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The walk to the Pack house was shorter than I would have anticipated, and I peered around in excitement as Jessamy led us towards the large building. The afternoon light allowed me to see more of my immediate surroundings than before, and I took it all in greedily, the compound setup of the Pack house and surrounding lands both familiar and completely foreign. The property was nestled in a valley between large desert mountains, surrounded on almost every side by the tall peaks. I now realized that Jessamy’s house stood at the end of a long row of nearly-identical houses, hers standing out from the others only due to the colorful murals adorning her walls. Every other structure was the same white-washed adobe, all connected by a road that led to the front of the main house.

The structure itself was massive, more like a hotel in size and scale than a house. A large band of desert landscaping separated the building from the road we followed, littered with cacti and rocks and drought-resistant vegetation. The long wall that led us to the front entrance was broken up with large windows, shimmering and reflecting in the daylight. Jessamy was telling me something about the history of the building, about how the project had been completed under the previous Alpha, but the details of her words floated past my ears. I was enthralled by what I was seeing, the anticipation of immersing myself further into this Pack spiking my pulse as our destination came closer.

As we rounded the corner and proceeded to the large doors that marked the center, I caught a glimpse of an identical row of houses off the side of the Pack house I was yet to visit. There had to be about fifty of the homes like Jessamy’s between the two streets, bookending each side of the main building. My jaw felt ready to drop open at the idea of how many people could live on the Pack’s property, as those houses didn’t even account for how many could live within the main house. I had never seen a Pack property that was arranged this way, the most common scenario back home resulting in a single house for some Wolves to live and large estates for higher-ranking officials a short distance away. But this felt…communal, organized, intentional. The style was clean, more modern than I was used to, but it made sense against the harsh backdrop of the desert mountains.

Jessamy waved the doors open with a hand, revealing a simple lobby with a pretty receptionist behind a large wooden desk in the center. She waved in greeting as we walked past, Jess informing me that the house was essentially the same on both sides with the exception of this space. She pointed to a couple of doors before turning us down towards the left hallway, saying something about meeting rooms and offices before tugging me through the threshold and into the hall. Both corridors were a combination of one-bedroom and two-bedroom suites, she explained, pulling me behind her as my eyes zeroed in on the glass wall that made up an entire side of this wing. My feet were moving of their own volition, past communal spaces and kitchens scattered between the rooms, and I vaguely registered that Jess was saying there were two more floors of the same above.

It all seemed inconsequential, staring out into the large courtyard that was occupied by dozens of people, scattered in the various makeshift rings and practicing with weapons of all kinds. The sound of the mock combat happening just beyond the glass never found my ears, the hallway quiet except for Jessamy as she explained that many Pack members either had rooms in the wings that made up the U-shaped building, or occupied one of the houses we had seen on the way here.

The long corridor ended eventually, dumping us outside on a covered walkway that made a corner back towards the courtyard and the separate building standing between the wings of the main house. Through another door, and we were standing in a long dining hall, rows of tables arranged neatly but left mostly empty between meal hours. My head was on a swivel, trying to take in the constant fighting and movement coming through the hall’s glass wall facing the rings, the separate building creating the final border of viewing space to oversee the training happening outside.

There were sightlines no matter where you stood, reminding me of the setup of Knox’s personal home buried in a peak somewhere nearby. What had Jessamy said about the Pack house? It was built during the leadership of Alpha Matteo? I remembered Knox saying something about building with magic, how he had only done so once, and I realized I had assumed his personal home had been that instance. But something about the style of this compound seemed familiar, suggesting that maybe the Alpha’s personal home was completed prior to Knox assuming power. If that was the case, what had Knox created? Where was the house that was built with his magic, and had I already been there before?

I didn’t have time to ponder this idea, as Jessamy dragged me over to one of the few occupied tables placed closest to the glass. I recognized Mira immediately, her curly hair bouncing wildly as she threw her head back to laugh. Her focus was on something happening in the courtyard, and her snickering was mirrored by the others sitting at the table. The dryads - Amadrya and Amalthea - were seated on each side of Mira, and three women I didn’t recognize sat across the table from them. The surface was littered with half-finished glasses and what looked like the remains of a pizza, long forgotten by the women laughing together at something I was yet to see.

Jessamy dropped my hand and continued her path to Mira, wrapping her arms around the seated taller woman and nuzzling her face into a mane of dark curls. Mira laughed in delight, the sound carrying a squeal as her hands flew up to grasp Jessamy’s folded arms, rocking them back and forth in excitement. “Happy Haze,” whispered Mira’s sultry voice, and I couldn’t fight the shiver I felt at her tone. Jessamy peppered the bit of cheek she could reach with kisses before breaking away and saying her hellos to the rest of the group. The small witch ran around the table to hug them each individually, exchanging affectionate hugs and cheek kisses between murmurings for best wishes during the Haze.

My cheeks flushed, standing there observing the display, trying to reconcile what I thought I knew about the Season with what I was seeing. Between the party and Jessamy‘s kind mutterings to the Wolves present, I got the sense that this annual tradition was something of a celebration, not something that would be hidden or sequestered behind closed doors. It was nice, though a little out of my comfort zone, to see affection shown so freely, and I wondered briefly about the arrangements the women before me might have by the end of the night. The thought only made me blush harder, just in time for every eye at the table to turn from Jessamy to me.

“Everyone, this is Luna!” she said brightly, gesturing in my direction. “Luna, this is everyone! Well, everyone important anyway.” They all laughed and the three women I didn’t know introduced themselves as Valeria, Daniella, and Sienna, though I didn’t catch which was which as they rattled off their names. They were cousins and family friends to Mira, someone explained, and before I knew it I was nodding and accepting their offer to take a seat next to one of the dryads. Jessamy joined the table across from me, and the dryad at my side - Amalthea - gave me an encouraging smile. The group turned back to what they were watching beyond the glass as I quietly studied them, picking up the details and differences between the three women I just met.

