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Around the Hearth (A Stars of the Pack story)



N.J. Lysk - All Rights Reserved.

***

For my loyal fans, I hope your holiday season is full of warmth, both from nature and humans.

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With immense gratitude to Cheryl Pettit and Gema Cela Rodríguez for proofreading at the last minute!

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Summary: When Marisa suggests cutting a tree for Christmas, Ray’s reaction shocks everyone. But there is something much deeper at play than pregnancy hormones and Josh is prepared to help Ray get to the bottom of it all.


Spoilers for the whole series, minor ones for Betas Aside since it’s Ray’s POV.



Around the Hearth


“They are mine!”

The way Ray snarled at his sister would have been appropriate only if she’d suggested slow cooking one of the kids.

Marisa took a hasty step back. Josh himself remained frozen behind her—he’d just got back from an ‘emergency’ trip to the grocery store. Half the bags were still in the car, but the ice cream could melt, this was a real emergency.

He was pretty sure Marisa had just asked about cutting a tree for Christmas.

But Ray’s teeth were gritted and his arms had come up around the considerable girth of his middle—only twins this time, but they were close. Josh found himself crossing the distance between them, putting his body in front of the absolutely safe beta girl, tough as nails but audibly upset. He wasn’t quite sure who he was protecting, but the wolf must have known.

His hands on Rays upper arms were enough for his omega to exhale and slump a little. He was shaking his head. “I...”

His brown eyes were still too dilated when he met Josh’s, but he swallowed and took a step to the side to look at his little sister. “Mari...” His voice caught.

“What the fuck, Ray?” She was on the verge of tears, red faced and clenching her own teeth. He’d scared her, but now she was mad, Josh felt it deeply and he had to bite his tongue to keep out of it.

“Sorry,” their First Omega told her. “It... I’m sorry, I don’t know what got over me.”

***

It turned out, after some calls to their birth pack, that it wasn’t uncommon for a First Omega to become protective of their land.

“It’s a feature, not a bug?” Iesu summarised.

“Not exactly,” Josh explained. Ray had decreed he should tell everyone at once. Josh was First Alpha and he could have argued and even overridden the command. Ray was just punishing himself for snapping at his sister. But no one could hurt Ray with the information and Josh knew his partner well enough to let him take the lead when he was scared. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t going to cause permanent harm.

He’d had to ask Ray to submit to him before, to trust him absolutely. Ray had done it but it all depended on him knowing Josh would only ask if he had to.

It was a fine balance. Most days he didn’t even have to think about it, and days like today were getting easier as time went by. He wasn’t counting on it ever becoming easy, and he was more than fine with that.

“Obviously a First Omega is the last line of defence for any pack so when they are triggered...” He shrugged, offering Marisa an apologetic grimace. “It’s intense.”

Ray’s eyes had been stuck to the ground, he’d apologised to her already—at length, and for the proud Halleys that meant a lot. Now he braced his shoulders and looked up, “How can the territory be more important than a member of the pack?” His voice was a little rough, but steady nonetheless. He wasn’t the kid who’d gone catatonic when he’d first hooked up to the territory’s ley lines.

But he was still learning, they all were.

“It’s made more intense if the omega doesn’t ever leave the territory,” Josh told him. It was the only explanation the elders had offered, at least, and it made perfect sense to him—other than being a male omega, it wasn’t like Ray was a mystically powerful werewolf, after all.

He saw Ray’s expression turn sour. The information had put Josh in a particularly awkward position; being right.

By the silence reigning in their dining room, every other member of the pack knew it too.

Ray huffed, which did little to disguise the fear he felt as annoyance. It was clear as day in the bond, wide open between them despite the tension. “Okay,” he said at last. “Let’s go.”

It was Marisa who asked, “Go where?”

“Out,” Ray said after a beat. He was trying to keep a hold of his temper this time.

It was just like him, too, the moment his pain could solve a problem, Ray proved quite happy to do whatever it took. He’d stamped over his own feelings again and again before Josh had become his First Alpha and got a direct line to his feelings. “Ray,” Josh said, firm but nowhere near an order.

Ray’s eyes returned to him at once, wary, steeled for more bad news, he thought. Josh just shook his head. “Nothing’s about to explode, let’s go for a walk.”

Not long ago, Ray would have resisted the suggestion simply because Josh could make it an order; today he gave a nod and turned toward the door instead. Josh followed him, not looking at anyone else in the room.

It was a delicate balance, not unlike presenting a united front for your kids, he thought sometimes. It wasn’t like anyone didn’t know Josh was soft for Ray as could be, but Josh wasn’t Ray’s friend anymore, not even his boyfriend, he was his First Alpha and he owed it to both Ray and the pack to steer them true.

