"Azzy. Can we really stay here? Are they really going to let us?" Briar gazed up at her older sister, tightly grasping Aspen's gloved hand and pressing close to her side.
At a very grown eight years old, she knew it was childish to cling, but she was nervous. It was another move, the third since she had started third grade six months earlier. They had been moving so much in her recent memory, that she could barely remember owning more than what could be stuffed into the family SUV. Briar didn't like it. It was lonely and she especially didn't like how it always made her parents so anxious.
"I think so." Aspen nodded and pulled her gently towards the mansion before them, trailing closely behind their parents.
Scents of wolves, fresh and stale, lingered in the air around them, growing stronger as the small family opened the heavy wooden door. Stepping inside, they were assaulted by the delicious smells of baking cinnamon rolls, bacon, eggs, pancakes and more. Cheerful chatter became clear from a room to the right of the brightly lit annex. Several wolves waved politely as they went about their morning- one even grinned at Briar and tossed her a caramel candy as she greeted them. Her eyes grew wide and her little jaw dropped. She had heard what the mysterious thing called a 'pack house' was like from a boy in her new class earlier that week, but she hadn't really believed a place so warm and welcoming could exist.
Aspen patted her on the head, but scooted closer to her while they congregated just inside while Briar's father double checked the instructions in the message they had been given. Every now and then, she would watch her big sister look around and surreptitiously sniff at the air. She seemed on edge, even more than before. Briar copied her, but couldn't figure out what Aspen was looking for or scenting that was making her so anxious. So, instead, she scooted a little closer and went back to absorbing her new environment.
"Oh dear! You must be the Lunds. I tried to have Scott keep an eye out for you, but he must not be downstairs yet!" A woman with dark, curly hair, coppery skin, and amber eyes strode towards them from the stairs. She was smiling broadly and extended a hand out to the adults. "I'm Heather Broward. It's so nice to finally meet you."
"Wow, you're really pretty! And tall. Can you see on top of the refrigerator?! That's where my Momma and Daddy hide the cookie jar and-" Briar began to ramble before her mother laid a gentle hand on her mouth briefly.
"We're a bit early, so it's our fault. Please excuse Briar, Luna Broward. She's a bit excitable at times. I'm Erik Lund. This is my wife Aisling. Next is our oldest, my stepdaughter Aspen; and then, of course, little Briar." Her father shook the woman's hand, and bowed his head slightly.
"We weren't expecting you to rush down to greet us, Luna. I hope we haven't intruded too much." Aisling also dipped her head respectfully. Then Aspen did too, to Briar's confusion. However, Aspen didn't say anything, only gently pushed Briar's head so that she bowed also. She shot Aspen a dirty look, dark green eyes glinting as she pulled away and shook her head. Defiantly, she stuffed a hand in her pocket to retrieve her treat and looked away.
"Just Heather, please. The pack house is rather large, so we had planned to meet you and show you the way up to my mate's office. My sister mindlinked me when she met you all a few minutes ago. She was the she-wolf eating candy on her way into the dining hall." Heather laughed, and winked at Briar who had just begun to unwrap the sweet. "You can follow me now and we'll make sure everything is all settled and official for you."
"Miss Luna, I don't know what a mindlink is, but your sister is super nice." She said very solemnly before tossing the caramel in her mouth and stuffing the wrapper in her coat pocket.
The grown ups laughed, but her attention had already drifted as they began to move again. Photogaphs and paintings lined the colorful walls along the stairs and the hallways. More than once, Briar felt a tug on her hand without ever having realized that she had stopped. Though, she did notice that by the time they had reached the fourth floor there were very few others to be seen and the decorating seemed to be more focused on one family.
Vaguely, she heard her name mentioned and pulled herself back to what her sister and parents were talking about. "So, Briar is eight. How old are you now, Aspen? You don't look much younger than my son."
"I just turned 16 on Tuesday, Luna." Aspen smiled. "It was really nice to be able to move in on Sunday. Thanks to the kindness of you and the Alpha, we were able to have some cake and relax in a home AND not up to our eyeballs in boxes. I can't wait-"
A sparkle at the edge of her vision ripped Briar's attention away from the conversation. Something smallish and very shiny silver rolled into the hallway from a door not too far ahead. She froze and her pupils began to dilate as she zeroed in on the object.
'Shiny. Get the shiny.' A small voice echoed in her mind.
'I see it. We shouldn't though. Momma and Daddy will get mad, Anja.' Briar replied, struggling with her own desire to bolt after whatever it was even without the demands from her other half. The glinting of the light off the little object was tempting.
'It's shiny and it rolls. Get it. Want to chase.' She felt Anja pounce, pushing forward to take control in her mind.
It was too late to push back, Briar realized when she felt herself taken away from control of her own body as the prickling and crackling sensation of shifting rippled through her. Aspen, her parents, and Luna Heather barely had time to register what was happening before a tiny blur of spotted tawny fur launched past them towards the end of the hall. They watched in shock as cub skidded to a halt, tufted paws sliding on the hard wood, only inches from her target.
A small, steel ball similar to what Briar often saw on Aspen's piercing jewelry lay on the ground. Gleefully, Anja swiped at it and sent it skittering a few feet away. The perfect distance for her to line up a pounce. She crouched, wiggling her little haunches and flicking her bobbed tail. In their shared mind, Anja could hear Briar flipping back and forth between encouraging her to get the ball and saying that their mama was going to kill them. It was too late to bother, anyway, so Anja pounced again before batting at the little ball. Once more it bounced and rolled down the hall and bounced off the wall.
In similar fashion, Anja found herself once more sliding on her fur-lined paws and bumping lightly nose first into the wall. She plopped back on her bottom and sneezed, swiping at her muzzle with a paw. She didn't stay put long, however. Almost as quickly as she stumbled, she was back on her paws and preparing to pounce on her metallic prey once more. Unfortunately, it seemed as though fate had other plans for her. A large, gentle hand grasped her by the scruff of her neck and lifted her off the floor as the matching hand picked up her quarry.
"Well hello there. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but this happens to be mine." She found herself nose to nose with a boy about Aspen's age with kind, dark brown eyes and coily hair done up in little twists all over the top of his head.
"Does this belong to you?" He turned to face Briar's family beside the Luna, smiling before his eyes grew wide, pupils dilating.
Aspen's hands flew to her mouth, "Oh- oh my goodness."
"Mate," He wispered in shock, slightly lowering the cub to dangle at shoulder height.
Thank the gods for distractions. Briar thought to Anja in relief.
Seriously. Anja responded, though her tone was more awestruck than relieved.