I never had the chance to adjust to the heat before Rowan latched himself on to me, adding the warmth of his body to my already overheated space. I laughed and patted Rowan on the back, giving him a quick squeeze before attempting to separate our bodies.
Rowan pulled back, his hands firm on my shoulders, a grin stretching the entire length of his face. “It’s so good to see you man,” he beamed, blue eyes wide and sincere. “You haven’t changed at all.” This of course, wasn’t true.
I couldn’t have been further from the person I was a year ago. Before, I had been arrogant, cocky, self centered. Nothing could have touched me during that time. I was Alpha to be, mated to a beautiful she wolf.
I had everything. Power, friends, a mate, a future with a guaranteed legacy. I was admired and respected, lusted after and loved. Loved. Loved by Del. Beautiful, sweet, Del. Expressive and funny, open and loving. She gave her love to me so easily. I felt like I deserved it then. I never did. Never came close to deserving her affection.
And then she died. And that version of me died with her.
“―can’t wait for things to go back to normal,” Rowan was saying, “it’s been so topsy-turvy for so long, you know?”
I blinked, forcing a smile onto my face as I clapped Rowan on the back. “Yeah, normal.”
Rowan pushed his hair out of his eyes, unable to stay still. “It’s been so weird acting as Beta, cool but so not my speed. I’m just thankful you’re back in the chair―or well, starting in the chair. It’ll be nice to do what I’m meant to.”
I grimaced. I realised my absence caused strain on the pack. My biggest worry was the impact that strain had created. “Don’t worry, buddy, we’ll be okay from here. No more stretching to fit another’s roles. I’m back and I’m ready to set things straight. Normal.”
“Oh man, I’d like a slice of normal right about now!” Rowan looked over his shoulder before turning back to me, “Ryan’s been a little more aggressive lately. He wants to change pack borders, he set it in motion as soon as he found out you were coming back.”
For a moment, I felt as though my lungs were encased in steel. “More aggressive?”
Rowan nodded. “He’s like the Alpha position more than a Beta should.”
I gritted my teeth. “Do you believe this to be a problem?”
“In the making,” Rowan replied, nervous.
I smiled and elbowed him, trying to ease the mood. “Don’t worry, Rowan,” I said, “I’m going to take care of this pack. I promise.”
Rowan smiled. “I know you are, I can feel it, this is where everything goes right.”
“Don’t jinx us!” Ryan boomed, approaching us with an ease that resembled the stride of an Alpha. My wolf was quickly becoming restless. Ryan stopped just in front of me, meeting my eyes squarely and holding out his hand. “Nice to see you, Trip.”
I hoped my smile wasn’t too stiff. “You too, Ryan, how are things?”
Ryan smiled, the scar that connected his upper lip and nose twisted his face. “Oh you know, busy. Well, you don’t know. Not yet.” I felt Rowan tense beside me and worked hard to conceal my own surprise. I had been on Mt. Timbre for all of five minutes and I was already being challenged.
“It’s good to know you’ve gotten some experience, Beta. I hope what you’ve learned will prove handy to me in the future,” I said, delicately implying I was not to be trifled with. My focus had to be on rebuilding the pack, not fighting off an opponent. “I also hope my own unique experiences will add a new perspective, get this pack fully operational again.”
Ryan’s lip twitched, his face blotching beneath his strawberry blonde hair. “The pack is functional, Trip, we’ve been functioning fine.”
My smile felt stale. “Oh I’m sure they are, Ryan. I’m sure you’ve lead this pack just fine.” Ryan took a deep breath and held it high up in his chest, eyes narrowing. Rowan, who had noticed this tension stepped in.
“There are a few things that need attention, Tr―Alpha,” he proposed. Slowly, Ryan turned his glare onto my third. “We have a few wolves living outside territory lines which is dangerous and promotes a negative image on the unity of our pack. Also, the humans on Mt. Oaks have started to mix with us in the valley.”
I looked to Ryan. “Not fully functional then?”
“It’s only one family living on the outskirts,” Ryan spat, “an old lookout with no business in pack life anymore.”
“No young wolves?” I pressed.
A muscle in Ryan’s jaw twitched from the pressure of his ground teeth. “It’s the Ryders.” I remembered the oldest brother, Mick, he had been in our year at school. I struggled to remember his siblings. Another brother? Or did he have a sister?
