Asil was true to his word. The day after their first snowfall he had Thea stocked up on firewood to get her through the long winter months. September arrived and with it driving conditions worsened. Ice often covered the roads in thin, dangerous sheets, and Thea was thankful she had experience driving on slick icy roads from growing up in New York.
Much had happened in recent weeks. The meeting with the European wolves ended with two dead Alphas, the wolves being exposed to the world, and the arrival of a British wolf seeking to join the Marrok. There were a few in the pack who wondered if the woman was there to seek retribution for the death of her former Alpha by Charles's hand but none would dare speak up on it in front of Bran because his word was law and he welcomed her into their fold.
It also brought the death of their Alpha's mate. Thea had never been through the pain of losing a pack member so when it happened she had no idea what it was. She was sitting on Sage's sofa, where they'd moved to after lunch so they could sit and chat, when she was hit with intense pain. It felt like a part of her was ripped away and she panted and whined. Sage's reaction was a bit more volatile. She howled and shattered the glass she'd been drinking sweet tea from when her hands convulsed with the pain. When she could finally speak, Thea turned to Sage and noticed her eyes had changed color to that of her wolf. "What.. was that?" she asked in a shaky voice.
"We just lost a pack member," Sage growled. She closed her eyes and felt down the pack bonds until... "Leah. Leah's gone." Now, Leah wasn't well liked but Sage knew there was only one reason she'd be gone; death. "Oh sweet Jesus, this isn't good," she added.
"Wait, what do you mean she's gone? Isn't she Bran's mate?" Thea asked and then it clicked. "Oh.. you mean... Apollo help us." She'd been told why Bran put up with Leah's antics. Apollo, among other things, was the god of healing and they would most certainly need healing in the pack, especially for their Alpha.
"Come on, we might be needed. Or, rather, you might be," Sage said. She went to her adopted niece, Juliana, who'd been dropped off there that morning when Charles and Anna had to fly to Missoula to pick up the British wolf who was joining their pack, and scooped her up. "It's okay Jules, I know it hurts, but the pain will fade." As soon as she'd realized what was happening she'd turned her attention to the youngest member of their pack. In the weeks since she'd joined them, Juliana had begun to blossom into a happy, rambunctious girl who was rapidly approaching the dreaded 'teen years' that filled all parents with a sense of terror because the hormones, especially with girls, could be so unpredictable.
"What happened Auntie Sage?" Juliana asked. She'd been curled up in a chair reading when she'd been hit with pain that took her breath away.
Sage debated on what to say and went with the truth. "Your grandpa's mate just died. There is always pain when we lose a pack member, but when they die it's worse."
Juliana's eyes widened. "Oh no. Poor Grandpa," she said softly. She'd never met Leah, Bran, Charles and Anna had all made sure of that, but she figured her grandfather was going to be upset.
"Yeah. Come om squirt," Sage said and headed for the front door so they could head over to Bran's.
Throughout the day and into the night pack members stopped in to check on their Alpha or to give their condolences. Thea noticed Asil hovering near her and smiled. She was a little tired but she was reluctant to go home in case she was needed, for anything.
Bran's eldest son arrived in the early morning hours and Asil leaned close to explain to Thea who he and the dark skinned woman with him were. "That's Samuel, Bran's oldest son. He moved to Washington some time before your attack and this is his first visit back. The dark skinned woman with him is Mercedes, Mercy to her friends. She was raised here. She isn't a werewolf and Leah despised her but Bran considers her family."
"Who is the other woman?" Thea asked.
"I do believe the skittish thing is Samuel's mate. Fae, if I recall correctly."
"How do you know that?" Thea asked curiously.
"Because our dear Sage has a knack for finding things out. I have tried many times to figure out how she does it and so far I have failed."
"Maybe she has people's houses bugged," Thea joked. She yawned and tried to hide it behind her hand.
Asil saw the yawn and turned his attention to her fully. "You should go home and get some sleep."
"My car is at Sage's house. We were talking when it happened and she drove us here in hers," Thea replied.
"I can drive you to your car, or to your home if you prefer," he offered.
Thea thought about it. "I can get my car tomorrow, or, rather, later today," she finally said. This way she'd get to spend a little more time with him.
