The drive back was almost relaxing, if not for the sense of growing anticipation. He’d let his awareness of his children fade from the forefront of his mind, but from time to time when his thoughts turned to them, he could feel them clearly again.
Next, he tested it with Alec, who was most certainly either visiting a werewolf patient in their birth pack or working at the closest human hospital—in either case, outside their land. The second, it turned out, if Ray could judge by the sense of barely controlled chaos he got from his alpha. Was there no limits to his range? He remembered when he’d lost the connection years back, had that just been because he’d believed he would? Or was this some new ability he hadn’t had back then?
Josh had been silent, but as the road took them closer to their turn he said, “What do you feel?”
It wasn’t a question he often asked anymore, when Ray had bitten him back to mark him as his First Alpha, it’d created a pretty intense feedback loop between them. They could both pull back from it to an extent, but they rarely did. At the moment, Ray wasn’t so sure what he was feeling, though. He took a moment to consider the land itself, the trees, the snow, the soil, the plants, every thing that lived in it and on it. It was a bit like a song, with a number of elements that harmonised. And that could easily be thrown into disarray, too.
But right now it was just singing, louder to his ears the closer they got. It couldn’t be due to the actual distance; this wasn’t soundwaves travelling through air... No, it was travelling through the ground, through his body, which was connected to the territory no matter how far Ray was.
Suddenly it made perfect sense, every member of the pack had been adopted into the land and Ray had been the link, the one who’d welcomed them into it. First, he’d literally taken his alphas inside his body right there on the ground, spilling his own seed on it as they took turns mounting him, and then he’d given birth on the same soil to his children. For the betas, he’d just had words, but words were enough because he’d paid in blood and sweat and tears first. Except it wasn’t exactly a transaction, it was the flow of life—it’d cost him nothing to spill the life blood that had fed his babies into the ground beneath instead of sending it down the drain. If you thought it cost the land nothing to grow plants for them to eat.
The idea of his territory having absorbed parts of his body wasn’t all that romantic, but he supposed it was fair enough since he’d been fed and housed by it. He wasn’t sure why it’d had to be him, why it took an omega to start a pack, but the land, like the pack, wasn’t just taking. It’d give too. It’d reached for him when the trees had been threatened, but it would tell him what the trees knew in turn.
The elders had got it backwards, the First Omega wasn’t the last line of defence of any territory, they were the first.
Unless said First Omega had been convinced he was powerless, in one way or many, that he was just a sacrifice, a body to be used.
He’d never been trapped in his territory by anything except his own belief that he was, the ideas he’d been sold about omegas by those who sought to control them. Those who perhaps simply feared them.
Crossing the boundary was nearly unnoticeable this time around. He’d been waiting to feel relief, but why would he? He’d never been out, not really. There was no out, the world was as much his land as this particular piece of territory.
Of course he loved it and he didn’t want to leave it for long, but he didn’t have to feel ill at ease when he visited a different place, whether it was under the protection of another werewolf or not.
Not unless that place was suffering. Because that part of what he knew as well, that the land would ail if its aid wasn’t honoured in turn. There was no harvest without seeds, sun and rain. And sweat, of course.
“Ray?” Josh had just opened the passenger door for him. “Are you okay?”
He’d never answered, Ray realised. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed. He nodded, keeping his gaze on Josh’s as an anchor. “I... I’m feeling a lot of things. Nothing bad, just... it’s a lot of information. I’m... I’m understanding a lot.”
Josh nodded back, then offered a strong elbow for Ray to take as a handhold to get down. That he felt, the twin joys of Josh’s body and his feet on the ground that was his. He found himself grinning and seeking his mate’s eyes. “Do you feel it too?”
His alpha paused, standing still next to him. “I feel your joy,” he said at last with a little apologetic shrug.
But it was more than enough, of course. “Good,” Ray told him. “Because I don’t think I can feel it all on my own.” To his surprise, he found his eyes were filling with tears, the land was singing a welcome made of wind and distant bird cries, crunched snow and even doors closing and opening all the way back in the house.
Josh stepped right into it, turning so they were facing each other and pressing their foreheads together, sharing his warmth and giving Ray a steady point to which he could hold on as the symphony crested and fell again, then turned soft and melodic.
The cadence of the wind wasn’t anything new, he knew that too. It was just something that suddenly made sense to his ears, like he’d learned its language in the last few hours outside. He straightened and Josh’s grip on his arms tightened for a second, seeking stability.
But there was nothing to fear.
He grabbed for his alpha’s hand, not needing to look to find it, and turned away from him, leading the way. “Come.”
