Brett Atwood turns off the engine to his unnecessarily large pickup truck and takes a moment just to breathe before he exits the car. He had just dropped off his charges at their respective homes--Paige in town and Aria and Zander in their cottage on the sprawling Atwood property--and it is now early afternoon. He looks up at their little roman style home and thinks, not for the first time, that Camille would have loved it. If she were there, there would be a colorful wreath on the door, Raven’s artwork taped sloppily and unrepentantly in the hallways, her beat up tennis shoes tossed somewhere because she could never put them away, and the smell of baking in the kitchen.
But she isn’t. There, that is. It’s a punch to the gut every time he wakes up and realizes she isn’t there and a slap in the face all the other times during the day he wishes he could look over and see her beautiful sparkling eyes with creases at the corners from laughing at him all day.
Brett breathes in and out one last time before stepping out of the truck and stretching his back as an excuse for mentally preparing for whatever conversation is waiting for him. He may not have that little spark of magic that lives in Asher and that bleeds over into Slate, but he doesn’t need magic to know his children have gotten into something they shouldn’t have.
It’s with a grim countenance that he unlocks the door and walks into the entrance hall. “Hello household, your father is home!” he bellows.
His heart lifts immediately at the pattering of footsteps on the wood flooring, and really, he should have known that seeing his kids would outshine any woes he may have. His youngest son, only six years old, drifts around the corner, loses his footing, and slides like a bowling ball into Brett’s legs. Just like that, the somber air is gone from Brett’s thoughts.
“Hey little man!” He growls, “I’m feeling pretty hungry, maybe I should eat you up!” He bends and lifts his giggling son with one hand and brings him up to his face where Brett pretends to get a good chomp on his belly.
“Daddy! I’m not food!” Raven shrieks joyfully.
Next, his oldest, Sara, comes sliding around the corner and suddenly Brett can see exactly where Raven learned it from. “Oh really?” She asks mischievously. “Because you look like Raven soup to me!” Sara skips over and blows a raspberry on Raven’s exposed underbelly, which makes him shriek louder and dissolve into hysterics.
Brett lifts his head and releases his worries in a bellowing laugh. He certainly hasn’t forgotten the gravity of events to come, but for now he won’t let anything stop him from enjoying his proudest achievements.
“Alright Ray Baby, let’s go say hi to everyone else,” Brett releases his son as the boy wriggles out of his hold.
“Okay! Sara and Slate stayed here with us last night too and Jason came in the morning and we had chocolate pancakes! Jason ate seven whole pancakes!”
Brett follows his son across the threshold of the living room and sees his whole family gathered there, and nothing could make him happier. (Well, almost nothing.)
Asher perches on the arm of their love seat couch, leaving space for Jason and Sara to sit snugly next to each other on the brown suede cushions. Sage and Forrest sprawl haphazardly on the matching couch, Slate reclining casually next to them with his arms crossed. Raven leaps into the mix and wriggles around until he finds a comfortable spot, which happens to be with one foot digging into Forrest’s ribs and the rest of him snuggled up to his oldest brother, who lays an arm across the back of the couch to let him sink closer. Brett takes the remaining spot on the mismatched armchair and settles in, spreading out his long limbs.
“Hey now, I didn’t eat them whole,” Jason shoots back indignantly with a little grin. “I’m not an animal. I chewed them first!”
“Oh honey, you are an animal,” Sara chimes in with sly, saccharine sweetness.
“Oh gross,” Sage grumps. “Dad, Sara and Jason shouldn’t be allowed in the same room when we all have to be at the house at the same time.”
Asher snorts and crosses his arms cockily. “Don’t lie, Sage. We all know you’re taking notes so you can woo Aria before Ethan gets to her.”
Right on cue, Sage blushes like a summer rose. Slate, with a purposeful smirk, clears his throat and has all eyes on him in a moment. “Asher, I wouldn’t talk if I were you.”
Asher narrows his eyes suspiciously. “Why?” Slate raises his eyebrows. Asher cocks his head. Slate rolls his eyes. Asher’s eyes turn into saucers. “Come on, man, that was years ago! You gotta let it go!”
Slate’s lips purse to try to hide a smile, and oh does Brett love to see a smile on that boy’s face. It doesn’t come often enough. “There was this one time--”
“Dude, this is so uncalled for!”
Slate smirks and shrugs unrepentantly, but lets it go all the same, feeling satisfied enough with the terror in Asher’s eyes. After all, once he spills the dirt he has on Asher, one fiftieth of the blackmail material he has is gone.