***

The chilly early December weather didn’t seem to be slowing Ray down at all, but Josh wasn’t willing to run after him. He made sure his voice carried, “Ray.

His partner stopped only a few feet away from the trees closer to the house—a house they’d built from trees in their new territory, Josh suddenly remembered. Were there rules? Since he’d stopped, Josh kept walking until he was standing by his side, their jackets weren’t touching, but it wouldn’t take much.

Touch wasn’t always easy for Ray when he was upset, but now that they were alone, Josh trusted him to ask when he was ready.

“You were right,” Ray said and he managed not to sound angry about it.

“Fuck that,” Josh replied. “I just wanted to have you to myself.”

It was true, which helped. It hasn’t been any great insight to suggest Ray ought to come to town with him, just common sense.

At that, Ray turned abruptly enough Josh instinctively raised his right hand to stabilise him. It was unnecessary, Ray’s feet were firmly planted. Josh did not lower his hand, inches from Ray’s forearm. “What?”

“I mean, yeah, it’s probably a good idea for you to go somewhere else sometimes.” He shrugged. Ray had already been struggling leaving their land before—a perfectly reasonable reaction to being dragged outside it when he’d been kidnapped four years ago—but he’d put up with it bravely, as long as one of the alphas stayed behind with the pups. Until he and Josh had conceived the twins.

It made perfect sense, to keep them safe, he had to stay in his own territory where he could call any members of his pack to defend them. “But then again, talking to trees seems like a neat superpower. Maybe you should never step outside the territory again.”

Ray shuddered, confirming Josh’s guess. He was afraid of leaving, but he wasn’t happy staying. Who would be? Being too terrified to do something didn’t really make it a choice.

“I can’t talk to the trees,” Ray mumbled, a little mulishly, at the same time he was leaning close, letting his forearm make contact, already seeking his rightful place under Josh’s arm, as close to his heart as he could manage while dressed. “I just don’t want them hurt.”

Josh squeezed him a little tighter. “No one will hurt them, but how come you never cared before? Like, we live in a house made of them.”

Ray was silent for long enough Josh started to wonder if he’d fallen asleep, his breath was warm and moist against Josh’s neck, his sweaty sweet scent settling something in Josh that had been alert and ready since he’d given him the news. “We needed the house, and… I think it’s more protected because we used wood that belongs to the land. I… I gave the land my blood, so the land gave us back trees. And it keeps giving, like, the prey and the food we grow, but it’s not… we can’t just take for fun, it has to have a purpose.”

Josh nodded into his shoulder. It was cold out, a good few feet of snow in the ground, and now that he knew Ray was back in control, he was getting sleepy. “We need to explain that to the Pack.”

He didn’t know anything about it, of course, but it was ‘we’ anyway. Always we, he and Ray.

***

Marisa wasn’t one to hold a grudge, but Ray wanted to be fair to her. She wasn’t just his sister anymore; she was also the mother of his child—the one some days he treasured and some days couldn’t bear to look at. But it didn’t matter because Cali had a mother who loved her every second of every hour, nothing held back. And maybe it was what Marisa herself had wanted, but it didn’t erase the respect she was owed for taking on the task of raising the child he couldn’t.

That was without going into the fact that at twenty-two years old she was running the household. If she wanted to celebrate with a tree like they’d done all their lives... Well, Ray still couldn’t do that, but he could do something.

And that meant sorting himself out. Last year his uncle had actually sent a tree from his own land, a strange gift he’d thought at that time. Now he wondered if it meant something.

Only he thought maybe he didn’t need to wonder. He hadn’t lied to Josh; he wasn’t talking to the trees... But he was pretty sure they were talking to him. Or trying to.

***

Waking up with Josh’s big hand cupping his belly had become almost normal. It still sent a frisson of emotion through him that morning. The scars from the past weren’t gone, even if werewolves didn’t do stretch marks.

But getting pregnant with the love of his life, actually climbing on top of him under the full moon and demanding what was rightfully his... Well, it made for a very different experience.

Ray turned his head, rubbing his cheek against whatever part of Josh’s face was poking over his shoulder. This early, there was some stubble involved and it made Ray growl, low and possessive, rolling sideways into Josh, who was dragging him close even as he got himself curled up to make room for Ray’s bulging middle.

The movement was abrupt enough to wake up at least one of the babies, which of course meant the other one soon followed, kicking hard enough to make Ray grunt for the completely wrong reason.