The sound of his boots crushing the thick fresh snow reverberated in the wide open space, like drums announcing their arrival. He had no idea where he was going, except of course he did; he was being called and he was answering.
All he had to do to find the path was trust. He glanced up, finding the gibbous moon to his left and smiling a silent greeting to the Goddess. It was impossible, but he felt an echo that he thought was her response, a distracted caress of heavenly attention dispensed on his small self.
Only of course he wasn’t small, he was as much part of the universe as anything else—that was the key of it all. He wasn’t alone because he couldn’t be alone, no one was.
Be it by the stars above or the land below, he was always protected.
As if his thoughts had summoned it, his eyes focused on a body of trees not too far in front of them—a few semi-mature birches surrounding a huge oak, clearly the founder of the little wood. No pines, which Ray knew they had around the place in plentiful supply too.
He stopped a few feet away, far enough he could look at them all, inclining his head in greeting, which a little part of his brain was mocking him about even as he did it. Josh stayed by his side, hand in hand, and Ray used the strength of his silent faith to ignore his own doubts. Allowing his eyes to fall closed with a sigh, he opened his mouth. “I’m listening,” he said, making it so.
The song was changing somewhat, slowly, nothing he could understand quite yet. But he was willing to stand in the crisp December air and give it time to coalesce into something his human brain could process. Or not.
His breathing fell into a rhythm, slowing down like he was falling asleep right there where he stood. To his surprise, Josh tensed up next to him, hand tightening on Ray’s and just like that they were stepping forward as one—the kind of synchronicity they’d only achieved when their bodies were a lot more closely entwined. It was easy to reach out with their free hands for the bark of the oak, then letting themselves come still, until their joined fingers rested on its rough surface too. It was warmer than he’d have expected. Alive. Why was it so difficult to remember that just because they didn’t move?
It was impossible to deny now, with the voice in his head, not forming words but transmitting clearly all the same—as much sensation as sound. The wolf would have got it at once, Ray thought; he could only wait for his own thoughts to quieten down.
Josh exhaled softly next to him, relief rolling over Ray through their bond. He couldn’t have said whether it was the final clue he needed, but it released something deep within him. It wasn’t cold anymore, or he couldn’t feel it because he was surrounded by a powerful presence warding off the chilly air. Both of them were, Josh’s hand in his reminding him of the world he knew, just enough to prove this was happening too.
The word came to him at last.
He shuddered, leaning heavily on the tree until his forehead rested against the bark too. It wasn’t a demand, like he’d expected, it was an assurance. The song hadn’t truly changed that much, it was still insisting on the same thing; you belong, we will keep you safe, you are ours, you are loved.
And although he was blessed with people in his life who’d made the same promises, sometimes even said the words, a sob broke through his lips and just like that he was weeping. Because somehow he hadn’t known, or at least he hadn’t believed it, not until that very moment, when Nature itself had summoned him to its throne, demanding his attention. It felt silly to have ever doubted it, he who could shift with the moon, he who could find his people by reaching not with his mind, he now saw clearly, but with his soul.
“Fuck, Ray.” Josh’s voice was rough, and Ray’s hand tightened on his, immediately wanting to offer comfort. Except Josh was laughing. Ray twisted his neck to the side to watch him break into another peal of laughter, throat exposed and sound travelling up—like he was howling at the moon. He straightened, tugging Ray away from the tree for a disorientating moment before he pushed him back into it, his back instead of his front, and trapping his hand with his own against the rough bark. “You are fucking amazing, you know that?” Josh asked, grinning like a madman.
Ray blinked at him, the tree’s presence was still there—in fact, not just this one tree but all of them, as if perking up now they had his… their attention. Josh wasn’t just happy; he was lit up from inside.
It’s not me, Ray nearly said. But it didn’t feel right, it was him. Him and Josh and the trees and the snow and the wind and everyone back in the house and everything that lived in the fucking planet. Possibly the universe. At least as far as the moon.
“Now I feel it,” he told Ray, sharp teeth gleaming in the moonlight, eyes wildly alive. And Ray let go, let his shoulders sag against the oak, which wouldn’t let him fall and let it all come back rushing in freely. This time, it wasn’t relief, but joy. He’d known it from Josh’s face, of course, and he felt a little bad about doubting... But the guilt was swept aside by the energy thrumming through him, as if a wave had come and had brushed it all off, leaving just the crystal clarity of his own core light.