Sara reaches across Jason to pat Asher’s back and gives him a wink. “Don’t worry bro, I’ve got plenty of stories of stupid, oblivious things Jason has said too. It’s a man thing.”
“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up,” Asher mutters, pouting while Jason squawks in indignation. Brett does notice, however, that he doesn’t argue.
Wiping a hand down his face, Brett says through some lingering laughter, “Alright, well it sounds like you all had a wonderful time here without me. Asher, why don’t you take your younger siblings out to the sparring field and have some fun, get ice cream after.”
Asher lifts his head and makes eye contact with Sara and Slate, they exchange a nod, and he rises from his perch on the couch and walks into his father’s embrace. One by one as they trail after their brother, Forrest, Sage, and Raven hug their father and accept a kiss on the forehead and walk out the back door.
With just Jason, Sara, Slate, and Brett himself left in the room, the mood shifts slightly. Brett melts a little more into the soft cushions of his chair and exhales peacefully. “Love you kids.”
Sara smiles with half her mouth as she leans into her husband’s side. Brett doesn’t miss the slight tightness at the corners of her eyes that speaks of pain. “Yeah dad, we love you too.”
“I trust that the three of you looked after the house and the kids okay, yes?”
Silence reigns for a moment before Jason huffs a laugh. “Well, I did my part. I had nothing to do with any havoc that was wreaked. These two on the other hand,” he points a finger between his wife and brother-in-law, “have quite a story to tell.”
Brett wants to groan like a child and look the other way, but he hears his wife in his ear telling him to put your worries on the shelf and get the job done. She’d say it with such surety. As though there was nothing he couldn’t do. So, he straightens in his chair, leans forward ever so slightly and lets his eyes flick between the three young adults in front of him for a moment. “Alright, you have my attention. What’s been going on?”
Sara takes the lead. “Well nothing has been going on, it’s really just...last night. Taking care of the kids is nothing we can’t handle,” the we Sara refers to being herself, her husband, and Slate, “but last night was out of the ordinary for a couple reasons. For one, Asher, Slate, and I all got put on night patrols yesterday--”
“Which is something you look forward to normally, yes?” Brett interrupts curiously.
Sara winces a little and continues. “Yeah, it’s rare that we three get sent out together, so we were looking forward to it.”
Brett’s eyes narrow. “So…”
“Right,” Sara collects herself. “So, Jason had to work a fourteen hour shift yesterday at the hospital, so he was out of commission, which left Forrest to look after Sage and Raven.”
“Okay, pause,” Brett can’t help but interject. “This all sounds routine, where’s the problem?”
Slate leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees, drawing the attention of the room. “The short version is that Sage snuck out to come be with the three of us on patrol. I don’t know what he thought he was doing,” Slate shakes his head, “but he managed to find us after who knows how long. The timeline we’ve managed to piece together is a little fuzzy. Sara had to shift to talk to him. Then two rogues ambushed us,” Slate says remarkably calmly and clinically while their father’s entire frame freezes. “I had one of them handled just fine, but the other…” Slate trails off.
Alpha Atwood inhales sharply. “And the other was taken care of by Asher, right?”
Sara huffs a humorless laugh. “Well the other one was taken care of, but not by Asher.”
Slate sees their father beginning to become impatient, so he continues before another interjection can be made. “There was this other wolf. A she-wolf. She carried no pack scent, or if she did, none of us recognized it. But she didn’t act like a rogue. She...she protected us. She fought off the other rogue who attacked us. But then,” Slate exhales and rips off the bandaid, “there was a third rogue we didn’t see who came from behind and attacked Sage.”
Alpha very nearly roars, his throat spasming, but he controls himself because he had seen Sage just moments ago, he’s fine, he was fine.
“I had killed a rogue and Asher killed the third one, and the last one cleared out, but the she-wolf, she stayed. And Asher and I had this vision with his...well, that’s a story for another time, but the she-wolf healed Sage.”
Alpha waits a beat for more explanation, and when none comes he says through a clenched jaw, “You’re not making any sense.”
Jason removes his arm from around Sara’s shoulder and contributes seriously. “Brett, you need to calm down. Sage is fine. I know it seems hard to believe, but there’s bigger things to deal with right now. Just listen.”
This counsel would be hard to swallow for any normal Alpha, but Alpha Atwood has a special bond with his son-in-law. Sara is his oldest, his only girl, and she’s the only one Brett has had to give to someone else to care for thus far in his life. Jason is a steady presence, the calm to Sara’s fire, her strength when she’s weak, someone she can care for when he’s weak--Sara needs that. Sara needs someone to care for just as much she needs someone to care for her, and Jason is the perfect wolf for it. Because Brett can trust Jason with his own daughter, one-sixth of his world, Brett will trust him implicitly with just about everything else.
