Rose

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Chapter 73: Gifts

Christmas Eve Dinner

“My God, this is horrible.” I looked at Gunny after I opened the bag Josh had given us for the party tonight. Renee had convinced Ella to implement her Pack’s tradition of “Gaming, Grazing and Shaming” in the afternoon. This tradition was built around a Pack in Montana, where winds and snows kept the festivities inside.

The Games part was easily translated, as it was about friendly competitions between Pack members. We had a few hundred people on the island, so there were plenty of different games. The kids played Halo 10, Madden 2024 or Mario Kart 14 on the big screens in the game room. There was a mixed-team 2-man volleyball tournament on the beach, along with a surfing competition on the beach by the singles. We had friendly sparring matches in human and animal form, races from a hundred meters to a circuit of the island, and a race to the top of the volcanic mountain at the center of the island.

Gunny and I had won the wife-carrying competition, barely edging out Minka and Sam at the finish line. It almost wasn’t fair, she’s a tiny thing he barely noticed, but Gunny wasn’t going to be denied. We won a trophy and a case of steaks.

The grazing part was also easy; the kitchens in the main house and the other villages had been opened, and the families had brought or prepared appetizers or desserts to compete for best overall in different categories. The Alphas were the judges, so we would be doing this when we went downstairs. I’d been smelling the baking all day and I couldn’t wait.

The final was the shaming. Despite the tropical heat, we were having an Ugly Christmas Sweater contest, with shorts or flip flops under it. We’d left it up to Josh and Charlotte to order something over the Internet for us, rather than picking ourselves, and now we were paying the price. I picked up one of the matching sweaters. “You get the butt,” I said.

“I don’t know, with my chest being so much bigger it would look funny if the back was rounder.”

“Your chest isn’t bigger, Rico. Not with the titty fairy still here. Plus, YOU are the one who said we could trust our kids to do this for us.”

He grabbed the sweatshirt from me and held it up. “It’s a good thing he’s a computer whiz because he sucks at fashion.”

“It was probably Charlotte’s pick. It IS an ugly Christmas sweater contest, I’m pretty sure we won’t get fined and shamed with these two. We might even win.”

“Yeah, but I’m not sure if it would be worth it.” The sweaters showed a reindeer, head on my sweater, back end on his, with explosive diarrhea and upchuck of tinsel, presents and ornaments. It was truly ugly.

I laughed as we worked together to dress the kids, they had T-shirts that made them look like Santa’s elves. They were going to go into the nursery with the other young ones; that place was like a dog park, they just ran and ran until they collapsed in a corner and fell asleep in a pile. We had it so easy as parents, with all the help we only had to make sure they got fed and put in bed at night. Everything else the ladies at the nursery took care of.

We walked down the stairs, marveling at the decorations in the big room, covered porch and beach. Christmas had a tropical feeling, with lights in the palm trees complementing the Tiki lamps. I saw Craig and Ella just outside the door, so we walked over to say hi. I had to say, she wasn’t making the competition easy.

“How, uh, fitting,” I said as I looked at the stuffed animal shark sticking out the front, Santa mostly eaten with his legs sticking out. Craig wasn’t much better...he must like Christmas Vacation.

She laughed. “Yeah, and I made it lighter in weight. I had to do something memorable, have you seen what Renee has on yet?” She pointed over to her best friend and fellow Alpha, who was watching her kids play.

“No, but I’m heading that way.” I was afraid, very afraid. I figured she HAD to be the winner with that sweater. “Oh... My.... GAWD! That’s just WRONG!”

She laughed at me as she turned around, the snowmen on each breast having huge carrots poking out from her nipples. She looked like a deviant stripper.

“I had to set the standard,” she said. “I’ve had this for nine months, just waiting for the right time to bust it out.” We both laughed as she turned, you could poke an eye out with those things. “Just be glad I’m one of the judges, so I’m not in the contest.”

William and Melody walked up with their matched set. “I see we weren’t the only ones to coordinate,” Melody said, “but I can’t compete with you two.” They wore matching Griswald Christmas sweaters.

