“Today, you’ve disappointed me.”
Artemis turned to Lukas as her hands continued to stroke Raiden’s hair soothingly.
“If that lycan is standing before you today, it’s because Zena and I deemed him worthy enough to become a part of the family. To see you all disrespect that decision is hurtful.”
He shoved his fists in his pockets. “We have protected this pack for over two decades, but I see how little this fact means to you.” With a nod, he descended down the stairs, needing time to reflect.
Zena watched him walk away, recognizing his slouch. He was truly distraught about the pack’s lack of trust.
“Alright, you’re all dismissed. You can linger if you wish but if anyone throws another rock at my pup or her mate then we’re going to have some problems,” she growled.
Raiden felt like if he had to nod and greet another pack member, he would go insane. Well, even more so than what he already was.
For the past few months, Artemis had spent so much time with him that everyone in the background blurred. He forgot that she was so popular. He hated this reality. He missed having her all to himself.
“It’s lovely to meet you, Raiden,” another pack member lied.
Raiden nodded and replied “likewise,” monotonically. It had only been 30 minutes but he was already starting to feel overwhelmed by the fake politeness clouding him.
Who were they kidding? He had been alive for centuries and could read a person like he could a newspaper. He knew that the earlier tornado of rage hadn’t settled. It was still stirring in the privacy of their minds. They could smile all they wanted but they wouldn’t be able to fool him. He knew that they hated him and considered him a freak. It didn’t help that he was only wearing a pair of shorts that flagged him as the misfit among the well-dressed people.
Many stared at him with a morbid fixation, wondering what was wrong with him. The answer to that question was so long that it angered him.
“Artemis, I’m going home,” he declared when his anxiety peaked.
Artemis stopped her conversation with her best friend, Karen. She smiled, proud of him for trying to make this work.
“Okay. Do you want me to come along?” She asked. There were still many friends she had to pay her respects to. She had been so devoted to Raiden for the past months that she neglected everyone else.
Raiden shook his head, knowing that he would be fine. After pulling her into a tight embrace, he pulled away and began the walk back to the house
Young wailing deterred his journey. He let the pull of curiosity lead him to a tall tree. Up in the branches sat a young boy. He clutched the tree so tightly that it was a wonder he hadn’t melted into it. He was clearly terrified of falling and Raiden wondered how he got up there in the first place.
His eyes were shut tight as he cried, and since his werewolf senses hadn’t developed, he couldn’t tell that Raiden was nearby.
“Pup,” Raiden called out.
Great blue eyes glanced down at him.
Raiden examined the tree. The boy was fifteen feet above ground so if he dropped, he could catch him with ease. Desperate to stop the irritating sound of his crying, he opened his arms. “Let go. I’ll catch you,” he promised.
The invitation triggered a new wave of ear-tearing wailing. Raiden sighed and approached the tree. Without breaking a sweat, he grabbed a branch and started scaling his way up while keeping an eye on the child in case he slipped.
“Come,” he extended a hand once he was straddling the same branch as the boy. The bark they were on looked relatively strong so he wasn’t worried about it collapsing under his weight.
The boy did nothing but cry and clutch his beloved tree. Losing patience, Raiden wrapped a hand around his thin arm and the other on his hip. With a sharp tug, he was in Raiden’s arms.
His legs clamped around his torso. He was safely attached but the crying did not cease.
“Stop your tantrum. It is unnecessary considering that I already rescued you,” Raiden ordered.
Tears dripped from the boy’s face and settled on Raiden’s bare chest.
Raiden was confused. He settled his forearm under the boys back to keep him against his chest and ran his free hand over his legs and arms in search of an injury. When he found no source of pain, he figured that he was just scared. “I will not let you go. And if we fall, I am designed to survive falls of forty feet. We will be fine. Now calm yourself so that I can climb back down.”
The boy gripped bunches of Raiden’s hair tightly and continued his fit.
“Pup, you are irritating me,” Raiden announced and the boy replied to his lack of social skills by increasing the volume of his crying.
Seeing that his words only worsened the situation, Raiden just gave up and let the kid have his way. The crying continued for five more minutes until it dwindled to whimpers. By then, Raiden was half deaf.
“Are you done with your juvenile fit?” Raiden asked. He realized that he was treating the child as an adult, but he hadn’t interacted with one in centuries so his communication skills were awkward.
Well, unless Sol counted as a child.
“I’m Josh,” the boy pulled back to look at Raiden’s eyes and rested his small palms on his wide shoulders.
Raiden examined Josh’s swollen, red, teary mess of a face. His brown hair was dusted with chips of wood and his lips pouted.
