Temper: a Silver universe story

As promised, I have a solstice gift for all my fans today! While it’s a DVD extra for Book 3, exploring events that happened around the time of that book, it’s designed to be interesting for anyone at all familiar with the Silver universe.

Enjoy!

Temper

Tom turned off the highway, such as it was, following the lead of the car ahead of him. They both bumped over a set of railroad tracks that cut a thin line of scrub between green, irrigated fields. Their goal stood out against the same fields, the cemetery’s stones barely visible among a tangle of golden, dead grass. Green rose farther back, trees probably gathered around some creek bed, perhaps dry at the moment. Tom found himself sniffing for Were through the open window, which was stupid. Even if the photograph he’d seen turned out to be legit, that gravestone would have been carved by Were who lived more than a century ago.

The car pulled onto the shoulder, but the ditch veered so close to the road immediately before and after that spot Tom had to go about a hundred yards farther to find a spot for his battered pickup. Clearly, no one had conceived of more than one visitor to the cemetery at once. The young human woman waited by her car as he crunched down the road to join her. Tricia looked even more out of place now than when he’d first met her in the coffee shop in town. He’d asked about her photographs, displayed on the walls in the usual “local artist for sale” style, and the barista had offered to call in the photographer herself. Most of the customers had been stylish enough in a battered-jeans rural farming town sort of way, but Tricia had walked in with store-weathered jeans and very expensive sunglasses.

Even those must not have been enough now against the low, early evening sun, because she shaded her eyes as she examined the little cemetery. “They don’t get much vandalism out here, fortunately. Overgrown as all hell, but so many of the little family plots are. When the owners don’t try to cart off the stones in the night like that will make it all right for them to build on it.”

Tom set his worries aside long enough to crack a smile, stuck his hands in his pockets, and ambled after Tricia. Who’d have thought someone could be so interested in cemeteries? Not something normal like genealogy research with the names from the stones, but documenting their locations and conditions, and helping to restore them. In the coffee shop, she’d called it a hobby. Cemetery hobby. Crazy.

“And the one in the photograph? Where’s that?” Listening to a hot woman talk about something she was passionate about was one thing, but it wasn’t idle curiosity that had brought him here.

“This way.” Tricia pointed and strode out confidently. Expensive sunglasses aside, she wore sturdy hiking boots. “You’re lucky I was around when Mare—Mary—called. I live in Spokane, but I’m here often enough visiting my aunt and uncle that they suggested the display. Then again, you probably don’t need me to direct you. There are a number of stones with those motifs in this plot. Some kind of family thing, clearly, but I can’t figure out what. I’ve never seen it anywhere else.”

Tom sure hoped not. He paused and tore at grass obscuring a stone beside his path. It was clearly one of the ones Tricia had mentioned. Lady damn it. Moon phases framing the name, running wolves along the bottom—how could they? How could any sane Were carve a stone like this and leave it for humans to find?

Tom took a deep breath. He couldn’t read the Cyrillic characters, but the years were comprehensible. If humans had managed to overlook these stones for a century and a half, they couldn’t be the end of the world now. “Do you know what it says?”

Tricia backtracked and leaned over the stone. She absently fit her thumb into the circle of the Lady at full and brushed some blown soil from the bottom edge. “I keep meaning to send my photographs to someone who speaks Russian for a translation, but I haven’t yet.”

Small mercies. Tom gave her his best smile. “You know—I’m kind of wandering at the moment, but the reason I wandered this direction is I was trying to trace where my family came from. No one’s mentioned any Russian immigrants before, but I could be related to some. I know my ancestry’s a mixture of various pioneers who headed out West. And my family breeds dogs, maybe…”

Just when the damage control story Tom was spinning seemed to be going well, his phone rang. He cursed under his breath and checked the screen without answering. Felicia. Of course it was. Lady damn her to the void, when was she going to get the message that he didn’t want to talk to her? Some things you couldn’t apologize for that easily. He sent the call straight to voicemail, to join the probably thirty-seven other ones that had accumulated by now, and shoved the phone back in his pocket.