In the absence of fear, it was love that came, not the desperate clinging thing that sometimes woke him in a terror and sent him to check on his sleeping kids. But true love, which was also peace, easy and all-encompassing, undeniable and full of understanding for all the little weaknesses of the human mind. Love for everything and everyone, so pure it brought tears back to his eyes, but seeing the wonder of it reflected on his alpha’s face, it was impossible not to put his free hand to Josh’s neck and draw him closer for a kiss, soft and deep, letting it pour out of him that way. Only there was no end to the feeling, and Josh was giving it right back, the inexhaustible supply settling into every bone and muscle, every cell and atom, until they were as much one with each other as with the universe at large.
He could have got lost in it, mind wandering as his soul brushed against every thread connecting him to land and sky. But Josh’s mouth was sweet and warm and real and there, his hands around Ray’s back anchoring him to the world of the flesh even as they flew high above it all—like getting to have everything at the same time. He didn’t need to choose or worry. He didn’t have to do anything, but oh he wanted to find himself in the tender touch of Josh’s hands, careful as they opened his coat and cupped his belly—the babies fluttered, happy to be noticed, but otherwise as lulled by the thrumming song running through their veins as their parents—and pulled it down his shoulders. Ray let it fall, let himself fall as Josh threw down his own longer coat, creating a small surface for Ray to lay down, following so fast their lips never really separated.
The snow beneath him was compressing under his weight and then Josh’s, who was straddling him and bending over, allowing for the mound of his swollen middle without pausing. But he could feel everything right then, on the periphery of this attention the stars seemed to twinkle and currents of joy and love caressed his mind from all angles. The snow had to be cold, but it was also full of life, its potential powerful enough to make Ray laugh against Josh’s lips when his attention was caught by it. It was gorgeous, like glittering diamonds of unleashed life.
His shirt and jumper were pulled up over his belly, as far as they’d go when Josh was clearly not ready to let him sit up to remove them. His own hands were up the back of Josh’s own clothes, luxuriating in the soft expanse of skin over powerful muscles, trying to drag his alpha down to cover his body. “Shhh…” Josh whispered soothingly into his ear. “I got you, Ray. Let me…”
And Ray did, easily, no resistance left from the times when he’d not really chosen it. He was choosing it; it was in his power to surrender. Without fear, only love was left—his and Josh’s, which naturally were one and the same.
Josh gasped above him. “Ray!”
Ray opened his eyes to see his stricken expression—not hurt but shocked, like he couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t expected this, and Ray couldn’t blame him, he’d let his fear stop him for too long. But Josh had wanted it all along, he could see that much writ clearly on his beloved’s face. Josh shook himself out of his stupor and reached for Ray’s trousers, undoing the button. Ray sighed and let his head fall back on his coat, letting the awe Josh felt wash over him as his bottom half was bared, shoes tugged off gently, Josh keeping all the desperation building between them at bay easily by willpower alone. The gesture, strong and tender both, made Ray shiver.
Strangely, exposing his erection seemed to ease the urgency somewhat. He blinked up at Josh, a little confused, and saw his hazel eyes were wide and fascinated, like he was watching a work of art instead of Ray’s rumpled form, his prominent belly, his shirt still on. He tugged at Ray’s sleeve almost timidly, a request.
Ray granted it easily, taking hold of his arm to sit up and letting his lover take everything else that covered him away. Josh was still fully dressed, but it didn’t bother Ray. He didn’t need to equalise the ground between them that way, or any other. They were each who they were and the love he felt coming clear and bright through the bond, the adoration he saw on Josh’s face… It was returned in full in his own heart.
That was the only type of balance they needed.
He nodded, even though no question had been asked, and Josh laughed, a little incredulous. Disbelief would have seemed absurd at any other point, with Ray carrying his children in his belly. But right then and there he understood this was new for them both, that it was a gift he hadn’t been able to give before, to either of them.
Feeling the wetness between his legs when Josh gently bent his left knee and kissed it was not truly a surprise, but it made him groan at the sensation, nonetheless. Josh’s eyes fluttered closed, his eyelashes their own kiss against Ray’s thigh. “Goddess,” he said, breath warming up the delicate skin. “Thank you.”
Ray wasn’t sure who the gratitude was for, perhaps it didn’t matter—it was an expression of joy, not an acknowledgement of a debt like he’d so often assumed. [NL1] Josh spread him slowly, the scents of their respective arousals rising up between them like a promise of wonderful things to come.