“And I am half deaf. How old are you?” Raiden asked the miniature werewolf.
“Five,” Josh answered.
Raiden raised an eyebrow. “How did you get up here? You are not adequately built to climb so high just yet.”
Joshua frowned. “You talk funny.”
Raiden shrugged. “And you cry too much. We all have our flaws. Now, I’m going to climb down.”
Joshua’s lip quivered and his arms roped around Raiden’s neck once more. “No! That’s scary!”
“Pup, we can’t stay up here all day,” Raiden scolded.
“My name is not pup. I told you I’m Josh and I’m 5,” Joshua debated.
The older male sighed. “Okay. I’m Raiden and I’m 625.”
The reply earned him a giggle. “That’s not true. It’s not good to lie. 625 years is a lot of time so you would look super wrinkly but you are strong so you are not 625.”
Raiden was really not interested in explaining how angering a deity triggered a biology-violating curse to a 5-year-old so he simply shrugged again. “Okay.”
Josh took that as a green light to ramble for nearly an hour about the wonders of being 5. Raiden listened carefully to his yapping, grunting here when he asked a question. Usually, Raiden detested anyone’s presence but Artemis’. But he found that he didn’t mind the boy. Maybe it was because the kid trusted him and Raiden found it refreshing. He didn’t receive a lot of trust nowadays.
Josh began a new rant about his toys and Raiden wondered if his mouth didn’t feel dry from all the talking.
“You’re just like Sol, energetic,” he observed.
Josh crooked his head. “Who is Sol?”
“A person I would love to punch in the throat,” Raiden grumbled.
Josh gasped and covered his own throat. “You don’t want to punch me in the throat, do you?”
Raiden chuckled. “No. I don’t have any urge to strike you.”
Josh nodded. “I’m sorry that I didn’t stop crying. I was scared.”
“It’s okay to be scared. I get scared sometimes too,” Raiden assured.
“Really?” Josh frowned. “But you are strong. What scares you?”
He didn’t have to think much to find his answer. Losing Artemis sat on the top of his list of fears, followed by getting locked in a room with Sol’s cheery self.
“Climbing trees,” Raiden lied. “Do you want to help me conquer my fear?”
Josh looked down at the fifteen feet below. To Raiden, they were nothing. But to Josh who was half Raiden’s size, it felt like he was on the top floor of a skyscraper.
“Okay...” Josh drew out as his arms went around Raiden’s shoulders.
“Good. Hang tight.”
Raiden single-handedly began to move their bodies from branch to branch, keeping a hand securely against Josh’s back. When they reached the ground, Josh refused to weaken his bear hug.
“Pup, you can let go now.”
Josh pulled his face from the lycan’s shoulder to pout at him. “I told you that’s not my name. Why do you call me pup?”
Raiden grinned at the boy’s irritation. “Because you are small.”
This had to be the strangest adult that Josh had ever met. Raiden was abnormally silent, but Josh didn’t mind providing most of their conversation.
“Where do you live? I need to return you to your parents.”
Josh didn’t like the idea of going home. He was having so much fun. Reluctantly, he answered. “I live in packhouse number two with my mom and dad.”
“Okay,” Raiden replied as he began walking with Josh still in his arms. He had been carrying him for over an hour but his weight was hardly noticeable.
As Raiden began crossing some pack members, Josh began another rant about what his home was like. The sight of a murderer cradling a child was stare-worthy. As usual, Raiden became annoyed by all of the attention being hauled at him. He picked up his pace before someone gave him a reason to dislocate their neck.
“That’s my mom!” Josh pointed to a young brunette pacing by the entrance of the pack house. He tried to scramble out of Raiden’s arms but the lycan held on tight.
“Wait one second, Josh.”
The mother spotted them and with petrification, recognized Raiden’s identity.
Raiden was getting tired of being the recipient of that infuriating expression. With pursed lips, he stopped in front of the teary-eyed mother. “I found him dangling from a tree. I have no idea how he got up there but I suggest you find out. Don’t make a habit of misplacing your five-year-old.” He stopped his scolding to look at Josh.
“Josh, this is goodbye. Be good, okay?”
Josh nodded, not fully grasping what Raiden meant by goodbye. “Yeah. I’ll show you my room when I see you again. Thank you for bringing me home.” He threw his arms around Raiden’s neck and the man stiffened.
Unsure of how to respond to the tenderness, he gave Josh a pat in the back and then extended him out to his mother.
With quaking hands, she accepted Josh and then struggled to speak. To save her the trouble, Raiden turned his back on her and began to walk home.
He noticed the absence of weight in his arms and frowned. He would miss the cute pup.