“Anyway.” Tom cleared his throat. Damage control. That’s what he was doing. Not thinking about Felicia. “Breeding dogs. Maybe that’s what this is about.” He pointed to the wolf silhouettes. And Lady, didn’t he hope that if she did get the stone translated, it wouldn’t be a prayer to the Lady or something. He wouldn’t have thought any Were could be that stupid, but he wouldn’t have believed any Were could be so stupid as to carve wolves on their gravestones.

Rather than giving the beep of a voicemail recorded, his phone started ringing again. Tom rejected that call too and shoved the phone away before he could crush it. He knew he’d regret the loss later. But it would be so satisfying to crush it into dust. Why wouldn’t Felicia stop?

Tricia grimaced in vague sympathy. “Forget to call your mother often enough while ‘wandering’?” She wasn’t mocking, but Tom could hear the quotes in her tone that made “wandering” into “unemployed and needing to get out of parental hair for a while.”

Tom bristled, barely keeping a too-canine growl to a vaguely human rumble in his chest. What was she, two years older than him? Certainly not more than twenty-six. She wasn’t far enough from her own irresponsible early twenties to look down on him, and besides. Irresponsibility wasn’t his fucking problem, it was Felicia’s. He was perfectly capable of finding a job the moment he felt ready to go back and face Seattle again. “For your information, it was a bad break-up, and she’s in denial, okay? I don’t want to even see her, not after she chose her bully of a childhood sweetheart or whatever he was over—”

That came out all in one breath and only a need for air let Tom wrestle himself back under control. What in the Lady’s name was he doing, blowing up at strangers? And not just any stranger, but one he was trying to charm so she didn’t think too hard about wolves on gravestones. He took a deep breath, but no charming words entered his mind with it. All he could think of was what he’d say to Felicia if he did answer one of these times. Flay her voice with his, he would.

Tricia’s expression twisted with embarrassment. “I’m sorry.” She looked at his pocket with the phone, lips parting to add something, then she pressed them together before changing the subject with unnecessary brightness. “I’ve never seen dog motifs like these before, but I have seen that moon one somewhere else.” Her voice trailed into a questioning intonation, checking if he was interested before she continued.

Tom dredged up an encouraging smile. Concentrate. Focus on solving this immediate problem. Moon emblems were nowhere near as bad as those of wolves—or the combination of the two—so he wasn’t too worried about whatever lunar connection she was making. Tricia relaxed. “It’s in the car, actually.” She jogged off. Tom followed more slowly, meeting her on the way back.

He’d expected her to have her camera, to show him something in the memory, but instead she held something small enough to close her fingers over. “I found this in an antique store in the next town over. It’s the same design, look.” Tricia opened her fingers, revealing a large pocket watch of tarnished brass. She traced her finger over the arc of the Lady’s faces there, then traced it in the air before the stone they’d been examining.

Tom’s heart picked up with anxiety instead of anger, as it had when he’d happened to glance at the photograph in the coffee shop, Were symbols in artful black and white. She was right, that was remarkably similar. What in the Lady’s name—?

“The best part is inside. Like a proper eighteenth century miniature.” Tricia pressed a knob to pop the watch’s lid. The hinges must have needed cleaning because it stopped about halfway up. Tom took it and nudged the lid the rest of the way.

He stopped breathing for a second. The painting was exquisitely, delicately done, colors preserved inside the watch case, but what it showed…a white wolf walked beside a lean, black-haired man, his hands lifted as if in some comfortable conversational gesture. It must be—but it couldn’t be—the Lady—but that was blasphemous. The Lady and Death were trapped in human and wolf, respectively, and to show their other forms was simply—

“What’s wrong?” Tricia’s incredulous stare brought Tom back to the cemetery, the golden dead grass, the low sunlight. He’d been properly growling, he realized, and cut the sound off immediately.

“Just concentrating. There’s a lot of detail.” Tom almost couldn’t bear to keep seeing the image, but he pretended to examine it more closely. He focused his eyes on the wrong distance, and it settled into a safer blur. “I wonder if that’s my ancestor. Family stories say that we used to be known for our white dogs, but that bloodline died out. Like white German Shepherds, you know?”