Josh knew at once, whether via supersenses or bond, Ray did not care. His strong hands were back on the mountain that was Ray’s midsection, shushing with caresses just firm enough to be felt, guiding Ray to lay on his back. It was hardly his favourite position, but no sooner had the thought crossed his mind that Josh was reaching out with one hand to grab his own pillow to relieve the pressure in the worst spot of his back. He wasn’t often in pain, healing at an accelerated rate, but there was no way around the physical reality of having two whole if small beings moving inside his body. He couldn’t imagine how humans even survived this.

He groaned in unexpected relief of strong hands on his arches. Maybe it took a bit longer than usual, but he didn’t think he would give up the foot massages as foreplay when he didn’t have to carry two extra bodies around all day long. Josh was laughing at some of his noises, no mockery, just gladness, nuzzling at Ray’s knees as he travelled up to his ankles with his strong, clever fingers.

“Oh fuck,” he sighed, head falling backwards, exposing his throat. It was pure instinct, surrendering like that to his chosen mate, his alpha.

Josh, as subject to the chemistry of their bodies and souls as he was, cursed him colourfully, choking on air. His ‘Ray’ was so full of need, Ray’s hips twitched upwards despite the weight of both the twins and his lover’s hands.

Yes,” he said. He wasn’t quite sure when his feet and his dick had made such a direct connection, but he was spreading his legs as far as they’d go so as to get some pressure on his groin.

It didn’t cross his mind to use his own hands, even though his arms were long enough he could reach. He didn’t want to touch himself, he wanted Josh.

And Josh he got. His alpha had run out of patience; instead of making Ray close his knees and lift his arse, he simply took his boxers by the waistband and ripped them down the middle, catching the elastic before it bounced back against either his belly or his cock.

Ray whimpered at the relatively cool air hitting his sensitive skin and as if it was a command, Josh’s mouth descended, taking half of his length in with a single perfect suck. The rest would have gone in as soon as Ray clenched and pushed upwards, but Josh was holding onto his knees, pinning him to the bed as he swallowed again, taking him deeper but perfectly in control.

He probably couldn’t even hear Ray’s little sounds of pleasure and desperation, because it was growing like the tide, so intense it had to end and yet not allowed to reach the edge, Josh using their connection to tell when Ray was too close and pulling back, sometimes with a little edge of teeth, sometimes with a kiss—tender enough to bring tears to Ray’s eyes but not enough pressure to get him off.

Josh could have kept him going like that for hours, but certain members of their family were less than keen on the grinding.

“Josh...” He was breathless and it was just his name, but his alpha’s eyes found his own.

There was no hazel left in Josh’s. “You got it,” he promised, and got his hands on Ray’s arse cheeks, bending over to take him so deep his cock hit the back of Josh’s throat just as it contracted. It was like breathing after too long underwater, his body seized at once, tight as it could go and then kept going, again and again, barely easing down. Josh didn’t stop sucking for one second.

***

“Come on, I’m taking you out for breakfast.”

The timing was definitely not accidental, Ray was sprawled on his back, shivering pleasantly, body still recovering from the race to the finish line. He was just beginning to get a little cold now that Josh had uncurled from his side. He was also covered in his alpha’s come, because even when he was literally carrying it inside his body, Josh still wanted it spread all over his skin any chance he got.

He lifted his head just enough to find Josh standing next to the bed, waiting for him, then went to the effort of getting an elbow under himself to keep looking. It was early morning but even the hazy winter sunlight coming through the just opened drapes was enough to delineate every finely sculped muscle and feature. Ray swallowed, licking his lips.

Josh didn’t say anything, but his lips were already curving upwards into something very close to a smirk. “Want to shower together?” he suggested.

And it was, in all fairness, an offer Ray was not interested in refusing.

***

Ray could have stopped any time, he knew that. Once he’d showered—which had taken a little longer than usual because there was no way for them to share a naked activity without it ending in orgasms—the reality of the situation started to land a little heavier.

But he could let Josh wrap him in a fluffy towel and grab him fresh clothes from their bedroom, then dry his back tenderly while planting butterfly kisses over areas he found particularly tempting. He could take his hand for balance while he got his leg through his trouser legs. It was an expansible design from Gabriel’s mother for his last birthday that he’d received with some reluctance. Now, he was grateful for her forethought. It was strange how things were losing their edges; was that getting older or just experience? It was his third pregnancy, it was hard to believe it was the end of the world. He’d even kind of wanted it, on his terms, on the day he’d chosen (with some allowances for the Full Moon), with the man he had chosen to lead his pack with him, the man who was an alpha, yes, but who would gladly spread his legs and give himself to Ray.

It was enough to trust to make him want to sink to his knees and give thanks. The physics of that were a bit beyond his current shape, but he could at least follow Josh to the car with the same faith.