Ray let it happen, not trying to rush him despite the persistent throb of his cock, his hole clenching involuntarily in silent desperation. Josh was making sounds, whimpers or whispers, it was difficult to say for sure when his own heart was beating so fast it felt like a rush in his ears. And then his mouth reached its target and his tongue was tasting Ray’s hole and Ray’s hips felt like they’d dislocated, legs relaxing even further, knees falling further to the sides. As if reacting to the enthusiastic welcome, Josh pushed his tongue inside, sucking as he retracted it. Normally, Ray would have been fucking his face by now, today he laid back and gasped for air, body loose and easy. He could have moved, but he didn’t need to. He didn’t need to do anything at all except receive this pleasure, Josh rolling his balls between his fingers even as he deep dived into his entrance like Ray’s slick was all he ever wanted to drink for the rest of his existence.
It was like his whole body was opening up, his shoulders falling back, his mouth open, his eyes closed as he relaxed into it, giving up any semblance of control. Josh kept going, licking and kissing and massaging. His other hand landed on Ray’s cock in a loose enough grip to make him shudder without taking him any closer to finishing.
Except why would he even want it to end? He could stay here in this sticky, ethereal ecstasy forever. There was no time or place, even as the network of trees and animals and elements still surrounded them, there was only the now. This moment, his body under Josh’s capable hands and mouth worshipping him, his adoration a blanket no snow could penetrate.
“I love you so fucking much.”
The words seemed strange, like a joke compared to the feeling, but Ray smiled dopily up at him anyway.
“Show me,” he asked, both a request and permission.
And then Josh stopped holding back.
He’d come all over himself getting tongue fucked, and then Josh had licked him clean—teasing them both.
“Tell me what you want,” he’d whispered into Ray’s ear.
But Ray had shook his head. “You know.” He’d got his eyes open with some effort, seeing Josh’s hesitation and he’d waited for him to let go too; to listen. Not just to the trees but to the bond between them, not just to Ray’s words but to his heart.
“You want me to?” Josh had said, as if not quite daring to hope. But Ray had waited again, he was fully open, to Josh and the world at large—he had no shame or fear left, he was who he was, and his desire deserved to be honoured as much as anything in him.
“You want me to fuck you,” Josh said at last, voice growing steadier, hands tightening on Ray’s hips and Ray got to watch the joy spread over his face as he understood it was true. Like Ray, Josh hadn’t truly known before, even after how long they’d been lovers.
He smiled, and only then, confirmed it, “I do.” He dug his heels into the back of Josh’s own legs. “I want you to fuck me until I can’t think of anything but you.”
Josh let out a sound, half growl and half groan and he was bending over and taking Ray’s mouth like an invading army, biting at his lips as much as licking. And Ray got his hands in his hair and pulled at him hard, wanting him closer and closer. He could be patient, but he was also just human.
Maybe Josh could sense his need, or maybe it was Josh who was desperate—he hadn’t come yet—because Ray felt one of his hands back between his buttocks. He sighed, clenching around Josh’s fingers like someone clinging to the edge of a cliff. It wasn’t quite right, he needed… But then Josh’s mouth was gone with a mumbled apology and he was curling up behind Ray, getting them both on their sides and Ray felt Josh’s jeans as they were dragged down against the bare back of his own legs.
And then Josh’s cock was a hard line of fire against the small of his back and like it was the key to unlocking him fully, Ray’s head fell back onto Josh’s shoulder even as his mate started pushing the head of his dick inside. Josh’s right hand was trapped under Ray, carefully helping him bear the weight of his belly, so it was his left that landed on his hip and pulled him back into the penetration, slick and sweet and endless, like his body had given up on barring the way completely.
Ray had been an omega for over six years, but he’d never known true surrender until that moment. He let go of everything, his muscles and his fears and his shields. He was absolutely open to receive and all he got was love, and even the frantic desire was just that—love, the need to be close and the bravery to let others close in turn. Because Josh was just as open as he was, his role just another piece of the same system—he was giving as much as he was receiving.
There could be no other way.
Laying in his arms, somehow protected from the chilly air by his own body’s ability to produce heat—or maybe the cold was his friend now too and wouldn’t bother him. They’d rolled off their coats halfway through the fucking, and he’d shot all over the pristine snow. They’d got right back on top of them as soon as the shock had worn off, but it had given Ray a clue.
“I think they want me to have the babies here.”
Josh was nuzzling at his collarbone, he couldn’t seem to stop touching Ray. “In this spot?”