She held out her hand, but he couldn’t—he couldn’t relinquish it. “How much did you pay for it? I’ll give you double. My parents and everyone would be delighted to get it back into the family.” Even if it was expensive, Tom knew the Roanokes would pay him back. This kind of artifact needed to be out of human hands yesterday.

Tricia pulled it away from him. She grimaced in vague apology, but did it anyway, and Tom didn’t think he should make this into a physical struggle, even if he was sure to win. “I’m sorry, it’s not for sale.”

Deep breath. Tom usually considered himself fairly good with words—though he couldn’t line his kills beside those of the Roanokes—but they seemed to have deserted him once more, even without his anger at Felicia tangling his thoughts directly. “Are you sure? You could name your price—”

A bark echoed from downwind, beyond the line of creek-fed trees. Tom figured Tricia would assume it was a dog—most humans weren’t aware wolves could do more than howl—but he knew a wolf bark when he heard one, especially when said wolf was one of a pair being jackasses and sneaking up on him. He’d told Mark and his brother Sean that he wanted to roam alone for a while. At least they weren’t howling.

“That’s probably my cousins now.” Tom maneuvered as if to get a better view, in reality trying to separate their scents, so the fact he was with a human would stand out better to the jackasses. “I knew they were camping somewhere out here. I was supposed to meet up with them.” Mark was twenty, his brother seventeen, both part of the Billings pack, and Tom had thought at least Mark might be mature enough to be fun to run with, but apparently even three years was too big a difference given Tom’s experiences Their juvenile humor had grated before a week had passed. He hadn’t thought they’d be so hard up for entertainment as to follow him.

No more barks sounded, and no one appeared, in human or wolf, so Tom dared to hope they’d gotten the message of the human scent. He still had a job to do. Maybe he could soften Tricia up by getting her talking about her hobby again, then bring up the watch once more when she’d relaxed. “How do you find these old cemeteries?”

“Oh, through a variety of methods. Talking to people in town, old maps. Those can be a lot of fun, though they’re often inaccurate—”

A furry blur barreled into the back of Tom’s legs. He could have saved his balance—if he’d wanted to— but a human would have tumbled back onto his ass in the grass, so Tom let it happen. And then Sean licked his face. Lady bright. The morons. Tom slapped away Sean’s muzzle.

Mark strolled up a moment later, hands in his pockets and thumbs in his belt loops, probably to keep his jeans secure since he’d forgotten his belt in his quick change. Though the boys had the same parents, the same mixture of ancestry, Mark had inherited his human Native grandfather’s features, where Sean had the coloration.

“This is my cousin Mark.” Maybe Tom could salvage this yet. “I was just telling Tricia how our family has a history of breeding dogs.” He got a good grip in Sean’s ruff and stood. The boy was colored dark with a bit more brown than people probably expected for gray wolves. He had completely the wrong build for a domesticated dog, too narrow in the chest, but hopefully cemetery research didn’t leave any time for canine biology.

Of course, rather than playing along, Mark just stared at him. “What?”

Sean tore out of Tom’s grip and romped around Tricia. Tom could see the trick coming a mile away. “Bear, you damn—” He swallowed a too-Were curse and practically choked on it. He was only lucky one of the dog names used for male Were came so automatically. Sean stuck his nose right in Tricia’s crotch. She only laughed and pushed him away. He yielded good-naturedly, but Tom grabbed his ruff again anyway. He clenched his fingers very close to Sean’s throat so he’d feel the strength of Tom’s embarrassment on his behalf. Just because a human didn’t know any different didn’t mean you did something like that.

Mark would probably much rather have flirted with Tom than Tricia, so he snorted, ignored Tom’s lead about breeding dogs, and wandered off, thumbs in belt loops, to stare at a stone. Tom crouched. If he chewed Sean out in a whisper right next to his ear, Tricia shouldn’t hear anything. Before he could start, though, he could have sworn he heard Mark’s eyes widen. Lady, that was just what he needed, Subtlety Personified and Subtlety Personified’s younger brother blundering into that situation.

“What’s this?” Mark demanded.

Luckily, Tricia seemed amused by his reaction. Maybe she figured Mark couldn’t imagine why Tom was interested in cemeteries. “Tom was telling me he thinks these might be his ancestors. The stones with the moon and canine motifs. There’s a bunch of them.”