Josh kept up his chatter as he turned the Jeep into the path and Ray offered a few noises to indicate he was listening—it was mostly true, his eyes stuck to the treeline. No one was going to clear the roads in their land, and it was easier to put chains on their vehicles than to keep up the fight against the snow.

Getting close to the border set his wolf on edge and his eyes to tracking every movement around them—a small animal in the distance caught his eye and he was still intent on it when they came out into the main road to Lanchester and the pull of his land stretched and bounced a little like a broken rubber band.

He grunted, shoulders coming up, eyes closing for a moment.

“Ray?” Josh’s voice had an edge to it. He must have got something from the bond. Ray felt the weight of his gaze, interrupted by his need to pay attention to the road.

Ray swallowed, then inhaled raggedly through his nose, before letting it slowly go again. “Go,” he said and rolled down his window, already heaving.

Fortunately, he hadn’t had anything but water so it was mostly a little bit of bile. By the time they got to the Granary Café, his head had started hurting too. Josh had offered to stop the car, but just the once, after that, he’d stayed silent. Now he smoothly slid the car into the parking space despite the tension Ray could feel exuding off him and came around to open the passenger side door for him.

Their eyes met and Ray shrugged a little at the unspoken question. He wasn’t sure what he needed, but he knew he didn’t want to be stuck back home for the rest of his natural life. If this was the result of nearly six months of it, he was going to have to schedule regular outings. Josh’s right arm was strong under his hand, his other hand coming up to steady Ray’s belly as he stepped down from the high seat of the Jeep.

“Deep breath,” he murmured as they let the door close and turned towards the restaurant. Ray did it, the crisp December air was a lot better when it wasn’t slapping him in the face and he really appreciated the ground not swaying.

It wasn’t his ground, but at least it was solid and if you went deep enough, all earth was connected, each particle of soil under his feet linked to one that eventually touched his home.

He didn’t even think about how big he was until they’d already crossed the threshold and a guy sitting by the door did a double take at him. He pretended not to notice—his jacket was puffy but probably not puffy enough to hide the fact that his belly was disproportionately protruding. But fuck them if they thought that was odd, Ray had every right to be here. His dad used to bring him, Marisa and TJ when they were young, a special Saturday treat that Ray—now a parent himself—suspected had a lot to do with letting their mother sleep in with baby Anne.

“Ray?”

Ray turned to him and realised they were by a table next to the window. Josh was hovering, waiting for him to sit down. He did and found his eyes were drawn to the white backyard right outside it. “My dad used to bring us here.”

“I remember,” Josh replied, surprising Ray into looking at him. “He invited me along once. He was fun.”

“What more do you remember?”

It wasn’t a lot, they’d both been thirteen when Ray’s dad had died in a freak car accident, after all, but chewing on sausages and listening to Josh recount them sliding down a snowy hill, each with one of his twin siblings in front of their sledge while their dad stood at the bottom to judge the winner warmed him more than any roaring fires. Some memories came back to him, others didn’t, an unexpected treat. His dad’s absence was a shadow that would never leave him, even if he’d long since learned to walk besides it, and he had his siblings and his mum to share the load with… but he hadn’t known Josh could take a little of it too. Josh took so much for Ray already, it seemed selfish to even think to ask for this.

Except he didn’t need to ask, Josh was laughing as he recalled shoving a snowball down Ray’s pants. “Your face,” he added with an irrepressible grin, “was a poem.”

“Whatever,” Ray told him, rolling his eyes at him. “You just wanted in my pants.”

“We were ten, dude.” His disgusted expression set Ray off and by the time the food was gone, so was the lingering nausea.

***

“Did they say anything else?” he asked, barely glancing up from his cup of hot chocolate. “Like, how long do I have to stay out?”

Josh’s mouth twisted a little in apology. “Sorry, didn’t think to ask that. I figured we could come to town for a date now and again?”

“Is that what this is?” He realised his left hand had dropped to the mound of his belly, rubbing reassuringly even though the babies were asleep, their hearts steady, and barely shifting now and again—he’d only needed to go to the loo once during the meal, a veritable miracle.

His alpha met his eyes straight on. “Every day with you is a date.”

Ray swallowed, throat suddenly a bit tight. It wasn’t fair, pregnancy made everything a little more intense than usual and it’d been a tough day already. Josh being romantic was more than he could take right now.

He was still blinking fast when his mate’s hand cupped his own around his drink. “Hey, Mr Grown Up.”