“Yeah, I…” He didn’t think it mattered much where in the land he did it, but maybe the big oak wanted centre stage and Ray didn’t mind too much—if he was going to have a voyeur, an ancient and deeply powerful tree wasn’t too shabby. “I think maybe it wasn’t enough to bring the placenta back afterwards like I did with Cali. Or, like, not as powerful.” That was it, he knew, like he’d translated successfully from a foreign language. He’d always been jealous of Sergi and Iesu for being bilingual, now he suddenly appreciated the possible difficulties. “I think… It’s like the land is always creating, always putting energy into growing things, but so are we. Only we… we break, or we change stuff that nature has already made, like with the wood we used for the house. So it doesn’t… It counts, but not as much. But sex and birth…” And death, in its own way, the body going back to where it’d come from, from matter to energy once more. “They are pure creation, and doing it here in the wild… it’s… it’s giving back. It doesn’t cost us anything, we’d do it anyway, just like the trees would grow fruit, but it helps…” He swallowed, turning his face to rub his cheek against Josh’s sweaty hair. Goddess, he never wanted to stop touching him.
“The connection,” Josh said, solemn. Certain.
Ray realised he’d lost the thread of what he was saying. “Yes, exactly.” He was grinning, a little high still from the sex or the touch or the magic forest promising him everything.
“We can get a tent or something,” Josh suggested. “You want to get back in?”
“Mmm…” Ray said, but he was already pulling on his arm. He was pretty sure he could keep the cold at bay if Josh just came close again. “In a bit.”
There would be a lot of explaining to do, possibly teaching. He wasn’t sure about the adults, but the kids could definitely learn to talk to the trees, even if they weren’t on the same level as he and Josh, they had the advantage of having been born on the land.
But for now, he had to sort out Christmas.
Marisa gave him a wary look from where she was sitting at her desk. Beyond her, the double bed she shared with her partner was immaculately made up. There was nothing on top of the bureau either, except for a box of tissues. Ray couldn’t even claim it was her child-free life, for all that Cali had moved to a little bed in Clara’s and Maria’s room, she still sneaked out to sleep with her mothers often enough.
“Hey,” he said. “You got a minute?”
He stepped into her sanctuary, closing the door behind himself. They’d tried their best to make the rooms sound-proofed, but it was mostly politeness and whispers that kept things private. She swivelled her chair to face him as he sat on the corner of her bed. “I feel like I should keep apologising,” he admitted.
Marisa shrugged, eyebrows raised as if to say so did she. But the superior look didn’t hold. She sighed. “No point.”
“I went out today,” he told her. “It was pretty scary, but it went really well.” He kept his eyes down even as his lips curved upwards at the memory. He wasn’t quite ready to ask her to share his joy yet. “I think I have been cutting myself off from the land without knowing it. I wasn’t listening so… Well, I figure that this happened to get my attention because it was important.” He glanced up.
“To protect the trees?” She didn’t sound convinced.
He could see why she couldn’t see the point in that, not if it meant protecting them from her. “Yes, to protect the trees, but not just the trees, us too. You. Because the trees are the ones keeping an eye out for us.”
He suddenly remembered his unease around Nicholas—he’d assumed it was his own anxiety at having to force himself to go through with acquiring another mate when he could barely keep up with the ones he already had... But of course he hadn’t just been ignoring his own feelings, but anything the land could have told him through them too.
They were one and the same, his soul a part of the network he’d just realised he was hooked to.
Her lips parted and her eyes moved to the left and then back to him. “Wait, what?”
“I know it sounds a little crazy, but it turns out the whole thing with the territory is not the wolves taking the land and then protecting it from strangers. It’s more like… a contract, or a deal. We give to the land and the land gives to us, so the land is ours and we belong to it too.”
She looked down, hand absently pulling on a loose curl of her hair. “So…” she said, meeting his eyes. “You are saying the trees are part of the pack too?”
“Yes,” he agreed, grinning. She’d always been so smart, but he was particularly impressed she’d got this so quickly when she hadn’t felt it. Unless… “Have you felt it?”
Marisa shook her head. “No. I mean… I don’t think so. What does it feel like?”
“To me, it’s like the territory is singing. Like all the little sounds come together and it’s a song, it’s not just background noise or whatever. And if I pay attention, I get what it means.”
“It sounds beautiful,” she offered. “Does that mean you are okay now? You are not…?”
“I’m more than okay,” he promised, pausing so she could hear his steady pulse. It was the absolute truth. “I have to thank you, for giving them a good reason to hit me so hard. I think… I think I might have locked myself away forever if…” He bit at his lip, swallowing hard against the wave of emotion. He was not going to cry, not now when he’d come to reassure her. Once he was done, he’d go lean his face against the nearest tree and let it take this fear of what had not been. “Thank you,” he said to his sister, not looking away. “I couldn’t do this without you, I hope you know that.”