So now Mark knew not only that there was a pattern of Were secrets on display, but that a human had noticed it. Great. His idea of damage control would probably be to come back at night and steal all the stones, like no one would notice that. “I am taking care of this,” Tom hissed into Sean’s ear, then released him with a shove to his flank. “Get the hell out of here, both of you.” He kept himself from shouting, but Mark’s shocked expression as he whirled to face Tom suggested it hadn’t been enough. Tom didn’t care. As long as they got. Mark wiggled fingers beside his hip and Sean slunk over and leaned his ruff into the touch. “I guess we can talk later, Tom.” Mark’s tone slipped from meaningful almost into threat. Fine. When Tom had taken care of the problem with the gravestones, he would be sure to let Mark know.

Tom took a deep breath as he watched their backs recede over the long-shadowed scrub. The scent of Tricia’s surprise reminded him he’d added a whole new layer of damage control to the situation. Okay. Okay, he could do this. “Sorry. Bear’s trained much better than that, if Mark didn’t let him run wild.”

“He was just being friendly.” Tricia dusted her knees, dislodging a guard hair or two. “No worries. I love dogs.”

Tom stalled a beat longer by shading his eyes and frowning in the direction the boys had disappeared. He pulled his thoughts together with an effort. The watch was the priority. The gravestones were bad, but one point of strangeness was just one point. Two points of strangeness made a line. The watch was so much more specific, as well. It was clearly no good coming at that head-on, though. He needed to get to know Tricia better so he could figure out what might motivate her to sell.

He pulled out his phone to check the time. “I don’t know if you have plans for tonight already, but I was thinking about grabbing some dinner…” He only let the words lift into a question at the last second.

Tricia looked him over and raised her brows. “Rebound?”

“No, dinner.” Lame as the joke was, Tom smiled at her, trying fill the expression with simple friendliness. Even if it was somewhat exhausted friendliness. After a beat, she reflected it back, and Tom felt almost like his old self for a second. Things weren’t so bad if you could smile about them.

* * *

As they stepped out of the diner into warm twilight, Tricia laughed, and Tom judged it the right time to mention the watch again. “Do you think I could take a picture of that watch to send to my folks? Maybe they could tell you more about it, and the graves.” He wasn’t absolutely sure, but he thought maybe Tricia might trade the watch for information.

Bars and other restaurants had filled the closest city parking lot, so both of them had parked in another, a couple blocks away. It served stores, now all closed for the night, leaving the lot surprisingly quiet. Small towns: desolation falls at six pm sharp. Tom didn’t suppose she noticed it, but Tricia walked closer to him, unconsciously defensive in the way many humans, especially women, were after dark.

Tricia sighed after a moment. “Just a picture?”

“Promise.” The streetlights were old and deeply orange, so Tom had steer them right under one before he judged that a human would be able to see the small mechanism to open the watch. He popped it open while leaving it on Tricia’s extended palm.

Only a whiff of scent warned him, because they’d come up from downwind again. Both of the boys were in wolf, and running so fast that there was little time to think. Tom stepped between them and Tricia, she closed her hand over the watch, then the boys were on them.

Mark leaped and slammed into Tom, a dove-gray missile at that stole his breath and folded him over. Payback…? But why would he do that in front of the human?

Oh, Lady. It came to Tom all at once, hearing Mark’s snarl and smelling him intimately as they both tumbled to the pavement. He smelled like frustration Tom was in the way, not anger. He and his brother were trying to take care of Tricia directly. Kill the human who’d seen something revealing, then vanish that something. Far too simple a solution for this situation. A wild dog attack might hunt very slightly better out here than in suburban Seattle, but that didn’t mean it would hunt well.

“Gonna have to get through me first,” Tom spat, rage rolling up to fill him. His voice went almost too tight to speak. Mark had him on his back, and he risked a look to see Sean landing from a jump that had snatched Tricia’s phone right out of her hand. He crunched it with a proud air, so thoroughly that Tom could tell he was stalling. He didn’t want to kill Tricia. This had been Mark’s idea.