“Oh my, your baby is SOOOO cute!” I moved over to look at their month-old daughter, her skin a milk chocolate color and her eyes matched Melody’s. She was wearing a baby outfit that was particularly fitting, one that said ‘Baby’s First Christmas Sweater Party.’

“Thanks. I’m hoping to win the under two division.” We brought our babies over and checked them in, then headed back towards the house.

The party went on for hours, and it was a blast. We ate way too much, laughed so hard my stomach hurt, and made it to the finals of the sweater contest. The female winner, Alpha Linda Miller, won in a runaway with a sweater that was a veritable explosion of bad taste. It looked like the Pink Panther surrounded in tinsel crime scene tape and lights. The male winner? Carl Smith. It takes a special kind of crazy to wear a suit that looked like bad wrapping paper to a tropical party, and that hacker could pull it off.

After the awards were presented, our hosts Craig and Ella had champagne and sparkling cider glasses handed out for a toast. Ella stood on a chair and raised her glass. “My friends and family, thank you all for coming. These gatherings are so important, not just to me, but to all of our Packs. I remember when I was a little girl and we would visit my aunt and uncle, Doug and Remi, every Christmas. Back in the days before Facebook, cell phones and private jets, this was the one time each year we would all see each other. It was how we built strong ties, ties that carried us through the dark days of the war to where we are now.” She paused and gathered herself, but tears were starting to leak down. “The last time we had an Ugly Christmas Sweater contest, we had two Packs and over five hundred members. Today, we are about half that, with members of six Packs represented. It was an inconceivable loss, one we will take decades to recover from.” She raised her glass. “To those who didn’t make it,” she said.

After we took a drink, Craig helped her down then stood on the chair himself. “A little over a year ago, the war ended, and we started working together. We changed laws, defeated not just one but TWO cartels, and ended a threat that would have thrown us back into war again. We have emerged stronger, our Packs growing, our alliances and Packs the model for the new age. Thank you, and may Luna continue to bless us as we return to our homes.” We all toasted that, then people started to head back home. The young ones moved their party to their compound, where the loud music and dancing wouldn’t bother the “old folks and Alphas” or something.

We collected our sleeping babies and went back upstairs, sleeping deeply in the tropical breezes.

The next morning, we gathered for a Pack run. Another tradition of Christmas from before the war, it helped to build stronger bonds and was just plain fun. The cat shifters, most of us who detested distance running, volunteered to escort the young ones on a much shorter tour. The wolf shifters, led by Alpha Craig, would take the group on a long run around the island.

We had a dozen cats, surrounding the group of little ones, as Craig howled to start the hunt. The wolves tore off along the wide trail, their howls and barks leaving us far behind as we set off at a slow pace. The kids were so cute, they hopped more than ran, and their feet were so big they would stumble in the brush. Most hadn’t been in the jungle before, so every smell was investigated, every leaf checked, every tree sniffed and sometimes marked by the young males. We kept a ring around them, making sure none get lost as we made our way towards the spring-fed creek.

I rubbed up against Ella’s panther as I moved to join Gunny, who was scouting the trail ahead of us. She rubbed her head on my shoulder as I passed, letting me know that she would watch my children. I raced ahead, playfully jumping on Gunny’s back as I reached him. He stumbled, then twisted his body to make me slide off. We play wrestled until he had me pinned, which gave my cat all kinds of other thoughts we couldn’t act on now.

I could hear the roars of the cats and howls of the younger wolves as they made their way back from their shortened run. I raised my nose, scenting them just before I heard them.

Boars. Rampaging boars. Led by a huge sow that went over five hundred pounds, the group included a dozen or so very dangerous animals with sharp teeth and long tusks.

They were charging away from the other group, heading almost right towards us from our front right. The group appeared in the trees, maybe thirty of them, running hard. I roared a warning, causing them to shift away from me, but it sent them towards the house and… “THE CHILDREN!” I yelled through the link as Gunny and I ran hard after them. “PROTECT THE CHILDREN!”