She stared at him, clearly shocked by his directness. Open declarations weren’t their style, but it was important today. Hell, it was important every day, but Ray was still learning.
“I’m happy to do this with you,” she told him after a few beats, like she too had to find the words that fit. It wasn’t easy when you hadn’t been brought up with the tenderness of speech, when truth was something that frightened you and vulnerability felt like a failure.
They hadn’t failed each other by showing their truth, though, it was exactly why they’d been able to help each other make a life worth living.
“Me too. So I found you a tree.”
The tree in question was a pine tree, since he’d wanted to keep some semblance of the tradition. It was also alive, growing a few yards away from the back of the house, with enough room between it and its siblings they could surround it.
Marisa stopped behind him. “It’s beautiful,” she offered.
“It’s actually happy we will come sing to it,” Ray explained, turning to meet her eyes. “I know it’ll be a bit chilly and obviously we can’t leave the presents—”
“We got coats,” she said. “Can we decorate it?”
Ray had actually known to ask. “Trees aren’t all that great with details like that, I think I mostly confused them when I tried to explain,” he admitted. Then he took a bauble out of his pocket, glossy and shiny still after all these years.
“The angel…” Marisa said softly. It’d been everyone’s favourite, and their parents had devised different methods to decide who got to hang it each year, mostly games but sometimes it was given to someone if they’d been particularly generous or kind.
“I thought we could use it to test if it minds,” Ray explained, offering it up to her.
She took it eagerly, grinning like she was a little girl again and approached the pine tree, glancing up and swallowing. “I hope this is okay,” she told the ancient being. She took one of the lower branches and carefully slipped the bauble on it, slowly letting go and taking a step back.
Ray hadn’t stopped hearing the song since the previous day, but now he closed his eyes and focused on it. There was nothing different about, except… “Oh.”
“What is it?”
Ray laughed, shaking his head. “It’s like… it’s a bird coming to nest on it. It likes to be chosen.”
Marisa snorted, but then she laughed too. “Are the other trees gonna get jealous then?”
“I guess we better take turns with this too,” Ray told her with a shrug, but he couldn’t really imagine it. Each tree was enough of an individual to care about its own roots first, but being planted firmly down into mother earth, they had no notion that another’s blessing was to their detriment. They knew it all came back, whatever rain they drank going deep into the network, any excess they discarded being taken by a neighbour in need—they wouldn’t take more than they needed, they had no concept of it, and they wouldn’t take less, either. It was so simple and Ray could barely grasp it with his rational mind, so used the games humans played. “Want to get the rest of the decorations out here?”
They didn’t just get the decorations, of course, but the rest of the pack. Gabriel and Alec had just got back from a trip to Durham, which wasn’t even that far but had somehow turned into an overnight stay. Ray suspected it’d been a date as well as a present buying expedition, but there was no time to get Alec alone to ask.
“I’m getting the kids,” he told them both as soon as the car doors opened. “Can you help Marisa with the decorations? She said they were in the beta wing’s storage area.”
“Decorations?” Gabriel asked, clearly confused.
Ray nodded, slowing down just enough to say, “For the tree I have found.”
He was also all too aware that he needed to explain the whole thing with the trees to them all, not just Marisa, but that called for a pack meeting and this was meant to be fun. Maybe they could feel it first, without any need for words.
They’d built a main house first and then added an extension when Marisa and Irina had come, later inviting more betas to join. But as the kids had got older and they’d separated them to give each of them their own bed, the original nursery in the beta wing was now mostly used for lessons—you couldn’t send werewolf children to a human school before they understood their very nature was a secret, and it was important to have a dedicated space so they understood the work was important.
At this time of day, they were most likely to be in their playroom in the main house or the living room where the television was. Today, Ray didn’t need to wonder or even focus his hearing, he knew at once it was the playroom they’d made out of Sergi’s old bedroom—Iesu’s original room had worse light and they’d left the best option for the kids. It wasn’t that big, the five, Cali and whoever was keeping an eye on them were a little bit cramped, but it was worth it to keep their toys somewhat away from under adult feet. Besides, they all spent a lot of time in fur running through the whole house and in warmer months the grass outside.
“Hey, Ray,” Sergi was already looking his way from where he sat on the carpeted floor, he must have heard him coming down the corridor.
“Hey,” Ray smiled at him, a little stiff with the excess energy he was carrying. At the sound of his voice, the five glanced up from their games, only one of them was in fur—Jamie gnawing at a huge lamb shoulder bone that someone had obviously let him keep after lunch. Ray shook his head, it wasn’t worth nagging about that Sergi right now. “Where’s Cali?”