Mark’s teeth came right for his face and Tom barely got his forearm up in time. Mark chewed on it, and pinpoints of pain joining into one solid wad of agony. That fire burned and dribbled and flowed into the massive inferno around his voice and he got a grip on Mark’s leg.

He hauled. Hauled with everything he had, and Mark’s shoulder crunched and squished right out of the socket. Lovely sound. Mark yelped, as close as a canine could get to a sob. He stumbled off Tom, back, nearly falling before he got the hang of three legs. Sean had Tricia backed up against the bricks of the nearest building. He glanced over, clearly torn about wanting to help, but he continued to menace Tricia, preventing her escape without making a real move to hurt her.

Tom shoved to his feet and advanced on Mark, who got himself braced and snarled. Tom kicked him right in the good shoulder and he went down. That would heal too fast, though. He needed to break something, if Mark was going to hurt enough to realize Tom meant business. He stood over Mark and kicked. His belly, again and again, giving him so much to heal that he’d run out of energy, then stomp on his jaw. Crack. Yes. “Fuck you.” Tom wasn’t sure if he was shouting or not. His throat felt like he was screaming. “Fuck you!” Mark, Felicia, Felicia’s Spanish boyfriend, the universe? He wasn’t sure.

Mark whimpered, and the sound finally made it through to Tom. Mark stopped trying to get up and lay there. Surrender. Tom backed up, panting. What was he doing? Sean rushed up, whining, and helped his brother up, dragging at his ruff and then standing firm to lean against. The two of them vanished back into the night as fast as they could go, though from his limping gait, the speed must have been agonizing for Mark.

“Oh my God. Where’s your phone? We need to call—” Tricia crossed to Tom. It took him a moment to realize she was reaching for his arm because it was all gory with blood.

His anger drained away to a level that at least let him think, but left him a bit shaky with reaction. His arm was bloody with no wound underneath. Healing was long finished and he felt no hint of pain. Hiding that was one of the things he could do on autopilot, though. He hunched over his arm, careful not to smear away any of the camouflaging blood. “It’s not actually that deep. By the time anyone gets here, I could have driven to the ER twice.”

Tricia looked wildly around, checking for additional threats. “I can’t believe they just attacked you…”

She thought the attack had been aimed at Tom. Good. His head felt fuzzy, but he could work with that. “Told you my cousin’s dogs weren’t well behaved. They probably thought they were playing.” He dredged up an awkward laugh and Tricia looked like she didn’t quite believe him. Lady grant that she’d been too focused on Sean to notice him laying into Mark. That especially didn’t fit the story. What in the Lady’s name had he been thinking? Disgust with himself started to congeal into nausea. Mark hadn’t deserved that, no matter how much of a purse dog he was being.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get it bandaged up.” Tom cradled the “injured” limb against his chest with his other hand, but Tricia keep hovering close.

“No, I’ll drive you.” Tricia’s face set into stubborn lines, so Tom didn’t try to fight her.

“Let me get my stuff.” He headed for his truck, and pointed to the crunched remains of her phone. “Don’t forget your SIM card.” He grabbed his jacket while she leaned over the phone, picking up all the pieces to avoid littering, he supposed. Good of her.

There wasn’t much town to drive across, so they reached the ER in only a few minutes. Tom hopped out, frowning at the entrance. Well-lit, small…it would make his job harder. “Thanks. See you,” he muttered to Tricia, frowning at the doors ahead.

“Call me—give me your number. I’ll call you tomorrow, make sure everything’s okay.” Tricia gave him an embarrassed smile, lips pressed together. “And I’ll send the pictures.” She rustled around and came up with a pen and gas receipt while Tom was still hesitating. A lot of him wanted to walk away, but he really should have prompted this next move himself. He still needed the watch, even if he managed to figure out what to do about the brothers. He rattled off the number.

Tom took his jacket and walked up to the hospital’s well-lit sliding doors, with the reception desk right there. He bundled the jacket over his arm and rummaged in his pocket with his off hand. People forgave a lot when they thought people were checking important messages. He stepped inside and looked from his phone to the receptionist. “Has Mark Milton come in?” It was honestly the first name that occurred to him, but reminded of Mark, Tom couldn’t help but catalog all of his injuries. If he’d been human, he definitely would have been here. Tom didn’t even hear the receptionist’s reply, he was too busy pushing Mark to the back of his mind and watching Tricia out of the corner of his eye. She got into her car. Thank the Lady.