I could hear the roars and snarls from up ahead, mixing with the grunts of the boars. Gunny was just ahead of me as we broke through into a small clearing. It was a worst-case scenario; the panicked pigs had charged right into the group of cat shifters, and they were out for blood. I could see one panther and three boars on the ground, and more were fighting. The big sow was trying to attack a Siberian Tiger, who was leading her away from the others. A male tiger was blocking her return.

Gunny ran straight for the biggest one, as she was the biggest threat. He leaped onto her back from twenty feet away, his claws digging deep as he clamped down on the fat neck. She grunted, trying to get her tusks around to his chest. The tigers took advantage of the distraction and went for her neck and legs.

I saw a brown-colored pig moving towards the babies, who had all been gathered in the brush by Minka, Keisha and Kendra. Leaping on its back, I pulled it to the ground and ripped its throat out. I felt a sharp pain in my side and was knocked onto my back. The boar charged me, just to be knocked off by Al. Together we got it to the ground and killed it.

Then it was silent.

I collapsed onto the ground, the blood gushing out of my side. “The babies,” I sent to Gunny before I blacked out.


Gunny’s POV

I raised my head, frantically searching for Rose. I had felt her pain as if it was my own, it knocked me to the ground. Shifting, I ran over to where she lay, blood spraying out of her side. “ROSE!” He eyes rolled back and she passed out.

“MOVE ASIDE,” Minka said as he knelt next to me. She shifted a finger into a razor-sharp claw, opening the wound until he could get her small hand in. She moved it around until she smiled. “Got it. Pick her up, we’ve got to get her back home NOW.”

I lifted her into my arms, Minka laying naked on top of her with her hand still inside. “Bring the injured back, the children when they are ready,” I sent to Kelsey and Keisha. I started to run, praying to Luna that she wouldn’t be taken from me.

Doc Jennings and her nurse were waiting for us as we arrived. Julia had me bring Rose into the operating room and set her down. “How long have you been holding the artery?”

“Five hundred twenty-two seconds,” Minka said.

“All right, keep hold until I’m ready.” She got a large-bore IV in and started pushing whole blood, then a second with an IV. Her clamp ready, lights focused on the wound, and told Minka to remove her hand.

Blood sprayed into the room for a few seconds until she got the clamp over the artery. Working quickly, she found the other end of the severed tube and clamped it. She suctioned out the wound, then used sutures to sew them together. It took a few minutes to finish the delicate stitching before she was able to remove the clamps and restart flow.

I let out a deep breath, the monitors showed a good pulse. She took another fifteen minutes to stich her up before she allowed me to move her to a bed. “She’ll be out for a few hours.”

“The babies?”

“They are fine, we’re monitoring them, but they aren’t in distress. The wound wasn’t near them and you kept her from losing too much blood. You should go clean up and go to your children,” she said as she pulled off the soiled surgical garments.

I walked out of the room to the hallway, where Minka and the other cats were waiting. I pulled the small girl into a hug. “She’ll recover, thanks to you,” I said as I let the tears go. I looked up. “Who else got hurt?”

“Olivia Harris, her leg was bitten pretty good, but she’s already back in her room. The rest was cuts and bruises,” Doc Terry said.

“Thank Luna,” I said. “The children?”

“All fine, just scared. We took them back to the beach, they’re being watched and fed,” Kelsey said. “The rest of the Pack will be here soon. Craig knows about the attack, they are going to sweep this end of the island and make sure there aren’t more nearby.”

“Make sure they butcher and bring back those pigs, that sow alone will feed us for a few days,” I said. “By Luna, she was huge. Nice job on the takedown, Tatiana. You too, Scott.” The young man was still shaking a little. I expected he didn’t think his first kill would take place under such circumstances. “You did what your training and instincts directed, and you survived. The adrenaline will burn off soon. Just focus on your breathing.”

He nodded, and I gripped his shoulder as I walked out. I had to see my babies.

I ran to the play area, opening the fence, and laid down while they clambered over me and I hugged them tight.

All I cared about, all I needed, was on this island right now.

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