So Brett nods, shakes out his tense posture and focuses on the details that have thus far been laid out before him. “So two rogues attacked--we’ll need to talk about that particular detail later--and some...she-wolf helped fend them off. And then a third rogue comes and,” he swallows, “attacks Sage--but my boy is okay, I just saw him this morning. He was in no pain, and you’re telling me he was...mauled--and don’t try to downplay this, I know how rogues are--a matter of hours ago and I have...who to thank?”
Sara and Slate exchange glances. Sara puffs out a breath. “I’ll tell you everything we know about her. She had red-ish fur, she was maybe a little larger than I am in my wolf form, and she had these...these gray eyes.”
“Gray like...blue-gray?” Alpha tries to clarify, gears turning in his brain.
“No, like...like grayscale gray. Like maybe they used to be blue or brown, maybe green, but the color has been bled away. And she healed Sage.”
Alpha opens his mouth to express his frustration at the vague details, but Slate speaks first. “Dad, we really don’t know how she did it. She never turned human, she stayed wolf the whole time. Everything I remember about it is this: she walked up to the three of us, took a few moments just to breathe, she leaned down and sniffed around Sage’s wounds, cleared away some blood with her tongue, and then she dropped her head on his chest for a minute, and when she raised it...Sage was almost completely healed. He had a nasty scar for a bit until he healed it himself, but...she all but brought him back to life.”
At this point Sara gets a little choked up. “Dad, we owe this wolf everything. I don’t care how she did it, she let me take my brother home and put him to bed that night when I didn’t know if I was ever going to get to do that again.”
Alpha stares at his daughter without seeing her, then his eyes flick back and forth up at the ceiling like they do when his brain is thinking too fast for his mouth to keep up. Slate breaks the tense silence with keen perception. “Dad, do you know something about this wolf?”
Sara’s head jerks toward Slate and her mouth drops just a little. Then, processing, she turns back to her father and sees the answer in his face. She gets excited, “You do, don’t you?”
Alpha drags a hand down his face and considers his daughter for a moment. “Yes, I think I do. There have been rumors, rumors that have only shown up in the last couple years or so.”
Slate narrows his eyes, sits up from his hunched over position and settles back against the backing cushions of the couch. “I think you might be right...I think I remember a cousin from the Ashford pack--it might have been Andrew, or maybe Matt--tell me some...some fantastical story about a wolf with gray eyes. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”
Sara snorts. “And by that you mean you rolled your eyes and thumped them on the back of the head.”
Slate raises a brow. “Well do you think our gray-eyed wolf has been wandering the western forests for decades searching for a lost love--some reincarnation of her True Mate?”
Sara tips her head back and forth, shrugging. “Okay, so maybe the story has some flaws.”
Jason places the side of a considering knuckle to his chin. “What have you heard, Brett?” Then he laughs a little. “What kind of love struck rumors filter through the Alpha circuit?”
Brett lets out a bark of laughter and squints at his son-in-law. “You’d be surprised, I have no doubt of that. As for the gray eyed wolf...I’ve heard she brings pain and disaster wherever she goes, that destruction follows her.” He cocks his head and considers. “I believe an Alpha from south of here--California, I think--told me she was always just out of sight for a week or two during wildfire season down there. That she was always around at the most devastating infernos. I also recall...maybe a daughter of his trying to tell me a story about her.” He pauses. “In fact, I think she was telling me our gray-eyed wolf ran into a fire and disappeared, but that a close friend of hers emerged from the worst of it untouched minutes later. Apparently she--the friend, a human friend--had gone back into the forest for a pet that had escaped, yet somehow neither were injured when they came out.” He shakes his head as though coming out of a stupor. “The alpha shushed her, told her it was nonsense. That she was making connections where there were none.”
“That’s our wolf,” Sara breathes. “That’s our girl, it has to be.”
Jason hums and reasons quietly, “Destruction doesn’t follow her, she follows destruction. Where she can help.”
With thoughtful eyes still searching the ceiling for answers, much like his father, Slate says, “There was something about her that was familiar, though. Asher and I both felt it.” Then he jerks his head at his sister. “Sara too.”
Sara chimes in, “There was something about the way she looked, the way she moved that was familiar, but there was something more than that too. I felt like I knew her. Some part of me recognized her. We...we saw each other.”