Tom nodded to the receptionist. “Thanks.” He frowned at his phone and turned aside as if to read a new message. Now the hard part. Second hard part. Tom angled his body away from the receptionist and the waiting room beyond and tried to think boring thoughts at her. He was just some asshole checking his phone. No need to look at his arm as he shook out his coat and pulled it on, right arm first.

She didn’t yell at him. Tom drew one breath, then another. He wanted to be somewhere private before he started drowning in guilt. He checked for Tricia in the parking lot, then strode out. At least he’d survived the night. Tomorrow was another day for dealing with problems he’d caused himself. And for making apologies.

* * *

The day wasn’t done with him, though. Tom made it to his truck, parked it on the shoulder of a rural side road, and collapsed on his back in the bed. He lay there for a while, glaring at the grimy ceiling of the canopy, without getting out his sleeping bag. It wasn’t that he’d enjoyed Mark’s pain, he’d just been so angry he hadn’t cared about it. He didn’t—didn’t understand how he could have felt that way, even though he remembered taking those actions in crisp detail. He’d wanted to—what? Expend the anger until it was gone? That sure hadn’t worked. Or maybe he’d just wanted to burn away the remembered helplessness of getting his ass beat by Felicia’s Spanish boyfriend. He hadn’t been helpless with Mark.

Mark had been.

His phone rang and Tom immediately felt an almost overwhelming impulse to smash the phone against the metal of the truck bed lip above the liner. Hadn’t Felicia set all this in motion, by inviting her Spanish boyfriend to stay in Seattle? But Tom knew better than that. This anger wasn’t him. He wasn’t like that.

It wasn’t Felicia anyway. It was worse. Tom stared at the ROANOKE DARE on the screen and then answered before he lost his nerve. “Alpha?” He flopped one arm across his eyes.

“I’m in a quandary, Tom. On one hand, I have Billings, howling to me about one of his roamers being viciously attacked and beaten half to death, and on the other, I have a pack member I’ve never known to even sprain someone’s wrist. It doesn’t match up.”

Tom fought the urge to curl into low-ranked body language. Roanoke Dare wasn’t here to see it anyway. “He attacked first. I stopped beating him when he surrendered. Then they ran off. That’s all.”

A sigh carried over the phone’s speakers. Tom supposed he should keep explaining, but he didn’t want to hear his mistakes stated out loud, stark and incontrovertible. “Why?” Roanoke Dare prompted, and didn’t sound pleased about the fact he’d had to.

“Why were we fighting?” Tom checked, then winced. Enough stalling. He knew what his alpha meant. Once he started talking, all of it tumbled out, more or less in order: the cemetery, the watch, Mark and Sean’s apparent plans for Tricia. When he was finished, Roanoke Dare was silent once more, this time wielding it like a weapon.

Tom couldn’t stand it any longer and filled it with the essential truth of all of this. “I was angry.”

Thoughtful silence, this time. “That isn’t like you.”

Tom clenched his free hand. “No fucking shit.” He coughed. “Sorry, Alpha.”

Roanoke Dare laughed rather than getting annoyed at the language. “Only you can fix that, though. Not even my daughter can. She told me that you’ve been avoiding all of her apologies.”

“I’m not ready to—deal with that yet. Thinking about it makes me angry. And then I act without thinking to get rid of the anger, that doesn’t work. It only makes things worse.” Tom cleared his throat. He didn’t want this to turn into a bunch of excuses. “That’s the past. I guess the situation here isn’t as bad as it could be. No one shifted in front of the human. There’s room to shove things along the backtrail yet.”

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Don’t think about my daughter for a while.” Roanoke Dare’s voice warmed, giving the vaguely familiar words extra weight. “And your punishment will be to deal with the situation there. Walk it back. Calmly.”

Tom noted his alpha’s choice of words: calm, not peaceful. And he could add one of his own: not so serious. He’d do his best. He mumbled his goodbyes and started thinking—not about the past, or Felicia, but what about he was going to do next. Here.