“Toilet with Kaylee,” his alpha told him. He hadn’t moved, but he was watching Ray closely. “Everything okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” Ray said at once, his smile expanding without him meaning too. “Just excited,” he explained. “I found us a tree to decorate!”
Sergi hesitated. “Did you get it in town yesterday?” he asked at last.
He had, hadn’t he? Or at least the bravery to open his eyes to see what he’d had all along. But before he could find words for Sergi, he felt a tug at his trouser leg.
“Ray?” Maria was standing at his feet, blue eyes wide and arms extended for a pickup.
He swallowed, a little twist of regret taking over his mouth. “I can’t right now, sweetheart, I’m carrying the babies, remember?” He offered a hand instead. “Let’s get your coat and we can go outside, I have a surprise for you all.”
The word got them all going, including Sergi, to whom Ray could only mouth ‘Later’ from across the room. His alpha fell a little behind since he had to catch Jamie to get him to shift and back into clothes. They met Kaylee in the corridor and Ray pointed his head to the front of the house. “We are going out; I’ve found a tree.”
To her credit, she didn’t question his strange statement, following with Cali snuggled in her arms and then helping him sort out shoes and coats.
By the time he made it back to where he could see the tree, he saw Marisa and Gabriel were distributing the boxes around the tree. Alec was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Josh for that matter. No one was going to miss out on this ritual, but even if they were unlikely to get a cold, he didn’t want to keep the children out too long either.
He’d just closed his eyes to reach for all his missing pack members when he got a nudge from Josh and turned around. Yousuf, Hugo and Josh were carrying a table (the not so large one from the betas kitchenette) and Alec wasn’t far behind with what looked like a picnic basket.
Ray gawked at them “What…?”
“Is here good, Ray?” Yousuf asked, way too earnest still, pointing at the ground a couple feet away from the tree with his chin.
Before Ray could answer, Josh was already instructing them to step back further to leave room for them to move around.
By the time Alec laid a deep red tablecloth over the table, Ray was starting to wonder if Josh had somehow known when he’d decided—as much as everyone else was helping, this had the signature of his most romantic gestures all over it. But he didn’t have time to ask, Alec and Hugo took over unloading the basket, where they’d brought some of the good china his mother had passed on to him from her own mother, and in moments there were plates being filled with grapes, peanuts, canapes and rolled up prosciutto and little blobs of mozzarella, to which Iesu had got them all addicted. There were also some lollies, just six of them since no one but the kids would want them in this cold but adding to the colourful display with their bright blue.
“Ray!” Marisa’s voice brought him out of it and he turned to face the tree again.
She was grinning and the kids were all around her, already getting into the boxes and he couldn’t even worry about the glass ornaments because what could happen if they fell on softly fallen snow?
He glanced around himself, from the kids to Kaylee and Irina untangling garlands and lights, to Gabriel with Cali in his arms and Yousuf holding onto a golden icicle like he couldn’t wait to get started. Sergi and Iesu by his side, Hugo shoving the basket under the table and Alec smiling at him from behind it, looking for his approval. And then arms came around him, strong and sure, and along with them came the easy joyous love of his soulmate, always at his back. “Yes,” he told them all. “Let the decoration start!”
It'd been a bit of a pain to step away from Josh under the circumstances, after the day they’d shared yesterday and the absurdly romantic table picnic, but he managed to separate after only a kiss to his rugged cheek, wordless but full of the sentiment he poured into their bond—love and loyalty and light.
When he pulled back, Josh’s eyes shone like he’d swallowed the moon, the sun and all the stars and Ray shook his head and pointed at the tree.
The ornaments didn’t exactly match, most of them having come from their birth families partying with part of their own stash, a few more recent purchases that were only theirs. The previous year, Marisa had got the kids to hung them wherever she’d thought best and no adult had objected, but it was different this time. Ray took the time to go to each of his children, starting with Cali since she was the youngest, and let them choose an ornament.
She went for a shiny pink one, reminiscent of the princess dress that had the only thing she’d wanted to wear for a week after Halloween, and maybe that meant they were getting the gender bullshit into her head, but Ray wasn’t going to be the one to take away her choices. He was just determined to keep giving her the whole box each time, with all the paths open for her to find her own. He picked her up, keeping her to the side so she wouldn’t bump his belly—it was perfectly safe, it’d always been, but he’d been so fucking worried about it that he hadn’t felt confident doing it before. Cali, without being asked, tightened her little knees against his upper back and chest, already reaching for the tree with her bauble. Around them, he could hear the others asking the kids to pick too.