“And the Ryders are living on their own because?” I prompted. I didn’t care that I was digging a hole for Ryan to fall into. If it took him being buried for me to fix this pack than I would handle the shovel personally.
Ryan answered reluctantly, each word leaving his mouth as though being pulled by a dentist. “The father has separated himself from pack life and his children have followed suit. They don’t socialize much anymore, the girl lost a mate and that’s all there is to it.” A sister then.
“So they’re not in training for any positions?”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “They would be if they displayed any characteristics suited to a role, Alpha. Mick Ryder doesn’t have the head space for pack business, his brother is a basket case and the youngest is a nasty little thing with no mate.” Ryan’s eyes were sharp on my face. “Wolves who lose a mate are unreliable.”
I felt that dig in the bottom of my chest, just above my stomach. It hurt but it wasn’t fatal. I took a step towards Ryan, my wolf adding to my aura. “I appreciate what you’ve done for me, Ryan, but your run as Alpha is over. From experience, I can tell you that jealous betas are rather... unreliable. If that becomes the case than I will be forced to search for your replacement. Do you understand me?”
“I understand,” Ryan replied, voice completely monotone.
The sound of hundreds of wolves howling drew my attention and my breath away. I stood, totally surrounded and utterly mystified by the sound. There was nothing as beautiful or haunting hollow as a wolf’s howl.
Rowan placed his hand on the back of my neck, smiling. “It’s for you man. They’re welcoming you back.” Something hot blossomed inside of my chest and traveled the length of my limbs, lifting me up and propelling me forward into a shift.
I hit the ground with four paws, drawing myself to my full height before taking off. Ryan and Rowan shifted as well, falling into their respective spots. It felt good to run again. To join my pack and do what wolves did so naturally. I felt like I belonged, if only for a moment.
We passed by clusters of wolves with their heads tipped back in song. Welcoming me and displaying their respect. I ran past, invigorated by the sound, swept away by it. The wolf song was lifting me up, leading to a crescendo in my chest.
My wolf yearned to howl back, to respond to every call. I pushed him forward, savouring the moment for what it was. A display of affection. I would have my chance to show my pack how I cared for them. Right now, this was for me.
We slowed our pace as we approached the territory, coming to a rolling stop at a group of howling wolves. Sensing another presence, I turned my head and caught the eye of a red haired girl with funny eyes, all brown except for one bright blue stripe in her right iris.
The moment the girl blinked I was released from the moment. I shook out my pelt before taking off again, letting myself be drawn towards the call of my pack. After another fifteen minutes of running we had breached the territory and was rapidly approaching the Alpha House.
I stopped when I saw it. Marvelling at the sheer size of it. The house was huge, modern, clean, powerful. It was the home of a diplomat, a leader, an Alpha. I approached the house, catching no scents. No one had lived here yet and now I was to inhabit these walls. Alone.
A shiver passed over me. I felt as though a ghost had dragged their fingers along the curve of my spine. Her fingers. Del. A light growl rumbled low in my chest, audible to only my internal ears.
When I turned away from the house I noticed the wolves who had sung for me were waiting, blinking with their keen eyes, curious as to what I would do. Without any hesitation, I shifted, and went inside.
The house was significantly cooler than the air outside. I took a deep breath, inhaling the stale air before taking a thorough look around. At my feet was a pile of clothing. I tugged on the shorts and t-shirt before exploring.
Just in front of the main entrance was a grand, sweeping staircase that curved slightly to the right.The floors were hardwood, covered with a light film of dust. The walls were white, the rooms nothing but four corners. I walked around the house, coming to the kitchen and feeling an ache as memories swelled.
Del, barefoot and beaming in our tent. Her hair honey coloured and long, brushing her hips as she stirred canned soup over the tiny gaslight stove. Her eyes were always smiling, creases a permanent fixture at the corners.
I blinked and looked around the barren kitchen. Empty. Cold. There was nothing in it, no food, no pans, no joy. The walls were white, the cabinets freshly sanded, the back wall entirely made of windows.
I stepped towards the windows, turning my back to the unwanted reminder of my losses. The kitchen overlooked a large deck, and beyond, the forest. The trees were sparser higher up on the mountain, mostly only the resilient coniferous trees survived the height. I didn’t mind though, pine was one of my favourite scents.