Asil nodded and gently took her elbow. They stopped to bid Bran a goodnight, paused at Sage's side long enough for Thea to tell her she'd be by later to get her car, and then he escorted her out to his. On the way to Thea's home he glanced over at her. "One thing you should know about Mercedes, she is a coyote shifter. That is a large part of why Leah hated her so much. Wolves and coyotes don't mix in the wild. You'll smell her coyote when you're close enough to her and I wanted to warn you in advance so you are prepared for it. She's also not very well liked by the women in Aspen Creek, be they wolf or human, but I think part of that is because of Leah. She'd left Aspen Creek before I came here so I can only speculate on that."
"Thank you for the warning," Thea said softly. "If she's not human or wolf though, how did she come to be raised here?"
"What I know is that her mother was fairly young when Mercedes was born and she was put in contact with Bran because she didn't know how to cope with, or raise, a child who could turn into a coyote. For whatever reason Bran took her into the pack, sort of, and gave her to a pack member and his mate to raise."
"That couldn't have been easy but I can imagine this was the safest place for her to be, what with Bran and Charles here to keep the other wolves from hurting her."
"And Samuel. They're all very protective of her."
They reached her house and Asil got out to walk her to her door. "Rest well little Omega. Call me when you're ready to go get your car and I will come get you," he said and after touching her cheek he left.
The day of the funeral Thea drove herself, even though Asil offered to pick her up, because she was nervous about her decision to sing with Anna, Sage, and Aria and she didn't want to have to explain it to Asil. She'd met the British wolf the day before and found her to be both charming and sincere. If anyone doubted Aria's reason for being there Thea would be one of the first to speak up in her defense.
Throughout the funeral Thea found herself having to poke Asil in the side because every time someone got up to talk about 'how good a person' Leah was he'd mutter under his breath about them lying. The humans, thankfully, couldn't hear him but Thea knew the werewolves closer to them certainly could.
Finally Anna stepped up onto the platform and said a few honest things about Leah before informing all who were there that she, Sage, Thea, and Aria were going to sing something in Leah's honor. Thea saw the surprise on Asil's face before she moved to join the others.
Asil watched in awe as the song began. Led Zepplin's Stairway to Heaven. It was indeed the perfect song for the materialistic Leah and the four of them harmonized well but it was Thea's voice that had him riveted. He closed his eyes and let it wash over him and the purity of it sent his wolf to sleep. He was quiet when she sat back down beside him and he waited until the funeral was over before he spoke again. "You have a beautiful voice Thea," he murmured.
"Thank you, Asil," she said softly. "Anna says they're setting food up at Bran's for anyone who wants to stop by and give their continued support to him for his loss. I thought I'd go help wherever I could. Will I see you there?" she asked.
"I'll stop in for a bit, yes," Asil replied. "I have something I need to attend to first though."
"Alright." Thea gave his hand a gentle squeeze before she headed to her car.
Sage was leaning against it when Thea got there. "Mind if I ride with you?" she asked. "There are going to be a ton of cars in and out of Bran's yard, I'd rather mine not be one of them," she added.
"Of course I don't mind Sage," Thea said as if the question itself was a silly one. She opened her door to get in and was stopped by her brother.
"Wait up adelfi," Cyrus said. He'd sat at the back of the church because he'd made a point to avoid Leah at all costs so he barely knew her at all and wanted to give the closer pews to those who had known her. "I rode here with Sage so I guess that means I'm riding with you too," he told her before he slid into the backseat.
Once they were in the car Sage turned to Thea. "I have another reason for the request," she said and watched her friend's face as she continued. "I wanted to give you a head's up on something. I have it on good authority that Ethan has taken a serious interest in you, serious enough he doesn't care if Asil snaps at him, he's going to ask you out. All the unmated males are aware Asil has taken it upon himself to be your protector but Ethan has decided he doesn't care about that. He's not a bad guy. He's actually kind of sweet when he wants to be. He's just unstable sometimes, which is why he's here instead of in a different pack."
Ethan, Thea knew, was one of the unmated males in the pack. He wasn't unattractive, but then none of the males in their pack were and Thea had a feeling it was like that, in general, with werewolves, something to do with the change. The problem was, she wasn't sure how she felt about the idea of dating someone again. Unless that someone was a certain werewolf who seemingly had no romantic interest in her at all.
Tension filled the car and Cyrus, who was still learning control, growled. "Thea, sweetie, do you remember what Asil told you at the airport when we went to go pick up your dad? You need to calm down," Sage said to her.