The joke—because Ray categorically refused to be called ‘baby’—made him snort, breaking through the heavy emotion clouding him up and giving him enough impetus to glare at Josh. Not very well, he was still smiling, but it was better than crying in public at sweet nothings, so he’d take it.

“You want to catch a film?” Josh offered.

Ray sighed. “Can we give them a quick call first?” He wasn’t asking for permission exactly, but he realised it was rather crazy—when they’d left, there’d been four adults at home with the children, it was absurd to be worried something had gone wrong in their short absence.

He was surprised when Josh hesitated, glancing out the window and then back at him. “Actually, they did say something, the elders, I mean. They said if an omega can focus enough, he’d know what’s going on even when he’s not in his territory.”

“Focus…? How do I even…?” He followed Josh’s gaze outside. “I’m not even standing on the ground here.” It seemed important somehow, to have a direct connection.

“Well, you can try here while we finish up and then you can try outside? And then we’ll call them,” Josh promised. It was a bribe of sorts, but if it worked it would mean never having to worry again—forget the sensors they’d installed all around the perimeter, if he could tell they were okay even from here…

It was worth a shot, if only to make Josh happy anyway. He picked up his cup and took a sip of cocoa, then placed it back on the table and closed his eyes with a sigh, pressing his tongue against his palate to fully taste it. It was a good one, dark and thick, with a bitter aftertaste after the sweetness of the milk dissipated. It was also not of his land, something he’d obviously always known in his head but could suddenly also feel. It was still a gift from earth but like he could distinguish shades of blue, he could tell it’d come from far.

He’d always been connected to his territory, as a child to the area ruled by his uncle and as an eighteen-year-old to the territory he’d taken as his own domain. All wolves had the ability to sense each other, though a lot of it was their superior hearing and smell. Or so he’d thought. Becoming First Omega had been like having the volume turned all the way up and he’d realised it wasn’t just physical, it couldn’t be because it worked even when he was in his human form—he couldn’t just feel the land but the people in it. He hadn’t appreciated it much at the time, right after getting bred and mated by his five alphas for the first time, believing his future would be one pregnancy after another, his duty as unbearable as impossible to avoid.

It'd not helped him when he’d been taken by a rogue alpha, either. Once he’d crossed the border, the connection had been interrupted quite abruptly, like something had blocked him. It was the whole reason he’d stopped leaving his land in the first place, but it’d done little to protect him in the end—Nicholas had asked and Ray had invited him, relying on the rules of all packs to protect him, and he’d been betrayed.

And somehow, he’d gone right back to it afterwards, cowering at home, relying not just on his powers as First Omega, but on the sensors at the borders. And yet, here he was, nearly five years later and he was still so terrified to come out that he’d almost thrown up.

It didn’t matter how many precautions he took; he could never believe they could all be safe. Maybe precisely because of all the precautions he took. He exhaled slowly, releasing the flavours from faraway lands and thought of his youngest daughter instead. Cali was only three and with five older siblings, she’d developed fast, her latest antics included trying to climb the drapes in the living room, so Ray worried about her a little more than about the rest.

Her scent came to him first, as intense as if he had his nose buried in her fine blond curls. Then the warmth of her, her weight. And then movement, she was a pup, not a toddler, and she was running over the wooden floors, claws scraping against it as she chased… Mikey. The son Josh had given him, the one whose middle name was Trevor after his dad, and who Ray could now swear was turning around and making his little sister submit with a high-pitched growl. He laughed aloud, opening his eyes. But even then it wasn’t gone, he could sense them as clearly as if they were around him in the restaurant, chaotic and sweet and so precious he couldn’t live without them.

Josh was watching, hazel eyes wide and attentive, brows a little furrowed. Could he feel them too? “Call them,” Ray told him. “Ask if Mikey is playing with Cali.”

His alpha did as he asked, picking up his mobile with care that spoke of nerves—Ray could feel that too, but he was less aware of it than usual, half his attention back with his children.

He could overhear the other side of the conversation, but it was Josh’s look of shocked awe that really confirmed it for him. “I guess I have enough focus?”

“I guess you do,” his partner said after he’d hung up. “Cali has learned how to get out of her onesies.”

Ray shrugged. “Well, she’s no longer in nappies, she should be free to shift if she wants to.”

“I bet Marisa is going to love that,” Josh replied, smile starting to loosen up a little.

Ray sighed, remembering his sister. “I think we better go back, I’m hoping to get some answers. Rain check on the film?”

“Any time next week.” It was a sensible counteroffer given how busy their lives could get. Josh wouldn’t push it if it couldn’t be done, of course, but Ray needed to be asked when it was important.

“You got it,” Ray told him, pushing back his chair.


Part 2 coming tomorrow!


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