I race across the street to the pack house and burst through the front door, ignoring the omega’s admonishment to slow down. Not my usual style, as I enjoy talking to the pack members who work to keep things running. But today, the buzzing in my mind deafens me to the scolding. The mail arrived, bringing me news I’ve waited weeks for. And there’s only one person I want to share it with. My best friend, Ethan.
Sprinting up the stairs, I dodge a few more pack members, intent on reaching Ethan’s room. Most of our pack thinks our friendship is strange, seeing how there’s four years between us. Ethan turned sixteen a week ago, and I’m twelve years old today. I haven’t even met my wolf yet, while Ethan’s wolf, Ronin, has been training with the pack warriors for years now.
Our friendship works for us, though. Everyone else turns tail when Ronin appears, but not me. He would never hurt me. He’s huge and looks ferocious, but he always lets me snuggle against him when I’m upset. Just as Ethan comforts me when I need him. Especially when my parents and sister are too busy for me. So, he gets my news first.
I’m happy to say that, despite our age difference, our friendship hasn’t been all one-sided. Heck, it started seven years ago because I helped Ethan out of a jam. He says I saved his life. Maybe I did, but even now, I don’t understand what happened. I had been in the announcer’s booth at the school football field with my older cousin, who was babysitting me. My cousin works in electronics and was supposed to fix something in there. It was cool since he taught me what all the buttons did. He left me inside, practicing a song for the kindergarten play, while he grabbed something from his truck. Half-way through my song, I saw three grown men attack Ethan. What sort of evil jerks would beat a nine-year-old? Especially when there’s so many of them against one of him. I screamed. Shaking, dizzy. Little prickles sparked in my hands and face, prodding me to action. Then I remembered my cousin telling me not to push the big red button, because that’s the one that triggered a siren every time our team scored. Of course, that’s the one I recognized and let the siren rip. The three men ran away. Seconds later, my cousin reappeared, shouting at me. I ignored him and ran from the booth.
Ethan lay on the ground when I reached the field. The coppery scent of blood made my stomach roil. I couldn’t stop the tremors from wracking me as I fell to my knees beside him. Tears burned my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. My cousin tried sending me back to his truck, but something inside me needed to stay right there. To ensure the boy moaning on the grass survived.
Broken bones were easy to spot, even for a little kid. My cousin and I helped him to the nurse’s office, and I held his hand when paramedics and doctors treated him. Later, he held my hand when I puked while telling the police about what I saw. After that, Ethan always said hi when he saw me, or invited me to watch movies with him. When my parents worked out of town and Tabitha left on her dates or went shopping with friends, he’d visit because I hated being alone. Our pizza parties were epic. I think we tried every combination of toppings ever.
Honestly, I expected him to drop me like a bad habit when he reached his teens. My sister didn’t want to play with me once she got older, so I figured that was just the way kids were. Even preemptively stopped seeking him out so it would hurt less. He showed up at my house a week later, wanting to know what he did wrong.
Yes, we spend less time together now, what with him being in high school, plus sports, training, and teenage girls—eye roll over that one. I mean, I’ll admit that now that I’m closing in on my teen years, I can see the attraction. Ethan is super-hot. But I don’t get the giggling they always do when he’s around. For some reason, he eats it up. Every time I see him in town, he’s got a different girl hanging off his arm. He always finds time for me, though… I make sure I knock now, rather than burst into his room unannounced. That started after an unfortunate incident we swore to never, ever mention again.
I knock now, getting a gruff “come in”. When I open the door, my gaze immediately lands on Ethan standing beside his bed.
“Are you packing?”
Ethan tries to smile at my incredulous question, but it comes out as a grimace.
“Congratulations on your excellent eyesight, Cass.”
“Don’t be snarky,” I admonish, walking into the room. “Where are you going? For how long? When are you leaving? Who’s going with you? Will…?”
Ethan’s laughter cuts off my litany of questions.
“Better stop there. Curiosity killed the Cass.”
I roll my eyes at the line that’s become our inside joke over the years and perch on the edge of his bed.
“That’s cat, not Cass,” I give my standard response. “I’m a wolf, so I think I’m safe.”
“You’re a sweet, playful little kitten.”
“Seriously, Ethan?” I huff. “A wolf pack would eat a kitten alive.”
Instead of laughing and promising to protect me as he usually does, a troubled look enters Ethan’s hazel eyes. He reaches out and tips my chin up. My breath hitches at his seriousness. This isn’t normal. Confusion and fear fight for dominance within me, making my stomach knot.
“You might be a kitten, Cass, but you have claws. Don’t be afraid to use them and don’t let anyone take them from you.”
Dread blooms as fear wins the war within me. Those knots turn to nausea.
“Ethan? Why does it sound like you’re trying to say goodbye?”
“Because he is.”