* * *

The barbeque Tom had bought was cold by the time Sean showed up at the truck’s open tailgate, but that wasn’t the point. The brothers couldn’t get any warmer food of their own, not with even the bars closed this far past midnight. Tom opened one box of the three and nudged it out onto the gate. Though he was in human, Sean’s ears practically perked up, under glossy black hair that blended into the dark sky behind him. The cold food must not have been giving off much scent as the boy approached.

“Mark’s fucking pissed.” Sean paused a few feet short of Tom and shifted his weight skittishly.

“He has a right to be.” Tom looked at the other two takeout containers. “He’s got to be hungry, after all that healing. I just want to apologize to him. Do you think you can talk him into coming out?” He scanned the horizon, downwind, but didn’t see anything move. Mark wouldn’t be letting Sean wander around all alone, though.

Sean considered that for a bit and slid his hands into his pockets. “That was all his idea, you know. I didn’t want to kill her. She seemed nice enough.”

“I don’t think we have to. I just need your help. And Mark’s.” Tom grimaced. “Kind of a challenge. Do you think he’d go for it?” Tom explained his plan, and when Sean laughed, he knew he’d crafted it right. Now it all depended on whether he could apologize well enough that Mark accepted it. He was willing to sacrifice any appearance of rank, and his pride, but he didn’t know if those would weigh against physical pain for Mark.

Tom extended the open box to Sean, who dug with his fingertips. “Mm,” he said, raising his voice pointedly. “Maybe I’ll just keep Mark’s share for myself, so he can keep sulking.”

“Shut up.” Mark spoke softly, and walked up delicately. He showed nervousness, of all things, in the way he kept rubbing knuckles along the side of his jaw. Tom couldn’t catch his scent to confirm his mood.

Tom held out the two boxes atop each other. Mark should start eating while he talked, but it appeared Mark didn’t want to come any closer yet. “I’m sorry,” Tom offered. “You shouldn’t have tried to deal with the human that way—but I’m sure your alpha already told you that—but I shouldn’t have beat you like that.” He paused. Nothing from Mark. Now for the pride swallowing part. “Ever since I got my ass handed to me by Felicia’s Spanish boyfriend, I’ve been wanting to do that to him.” The admission sounded even more pathetic out loud. First he was too weak to defend himself, and then he took it out on others. But it was true.

Sean looked up from stuffing his face. “Were you really with Felicia? The Roanoke’s daughter?” The words were indistinct until he swallowed properly.

All right. Time to practice not getting angry. Tom tried to answer without thinking about all the complexities involved. Sean didn’t even care about those. “Sort of. Briefly.”

Sean rocked forward on his toes. “She’s only a year older than me, isn’t she? What’s she like?”

Tom was silent a moment, finding that he didn’t want to call her any of the names he had called her before in his head, not out loud to people who didn’t know her. “Intense.” That was true enough.

“And she’s single now?” Sean grinned, like he was considering hopping a bus for Seattle the next morning.

“By the Lady’s name, don’t you dare—”

“Oh, Lady, no, don’t—” Tom’s warning overlapped Mark’s threat. For a moment, their eyes met, sharing a certain protective exasperation. Then they broke the gaze to avoid measuring dominance. A feeling of empathy lingered, though, at least on Tom’s side. He still couldn’t tell what Mark was feeling. Mark had been trying to be mature and protective by dealing with the human as well, Tom supposed. The very same things Tom had felt when he saw the gravestone photograph in the coffeeshop.

“Anyway. Felicia’s not evil.” Tom didn’t realize he meant it until he said it. “She’s just got so much shit of her own to deal with, it’s almost guaranteed to splash out and burn you, Sean.”

Sean shrugged philosophically. “I was kidding.” Or so he claimed now, anyway.

Tom jumped off the tailgate to set Mark’s food on neutral ground, but Mark finally met him to take it from his hands. “So what is it we’re doing about the human?”

* * *

When Tricia called, Tom asked her to meet him in the same parking lot where he’d been “attacked.” The breeze was right—partially because Tom had scouted where the buildings funneled it—and the three of them smelled Tricia approaching before she walked up. The day hadn’t warmed completely yet, and the breeze’s chill made it feel even more capricious when it danced over the skin.