He'd just put down Maria, who’d been nearly as happy about that as about the decorating, when he saw Jamie picking up pine cone from the ground, still shiny with life. He was about to tell him it wasn’t to eat when he saw his son lodge it between two low branches. It stayed, and not only that but the tree reacted to it, nothing Ray could have translated into words, more like a shiver of pleasure. Half dazed, he turned back to the feast laid on the table, eyes searching and found the orange slices, each triangle bright and shiny. It’d look good against the green, he mused and picked up a couple and went back around to the tree, finding a way to make one stay on a corner wasn’t as hard as he’d have thought. It shone in the light reflected by the snow and he got another shiver out of the tree, so maybe it mattered if you used something natural on it?
He felt a gentle squeeze on his elbow as soon as he was done and turned his head to meet Iesu’s eyes.
“Ray…?” His alpha looked on the verge of hysterical laughter. “What are you doing?”
He shrugged a shoulder, smiling a little himself. He must have looked nuts, and also he’d never felt this joyous in his entire life and he didn’t care in the slightest. “Turns out the trees do talk to me,” he admitted.
“And they like oranges?” his alpha said slowly.
It was a perfectly reasonable question for which Ray didn’t know he had an answer until he was opening his mouth and saying, “Well, yes, they are shiny and they’ll attract birds to them and then fall to the ground and rot and give them nutrients. Or the birds will shit and do the same, I’m not that clear on the order. You never said being bilingual was this hard,” he added with a wry smile.
“Pretty,” it was Clara, standing at their feet and with a hand open and eyes stuck to the other slice in Ray’s hand.
It was enough for Iesu to burst out laughing at last. “Can’t argue with that,” he told her, glancing up to share his mirth with Ray too, and picked her up so when Ray gave her the orange she could put it higher up. It stayed, somehow, even though at five her fine motor skills weren’t that impressive. Ray watched her lick the leftover stickiness from her fingers and then back at the tree where she’d chosen a particularly well-angled spot to get the light reflecting off it.
Did he even need to teach them anything about the trees? Or just make sure they didn’t forget?
With so many of them, a riot of colour and sparkles seemed to spread over the front of the tree and soon they were going around it. The tree was too tall for them to reach anywhere near the top, at least until Gabriel’s booming voice asked, “Who’s found the star for the top?” and Ray saw he had his arm around Alec’s waist, possessive and certain of his welcome.
Alec looked a little shell-shocked and he was looking back at Ray for… Permission? Not to be with Gabriel, certainly, they’d spoken about it plenty. Hugo had unearthed the precious white star and was already handing it over to Gabriel, who as he turned to give it to Alec, caught sight of where his lover was looking. He immediately raised both his eyebrows and the ornament his way, a clear offer.
No fucking way, Ray thought, but since the children were around, he just shook his head, laughing. “Maybe next year!” and Alec was already grinning, still a little shy but not letting it stop him from climbing atop Gabriel’s wide shoulders. A moment later Gabriel rose to his feet with his hands securely around Alec’s thighs and walked up to the tree.
Ray leaned back against Josh’s chest and watched as Alec stretched as far as he could go, all their breaths collectively held, and then Iesu and Sergi were taking hold of Gabriel’s elbows, bracing him as he too stretched as much as he could.
And like that, their tree was crowned.
The glory of it spread through the clearing to the other trees, the birds close enough started singing, and Ray felt it reach Josh the moment it touched him, and then to his delight, the kids started jumping and squealing, like they too were sharing on the bounty. But it wasn’t just them, Yousuf’s eyes were widening and he was looking around in something between shock and delight and then, like having got hold of enough of them it’d grown in strength, Ray saw the rest of his pack awaken—a glimpse of Irina twirling Marisa in uncharacteristic childish glee, Iesu stepping back from Gabriel and yanking Sergi to him for a deep kiss, and Gabriel himself getting surprised by Alec as the smaller alpha jumped off his back and straight into his arms with enough force to topple them onto the snow.
Josh’s arms tightened around him, his love a little blanket over the joy they were all sharing, grounding Ray in this present even as their future stretched before them; a path that would not always be easy but that he would never walk alone. And then, because he was Josh, he added, “Who knew trees were this good at partying?”
And Ray was laughing again, free like a bird taking flight, and knowing deep in his bones that he’d always find a way back to land right here, at home.
If you read The Stars of the Pack on KU, you can grab all the books in the omnibus edition on the links below.