I skirted out of the kitchen, taking the steps two at a time as I moved on to explore the upper floors of the house. There were a lot of bedrooms. Made for the Alpha pups. Another pang echoed inside of me, this time a little different, tinged with the loss of a possibility, not a person.
The master bedroom was huge, a bed already in place. White sheets were folded and placed at the end of the bed, ready if I wanted them. I peaked my head in the closest, ran the taps in the bathroom, opened and closed the windows.
When I was satisfied I closed the bedroom door and headed towards the stairs, stopping halfway down when the front door rattled. A moment later, the door opened and wolves poured in.
I held my tongue when I realised who they were. Companions. Friends.
“In the flesh,” Bennie shouted, “can it be? Alpha Tyler Trip?”
I growled, coming down the stairs and tugging Bennie into a tight hug. “Good to see you, kid.” And it was. Bennie pulled away and smiled charmingly, looking down at me.
Bennie was a beanpole, taller than me at 6′5 and impossibly thin. His knees and elbows were so prominent that they were dangerous. He smiled goofily at me, the same smile almost every Omega had. Blonde curls, luminous eyes, clumsy as hell. No wonder he was the kid of the bunch.
“We weren’t sure if you were ever coming back,” Bennie said, “I mean the war ended like, so long ago!” I didn’t want to touch the subject so I turned to the next person, smiling widely.
“Don’t smile at me, you idiot,” Sarah growled, “It’s not like I’m happy to see you or anything.” I held my arms out for my lead enforcer. She scowled.
I rolled my eyes. “Can’t you hug me, Sarah?”
Sarah’s usually sharp eyes narrowed to become even sharper. “No.” Sarah was just about as cutthroat as they came. She was the first female lead enforcer in our pack’s history and always eager to remind you why.
I let my hands fall, feigning hurt. “Do I have to order you?”
The tiniest smile lifted her face which was angular and light. “Later,” she mocked whispered, “away from prying eyes.”
“Oh, Sarah,” Jackie reprimanded, “How many times do I have to tell you that affection does not equal weakness?” Jackie turned her full attention on me, her smile rounding her cheeks. “Welcome back, Alpha.” Jackie hugged me, her curly hair tickling my neck.
“Thanks, Jackie.” The peacemaker smiled, tucking her dark hair behind her ear, a streak of caramel running through her bang, that was new.
“I don’t need a hug,” Aaron announced, holding out his hand instead. “Nice to have you back, Trip.” I grinned wide when I saw Aaron. As the pack’s lookout he was naturally skittish. Looking at him brought back memories of pranks we used to pull on him as pups.
“Hey Aaron, nice to see you too,” I replied.
Aaron withdrew his hand, eyes skirting over all of us. “Oh no. No, Trip. I know that face. I know that smile. Don’t even think about it.”
I held up my hands. “I wasn’t thinking anything, buddy.”
Aaron looked paranoid. “Oh yes you were!”
Sarah laughed, “You should have seen what I pulled last week, oh Trip, it was hilarious.”
Aaron blushed, his almond eyes widening as far as they could. “It was nothilarious, it was horrific. I will never trust any glove compartment again.” I lifted an eyebrow in response.
Jackie sighed, “While I’m sure Trip is intrigued, I’m positive he’s overwhelmed as well.” I blushed, one hand reaching to rub the back of my neck. Jackie was very perceptive.
I tugged a smile onto my face. “I’m fine, really. I actually expected more people, where’s Theo?” They all turned and looked at each other, each sharing the same expression. Dread. Almost immediately, I felt as though something heavy had dropped into my gut. “Is Theo...?”
“No,” Bennie said, “Goddess no.”
I blew out a breath. Relieved. “So what is it then?”
Jackie and Sarah shared a prolonged look before Jackie ran her brown hands over her jeans, nervous. “A lot has changed since you’ve been gone, Alpha.”
That something was back in my gut. “Like?”
“Ryan has... changed.”
My mouth popped open, ready to pry. Before I got the chance the door opened and Ryan entered, Rowan just a hairs length behind him. Ryan smiled at me as he entered, mouth slightly twisted from his scar.
“How do you like the house, Alpha?”
I bristled. “It’s fine. Nice. Slightly under furnished.”