Tom and Mark straightened from leaning against the side of the truck and Sean picked up the end of his leash in his mouth and offered it to his brother. “Okay, down.” Tom sidestepped to give their tableau a little more room to play out on the asphalt behind the truck. He gave an exaggerated hand gesture, that Sean just stared at. “Mark, you say it, then pull him down.”

Mark glanced at Tricia, but pulled his attention back pretty quickly. “Down,” he said, without any conviction, and tugged on the leash slightly.

“You have to mean it, or he’ll run wild again.” Tom judged Tricia had gotten close enough, so he glanced over and gave her an apologetic grimace. “You’ll get arrested and Bear put down or something,” he concluded, ostensibly still speaking to Mark.

Tricia grimaced back. She halted well clear of all of them, but stood her ground when Tom ambled over without Sean making any threatening moves. “How’s your arm?” she asked.

Tom showed her the bandage, which he’d wrapped this morning himself. He thought it looked fairly professional, if he did say so himself. “No stitches. Some antibiotics to take, in case he’d been eating roadkill.”

Mark tossed Tom a dirty look for the implication about his hygiene, like he didn’t eat roadkill all the time in wolf, same as any other roamer. Sean, on the other hand, waved his tail a few times for Tricia. Tom knew wagging didn’t feel particularly natural without practice, so he nodded in appreciation of the effort.

“Well, good.” Tricia glanced at Sean once more, then rubbed her hands together awkwardly. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t scratch his ears.”

Tom allowed himself a trickle of relief. That was one layer of their problems peeled away, at least. Now they were just left with the gravestones and watch. And he had at least one plan to try for that last layer. A calm plan.

He pulled the sheets he’d composed and printed at the library from his back pocket and unrolled them. “I took photos at the cemetery this morning and got my parents to ask around. I guess my great uncle recognized the writing. It’s some lines of poetry.” Not the greatest poetry, composed by Tom on short notice, but that could be blamed on the translation. He’d made it bland, all about finding peace among rolling hills and flowing streams.

Tricia accepted the sheets, and scanned the top two, glancing from the printed photo to the text beside it. She smiled, slowly. “Thank you.”

“And…” Tom looked at the ground. He was worried she wouldn’t react well to this suggestion. But the translations might not be enough. He had to be sure. “My cousins live out here, and I’m going to be around for a while longer. You talked about cemeteries getting overgrown, and clearing them—I just thought, if you ever need grunts for the heavy labor, we’re your guys. It’s the least we can do.” Mark nodded, not looking at her either. Tom could smell his embarrassment at having even considered killing her.

Tricia looked surprised, then a wide smile suddenly bloomed. “Leave the dogs at home, but—yeah. Okay. I know just the place, actually. It’ll take me a week or two to make sure I have the permission I need, but—” She laughed. “That’s not an offer I get often. I’m not going to turn it down.”

Tom allowed his shoulders to slump in relief. Perfect. With that continued contact, he could keep feeding her safe information, stay on top of the situation. He tipped his head to release Mark, who strode off with plenty of slack in his brother’s leash until they were out of sight. Tom only gave half his attention to the task of talking over possible schedules, double-checking contact numbers, and other business-like small talk with Tricia.

“Oh, and here.” Suddenly Tricia had the watch out on her hand again and all of Tom’s attention. “I thought about it, and you’re right, it does belong in your family. I just liked it so much it was hard to let it go. But I took a bunch of pictures for myself. I paid ninety-something with tax, so call it a hundred, and we’re good.”

Tom wanted to laugh with joy, to swing her around playfully, but that probably wasn’t quite appropriate in this situation. Instead he dug out the cash, accepted the watch, and slipped it into his pocket immediately. He wanted it out of human hands, but that didn’t mean he particularly wanted to see the painting inside again.

Then he kissed Tricia’s cheek, which turned adorably pink. “Rebound,” she said, repressively, but with humor glinting beneath.

“No, gratitude.” Tom grinned, then headed off after Mark, lifting a hand in farewell.

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