I leap from the bed and spin around. Ethan’s older brother, the pack’s golden boy, and my brother-in-law, Gavin, leans against the doorframe, arms and legs crossed, with a cruel smirk on his face.
“What? But where…?” I stutter, though whether that’s from Gavin’s words or from my usual reaction to the alpha-heir’s presence, I can’t say.
Ethan speaks before his brother can. “Why don’t you let me tell her?”
Gavin straightens and shrugs. He addresses Ethan, but his eyes never leave mine, and I can’t look away, or even breathe. Something nasty lives inside those dark brown orbs, I’d swear it. Whenever his gaze falls on me, I feel like if I move wrong, that look will leave me bleeding on the floor.
“Suit yourself. The car is leaving in five minutes.”
When Gavin turns and walks away, my lungs go back to work, taking in a huge gulp of air. Pack members always comment that Ethan is the more intimidating brother, but I don’t see it. Ethan can command anyone with just a look, and his wolf is huge, but there isn’t any meanness to him, like I see in Gavin. I worried about my older sister, Tabitha, when Alpha Brian announced she was Gavin’s fated mate, but Tabby seems happy.
Ethan’s call brings me back. I hadn’t even realized I was still staring at the empty doorway.
“Ethan? Where are you going?” My voice sounds timid—frightened. Nothing more than a whisper.
His smile is all understanding and sorrow. “You remember when the Council came through last week?”
“I was on that field trip, but our class was told they would be coming. To choose a wolf to fulfill our duty to the country, right?” He nods, and realization hits me. “Wait, you? They chose you to enlist in the military? But you’re too young.”
“Any shifter between sixteen and nineteen, Cass,” Ethan reminds me. “And I turned sixteen the day before they arrived.”
“But you’re the alpha’s son. They wouldn’t…”
My lungs compress like they’re caught in a vise, even worse than when Gavin was there. Nothing’s getting in or coming out, and I’m left dizzy, furiously blinking away the spots dancing in my vision. If this is my last time seeing Ethan, I want nothing blurring his image.
“Gavin is Dad’s heir, Cass. They chose me, so, for the honor of the pack, I’m going. Dad already severed my ties with Crescent Moon.”
“How does it honor our pack when you’re no longer allowed to even be a member of it?” I find the air to voice my bitterness.
The battle to clear my vision ends in failure. I watch through eyes blurred with tears as Ethan finishes packing and zips up his bag. He lifts it, slinging it over his shoulder, then comes over to me with a sad smile, pulling me in for a tight hug. One I’m too upset to return.
“You’ll always be my best friend, Cass, no matter how far apart we are. Before I leave, what were you excited about?”
He steps back and snatches the letter from my hand. I’d totally forgotten about it. Ethan’s announcement overtook everything. I can’t even focus on my news as my thoughts swirl through everything I know about where Ethan’s going. It’s too little for comfort. We’re told being chosen to enlist in the military is supposed to be an honor. But I can see the sacrifices. Cutting all ties with his pack, essentially becoming a legal rogue, no contact with friends or family, brutal training, and twenty years of mandatory service. And if he survives the constant danger, he still won’t be able to return.
Ethan’s next words bring me out of the morose chaos of my mind.
“You got accepted to that theater camp? Cass! That’s awesome. I knew you would. See, you’ll be far too busy becoming a famous star to miss me.”
I manage a small smile and a watery chuckle. “Never too busy to miss you, Ethan.”
He hugs me again, and this time, I return the gesture. I want to stay right there forever. We break apart at the sound of footsteps in the hall. The omega approaching is there to summon him.
Ethan sighs and gives me another small smile. “Take care of yourself, Cass. I look forward to seeing you on the big screen someday.”
“You take care too, Ethan.” My voice cracks, little more than a hoarse whisper. “And make a good life for yourself.”
I watch Ethan reach the door before the omega can knock. He nods, walking from the room. Out of the pack house. Out of my life. My heart hurts. The pain is real, like I’ve always imagined getting cut with silver would be. Sharp and burning. I fall to my knees, gasping for air. Tears fall but I can’t stop as I choke on a sob.
Warmth wells deep within me, cocooning my battered heart, clearing the suffocating sorrow, and easing the worst of the agony. As I fight to slow my breathing, I struggle to my feet.
That’s it, sister-kin. All will be well. Just breathe. The pain of your loss will ease in time.
“Who are you?” I whisper to the empty room as I sink onto Ethan’s bed, not yet ready to leave the last remnants of my best friend.
Rowena, your wolf. I can’t fully merge with you until the moon rises, but I can help you at least this much. Your friendship with that boy means a lot to you, but in your sorrow, don’t forget there are other friends who are still with you. Your family is here too. And one day, a mate to love us.
“One day,” I whisper like a prayer as my hand clutches Ethan’s blanket.