Ryan laughed, the sound bouncing off the bare walls. “I told them to leave it empty. I figured you would want to start over, decorate yourself. Of course, I had imagined you would have the help of a woman.”
Jackie sucked in a breath. “Ryan,” she said softly.
Ryan raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to mention Del.”
The smile on my face was anything but friendly and forgiving. “Don’t worry, Jackie. Ryan is right, Del can be mentioned.” Her name was acid in my mouth, eroding my tongue and soul. “No problem.”
Ryan held my eye for a long time. “Good.”
Sarah’s entire body was tense, as though she was ready to throw herself in between us, which she probably was. “The pack is going to be arriving soon,” Sarah said, an attempt to release the pressure that was building between myself and Ryan.
I looked back to Ryan, narrowing my eyes slightly. “Where’s Theo? I thought he’d be a part of my welcoming party. I mean after all, I was the one who got him appointed to Scout.”
Ryan titled his head back slightly, gloating. “He was with me, getting a few things ready.”
“Really?” I asked, perking up. “Your errands were more important than my return?”
“I had a few Alpha duties I needed to tie up, you don’t understand yet, but you will.” Ryan had stuck a dagger in my side and was slowly twisting it, embedding it further into my flesh, ripping apart the most tender of my flesh.
“Don’t start something unless you intend to finish it,” I warned him, voice low.
Jackie stepped in between us, a smile on her face but her eyes fierce. “Let me finish it for you. Trip, you’ll need some time to get ready. The pack is all but gathered and Ryan has a speech to make. So please, let’s sort this out later.”
Ryan grinned. I don’t know what had changed in him. For years, we had been close friends. Perhaps my leaving had created a rift between us too wide to cross. “You’re right, Jackie, I need to address my pack.”
The entire room stilled. Bennie took a half step behind Aaron who stepped behind Sarah. Jackie’s face heated up as she turned to glare at Ryan. I stayed perfectly calm despite the fact my wolf was trying to claw its way out of my body, shredding my control into ribbons.
“It will be the last time you address them as such,” I said softly, “because make no mistake, Beta, this pack is mine.” I turned and headed up the stairs, swallowing my anger one bitter mouthful at a time.
I heard everyone leave my house just as I reached my room. Almost instantly my wolf let go of the hostility towards Ryan. Outside the house my pack had gathered. I moved towards the window, pushing the curtain aside and taking a swift look.
The group wasn’t as large as it had once been but the rebuilding was going better than I had ever dared to hope. We had taken in a lot of strays after our makeshift territory had been burned down and we had to relocate up the mountain. I had stayed to carve out a new home but had left before it was furnished.
I heard Ryan’s speech but the distance and walls between us made his words too dull for me to make out. I could hear the applause though, the mixture of anxious clapping, nervous giggles and wolf whistles.
I moved down the stairs, becoming more agitated the longer Ryan spoke to my pack. I heard his taunting voice in my mind, saw the way his mouth curved when he saw himself getting under my skin. I need to address my pack.
I threw the door open, not caring if I was on cue or cutting him off half way. If I had it my way, Ryan would be out of my inner pack by tomorrow. Ryan turned as I walked out onto the porch, his hands raised in applause but his eyes hooded with resentment.
I stepped forward, stopping just as my toes hung off the edge of the porch, hovering above the grand steps. I looked out over my pack, trying to soak in as many faces as I could. A few were familiar, most not. I spotted the redhead from before, standing next to a tall boy with silver hair.
I cleared my throat and the pack quieted, ready for my speech. A speech that I hadn’t planned. I sent up a quick prayer to the Goddess, willing her to speak through me.
“Uh,” I started, aware of how unimpressive I was. “Hi.”
“Welcome back, Alpha!” someone shouted. “We missed you!” another yelled.
I smiled, cheeks and neck warming. “It’s good to be back, I, uh, missed this pack.” Silence smothered the area, pressing down on my windpipe, heavier with each passing moment.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the boy with silver hair lean down to the redhead, she laughed and my stomach contracted, heart picking up enough speed to create a low sound in my ears.
I wanted to tell them why I left. Why I went to fight. I wanted to share with them the plans I had for the pack. The things I wanted to achieve. I wanted to tell them all the ideas I had to make us better, stronger, more unified. I wanted to tell them about Del. I wanted to dedicate myself to them. But the words never found their way out.