Thea blinked at the growl then took several deep breaths as Sage's words sunk in. "Sorry Cy, I didn't mean to do that," she said as the tension faded.
"That... wasn't fun. Let's not do that again," Cyrus replied.
"You don't have to go out with him Thea but... it might make a difference if you do. Hear me out," Sage said at the look Thea gave her. "I know you have feelings for Asil, I see it every time you look at him. Maybe going on a date with someone else will shake him up enough to make him wake up," she added.
Thea sighed. "It wouldn't matter Sage. I know he doesn't feel the same way."
Sage and Cyrus looked at each other. Was Thea really that blind? "Why do you say that adelfi?" Cyrus asked before Sage could.
"Because twice now I've kissed his cheek and have gotten no reaction from him whatsoever."
"Thea, honey, Asil is an old wolf who is stubborn as an ox. Chances are he didn't react because he was afraid he wouldn't be able to stop himself, and you're a lot younger than him, and a lot less experienced in what it means to be a werewolf or what it means to possibly be tied to another person," Sage countered.
"A man who shows no reaction when a woman kisses him generally isn't interested," Thea replied. "It's alright, you don't have to defend him. I'm not angry. I understand his lack of interest. My own husband was so uninterested in me he looked elsewhere for intimacy, and with what Asil said about what I am, and how others will react, I doubt Ethan wants me, he just wants an Omega and I happen to be the only one not already taken."
Sage wanted to argue with her but two things stopped her. One, she wasn't sure it would do any good and two, they'd arrived at Bran's.
Despite believing that Asil didn't have romantic feelings for her, Thea couldn't stop glancing at the door every so often to see if he'd arrived yet. When he finally did Sage and Cyrus both saw the change in her eyes. There was happiness at seeing him, closely followed by sorrow and then she just looked... resigned.
Had Asil known Thea firmly believed he had no romantic interests in her he would have already settled those doubts. But he was unaware as he made his way to the trio, The errand he'd had to take care of was a gift for her, one she would find when she returned home. A rosebush in a planter he'd made for her.
He went to Bran first. He didn't speak platitudes to his Alpha, he just lightly gripped his shoulder a moment then left him be. Then he moved to Thea's side. "You should eat something, my dear," he murmured.
"This is such a farce," Sage muttered under her breath. "Most of the people here couldn't stand Leah, they avoid the Marrok unless they have to be in his presence, they're just here for the free food," she added with a growl.
"Mm, true that may be but at least they came," Asil replied. "I don't think anyone actually liked Leah, she made sure of that, but that isn't why people are here. They're here for Bran. Or they should be," he added. He turned his attention back to Thea. "How are you doing little Omega?" he asked. With all the emotion in the room making the air itself feel heavy and oppressive it had to have her senses in overdrive.
"A little... overwhelmed, but I'm okay. I have adopted my mantra from when Cy awoke to find two strange werewolves in his room, instead of me. Think calm thoughts. It's helping," Thea replied. Yes, he was concerned for his student but that wasn't exactly the same as caring about her.
Sage wanted to kick him, or maybe smack him upside the head to make him wake up. She was going to have to talk to Asil before Cyrus decided to confront him. That could end up with both of them dead; Cyrus by Asil and Asil by Bran. Not an acceptable outcome.
Thea didn't stay as long as she could have. It wasn't the emotions getting to her, it was her own thoughts. She bid Sage, Cyrus, and Asil goodbye, stopped one last time to give condolences to Bran, and went home. She was surprised when she found the rosebush in her living room. It was situated where it would get sunlight most of the day and she couldn't help but smile at its presence. So that was what he'd been up to. The accompanying note read 'A late housewarming gift to brighten your days- Asil'. She had no idea how rare it was for Asil to give one of his cherished rosebushes to anyone. If she had, she might have reconsidered her opinion that he had no genuine interest in her beyond teaching her how to use her gifts to help the pack.
Later that night she thought about what Sage had said about Ethan. Maybe she should give him a chance. Maybe if she did that she could, in time, develop feelings for him. Maybe her feelings for Asil were just a result of him being the first unattached male to show her attention since her change. The question was, would it be fair to Ethan for her to accept a date with him, thus settling when she wasn't attracted to him, in the hopes that feelings might develop if given enough time?
When she crawled into her bed that night she still didn't have an answer to that question.