for any formal occasion, the hierarchy changes.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” I said frowning. “How can it change?”
Darius just shrugged and launched into an explanation of the most convoluted thing I had ever heard. Apparently, every lion’s rank in the Clan shifted depending on who else was in the room, what they were wearing, and the topic of conversation at the time. If any one of those things changed, the hierarchy of the Clan changed. It made absolutely no sense.
“Don’t worry,” Darius said encouragingly. “After a couple of days, you’ll pick everything right up.”
I sincerely doubted it.
We stopped to get lunch at another burger place in Salt Lake City. As we made our way back onto the interstate, Darius was trying to explain how to greet different members of his Clan. I didn’t know which one of us was more confused.
“So if both of your aunts are there, I bow my head with my hands at my sides,” I repeated around a mouthful of French fries. “But if one of your uncles is also there, I bow my head with my hands behind my back?”
“Right.” Darius nodded a little hesitantly. “Also, if just one of my aunts or uncles is there, you don’t have to bow your head at all. Unless you feel like being respectful, but most of the time, it just looks like you’re trying to suck up to someone.”
I stared at him for a second. “What?”
“It’ll all make sense, I swear, you just have to…” He trailed off, distracted by something in his rear view mirror. A second later, I heard the familiar wail of a police siren. “Damn.”
I looked back to see a police car right behind us. “What’s happening?”
“Just relax,” Darius murmured as he pulled onto the side of the road. Once he parked and turned his car off, he leaned over and opened the glove box, pulling out his registration.
I turned around and saw the cop get out of his car. “Are we in trouble?” Sarai watched the cop carefully, wary now that we were in Pride territory.
“We’re not in trouble,” Darius said, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket. “Just stay calm and let me do the talking.”
Let him do the talking. Right.
Darius rolled his window down as the cop sauntered up. “Good afternoon, officer,” he said politely. “Can I help you?”
“License and registration,” the cop said gruffly.
Darius held them out, and the cop took them without a word. As he walked back to his car, I looked at Darius curiously. “Where did that come from?”
“Where did what come from?”
“That sweet little smile,” I said. “I’ve never seen you look so innocent. Who are you and what did you do with Darius Ardeshir?”
“As much as it pains me to admit it, he takes the backseat when there are cops with guns around,” he said dryly.
I frowned. Something about the way he said that made me think that this wasn’t the first time he had to deal with something like this. Before I could ask him about it, the cop was walking back to Darius’s window, and the polite, eager-to-please dope returned.
“Where are you kids headed?” The cop asked as he gave Darius his license and registration back, and then leaned against the car intimidatingly.
Sarai’s hackles rose and I forced my shoulders to stay relaxed. We were not kids, and I didn’t like his patronizing expression.
“Back home to Dallas,” Darius replied, smiling easily. “I was visiting my aunt for her 50th birthday.”
The cop glanced at me and I smiled too, trying my best to look careless and trustworthy as Sarai growled at him. “Make sure you drive there safely,” he told Darius, grudgingly removing his arm from the driver’s side window. “You turned a bit wide at that last intersection.”
We WHAT? I opened my mouth, but Darius put his hand on my leg and squeezed, making me freeze.
“I’m sorry, officer,” Darius said sincerely. “I’ll try to be more careful from now on.”
The cop nodded and walked back to his car. Darius waited for him to drive away before turning his car back on.
“What was that?” I fumed as he pulled back onto the road. “You turned too wide?”
Darius shrugged. “Some people take the letter of the law very seriously.”
I stared at him, incredulous. “That’s bullshit and you know it,” I retorted. “Why didn’t you tell him to go screw himself?”
“Because I don’t want to get shot,” he said wryly. “It hurts.”
Sarai and I frowned at each other before I shook my head and returned to the matter at hand. That comment would be filed away until I could puzzle it out later.
“Turning too wide,” I murmured. “That was just an excuse to pull us over, wasn’t it? What, did he think we stole your car or something?”
“Just let it go, Riley.”
“But that’s not fair. If he thought we… Wait.” An unpleasant thought struck me, and I couldn’t help but ask, “Do you think he pulled us over because you’re black?”
Darius just stared at the road. “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.”
“I’m serious, cops can’t do that. That’s…” I paused, searching for the words. “That’s racial profiling.”
“Yes it is, and they still do it,” he replied, and his expression was a strange mix of sadness, impatience, and something else. Resignation, maybe. “Just because it’s not fair doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
“But that’s racist! You weren’t even breaking any laws!”
“Riley.” Darius’s voice was quiet, but there was a sense of gravity in it that made me immediately shut up. “I appreciate the righteous anger, but that’s not going to make the racism go away. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been pulled over, and it certainly won’t be the last. So please, just leave it alone.”
I didn’t want to. Nothing about what just happened was ok, but I didn’t want to push him. It wasn’t like I was the one that had just been stereotyped.
But I was still having a hard time reconciling what had just happened. It wasn’t like I was completely sheltered. I lived on an Indian reservation. I watched the news. I knew that racism was still a thing, but when I looked at Darius, I didn’t think ‘black, male teenager, possibly dangerous’, I thought ‘male, lion Shifter, definitely dangerous’. I had plenty of reasons to be weary of Darius, but none of them were because of his skin color.
Shaking my head a little, I turned back to watch the sparsely vegetated hills passing by my window. I would leave it alone for now. But the next person that decided to judge him just because he was black was going to be in for a rude awakening.