“Thanks for coming,” I said gruffly, “Means a lot.” The boy with silver hair rolled his eyes, the redhead titled her head to the side, watching me closely. My palms started to sweat.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and tensed as Ryan chuckled beside me, smiling out at the pack with ease. “Looks like our Alpha is a little tongue tied!” The pack laughed and my entire body grew numb. I was fading into nothing, slowly becoming the colour of the house behind me. Unseen.
I felt Rowan behind me, his presence reassuring that I was still there. “You okay man?”
I blinked and Ryan was in front of me, heading down the stairs, approaching the pack. “You’ll have to forgive Trip, while an Alpha, he’s still a rookie.” The pack laughed and Rowan growled low enough for only me to hear. “So let’s help him out, shall we?” Ryan turned to me, a gloating grin anyone else would have perceived as sincere. “Welcome back, Alpha!”
The ensuing party was torture. I smiled and shook hands, talked and listened. The entire pack wanted to talk to me, share their ideas and hear mine. Unfortunately, I was no better talking to them separately than I was collectively.
Halfway through the party, Jackie came up to me, brown skin gleaming in the low light from the torches set up around the area in front of the Alpha House, my house. “Are you okay, Trip? You don’t seem like yourself.”
I swallowed. “I wasn’t anticipating... this.”
Jackie’s eyes were brown, a sympathetic colour. “It must be hard, and that asshole Ryan isn’t making it any better.”
I felt like glass had been shoved down my throat. “What’s his―”
“Sorry to interrupt.” I turned to face the man behind me. He was a pleasant looking man, round features and high cheeks. His hair was shockingly silver, his skin smooth and barely creased for his age. “I wanted to introduce myself and my family. I’m Rick Ryder.”
I smiled at the man, holding out my hand for him to shake. “Nice to meet you.”
I felt Jackie squeeze my forearm, “I’ll catch up with you later.” She breezed past, leaving me on my own with the family.
I looked over the group, my eyes catching the redhead before I caught her brother. “Mick,” I blurted out, “How are you?”
Mick beamed, happy to be remembered. He stepped around his father and shook my hand, his other held onto tightly by who I guessed was his mate. “I’m great, Trip, and you?”
I grimaced. “Good.”
My father sighed. “We are just so pleased you’re back,” he told me, “We’ve been waiting so long to have a real leader.” My wolf hummed happily. Loyalty was what Alphas thrived on. Behind Rick, the boy with silver hair chuckled.
I raised an eyebrow. “Something funny?”
The boy’s dark eyes widened in alarm, looking to the redhead before back to me. “What?”
“You laughed,” I said, “Was something funny?”
Before the silver boy could speak the redhead did.
“It was me, I told a joke at the wrong time,” she confessed. I held her eyes for a long moment, wondering what she was thinking, marveling at the oddity her eyes were.
“I like jokes,” I told her.
“You won’t like this one.”
“Caroline,” Rick reprimanded, giving me her name for free.
I smiled at Rick. “It’s okay, it makes sense for your children to be wary.” I looked to the silver haired boy and then to his sister. “I know the idea of me leading this pack after leaving it is absurd, you’re not the first people to think so.” Just before me, Rick lost two hues in his face. “It’s my job to convince you otherwise.”
The silver boy smirked, disbelieving. “Of course, Alpha.”
Caroline, however, seemed intrigued. Her eyes were searching the fields of my face, as though she was sure she could prophesize the future if she caught the right angle. After a moment she sighed and her face relaxed.
“You came onto the stage alone,” she said, “why?”
My smile turned cold. “Because my mate is dead. No Luna.”
Rick looked ready to pass out. Caroline didn’t flinch. Her eyes didn’t scoop downwards in the way people’s usually did when they heard of tragedy, they didn’t soften or pity. She just held my gaze, understanding coming to her.
“You’re alone,” she stated.
“Caroline!” her parents hissed in unison.
I didn’t mind though. For some reason, her saying it was a relief. Finally, I wasn’t skirting around the issue. I was alone. I would live in that house alone. I would lead this pack alone. But looking at Caroline, at her ruddy hair, freckles, unusual eyes, I wasn’t sure I would always be.