Two of them looked distinctly similar, perhaps sisters from the same set of their caramel eyes and full, laughing mouths. Their skin was the same shade as Mira's, a warm tan interrupted only by black bands tattooed around their wrists. The third had the same markings, with a slightly darker complexion, and thick black hair twisted up into a knot on her head. All three were dressed in all-black clothes that looked like the uniform for everyone training in the rings, and to my surprise, Mira was styled the same way, her knives in place on her arms, a sharp contrast to the street clothes she had greeted me with while preparing me for that disastrous meeting.

To my relief, no one mentioned the bite that was sometimes visible as my hair moved, and none addressed the Claim Knox had issued that surely had been the topic of much gossip while I was hiding away in Jess’ library. Their teasing and laughing at the training troops outside was good-natured, helping me to relax in my seat and finally glance beyond them to the subject of their amusement. What I saw had the blood rushing from my face, shock and surprise sinking like a rock in my stomach.

In the closest ring to the dining hall was a shirtless Knox, dressed only to the waist in tight black pants that stretched and moved with his strong legs as he moved around in a circle. A huge sword was grasped between his hands, held at attention as he prowled towards his opponent to resume sparring. My eyes were glued to him as he spun and struck, my flesh rising as his sword clashed and re-attacked faster than I could follow. He moved through forms and parried with ease, his movements graceful despite the ferocity with which he met his opponent’s blade. But most of all, I couldn’t tear my gaze from the black ink that covered his exposed torso and arms, his body covered in tattoos I was confident I had never seen before.

The details of his tattoos were blurred due to his movements, but I could make out loose bands that wrapped around his arms, over his shoulders and around his neck and fingers. Maybe it was due to his constant movement, but the bands looked like smoke, seemingly moving of their own accord across his skin as he danced around his sparring partner. His opponent managed to land a blow to his chest with the butt of the sword, forcing Knox to pause and reset his grip as the table broke into laughter around me. Their voices felt muffled, my attention too trained on the shape of wings I could make out across his firm pecs as he caught his breath, blending into flight as he whirled and struck again, his eyes alight with challenge.

His back was to me the next time a blow was landed on his person, and the brief rest before his next attack allowed me to glimpse the face of a woman covering his muscled back, the head of a wolf rising above her between his shoulders. The smoke-like bands wrapped below her and down into his waistband, suggesting the marks continued down his legs and possibly even over his booted feet. He was truly a work of art, even with the details of his tattoos escaping my view, and I found my breath catching in my throat

I could have watched him for hours, the repetitive nature of his steps and attacks soothing in a way I couldn’t explain. My chest fluttered the longer I watched him like this, wild and violent yet as practiced and controlled as I knew him to be. The sight of his strong arms as he swung and shifted his grip on his sword to look for an opening had me licking my lips, my eyes narrowed in on the bead of sweat I could see rolling down his neck over a tendril of black ink. Laughter that surged every time Knox took a blow eventually drew me from my silent salivating, and I realized the women before me had intentionally gathered here to watch him fight.

That had my core fluttering, the idea of his training patterns being habitual enough to strategically observe through the glass flooding me with an excitement that left my face red. Sure, Knox had sent me away, but he had mentioned something about me being entitled to my own room in the Pack house if I wanted. If I took up a room here, I could watch him train from essentially any part of the building, allowing me to at least ogle the male my body was screaming for since I wasn’t permitted to touch…

Jessamy had a brow raised at me when I finally managed to tear my eyes away and smirked at the deep breath I took to steady my pounding pulse. She tilted her head, tapping her temple, and I vaguely realized what she was asking. Her intention was to Visit, to say something privately in my mind that the others at the table didn’t need to hear. I dropped my shoulders, trying to relax and think back to the readings I had completed about mind magic.

The readings had clarified that a shift in thinking was required to control who could enter the mind and when they could do so, recommending the imagery of a closed door instead of allowing entry to anyone who might come looking. Closing my eyes, I tried to picture a door through which I could invite Jessamy, focusing on the details of the wooden panels and crystal knob as it took form behind my eyelids.

It slammed open with a bang I swore could be heard outside my head, but instead of the familiar ocean scent of Jessamy, the smell of sweat and earth and smoke invaded my senses. For a moment, I was both sitting in a chair surrounded by a boisterous cohort of friendly women, as well as standing in the ring occupied by Knox and his opponent. Shock rolled through me at the sight of a face I faintly recognized, a face so white and pale it stood sharply in contrast to the black hair pulled into a bun, holding it out of the rapidly-approaching combatant’s face. Then I was back in my own head with a gasp, barely managing to catch the sight of Knox falling backward out of the ring before the table erupted in cheers, the women standing and rushing out a glass door and into the ring to heckle him before I could catch my breath.

Only Jessamy remained, staring at me with wide eyes. Her lips were slightly parted, lifted at the corners in a small smile, and delight crossed her expression as she reached for my hand across the table. “Come on,” she said, nodding her head towards the gaggle that had formed beyond the glass and standing from her chair to follow. My body felt numb as I trailed behind her, my ears ringing with sounds I couldn’t hear as we made our way outside.

Jessamy wouldn’t say it, not in front of the others at least, but I didn’t need her to confirm what just happened out of view from everyone else. I knew with a certainty - much as I knew I had been Claimed by the Alpha I found myself approaching with every step - that I had been in Knox’s mind of my own volition for the briefest of seconds.
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