I considered myself an expert at handling irate people. Working in the security industry meant calming vengeful clients or deescalating emotional rivals on a regular basis. On the good days. But it had been years since I’d sat opposite paternal wrath so intense it inspired the shivers.
I could not betray any hint of discomfort in front of Serena’s parents.
Guillermo scowled with open hostility. Owen’s stiff upper lip tried to conceal his emotion, but the adrenaline poured from him like he was readying for a fight.
Serena sat between her dads and me, a quirky half smile offsetting the unusual rigidity in her spine.
“So, you are here for money?” Guillermo asked.
“No,” I said. I kept my shoulders down, relaxed my fingers into gentle curves on the armrest, raised the pitch of my voice to sound pleasing.
I kept my eyes away from both of them, though. They stiffened. I sighed.
We’d been at it for over an hour. For all my soft posturing, Serena’s parents still recognized I was a predator posing behind their formal tea set.
“But you are asking for joint access to the investment accounts we’ve been keeping for Serena since she was six?” Owen asked.
Guillermo leapt from his seat for the third time, pumping a clenched fist. He paced.
“My God, you of all people! The nerve.” He slammed his fist on the mantle as he passed, rattling the family photos.
Serena’s calm cracked into childish whining. “Dad, come on. Can’t you listen?”
“I am listening! That’s the problem!” He turned his flustered antics toward her. Owen gave his daughter a pointed stare.
I breathed deep, relishing the momentary break from the awkward dance of avoiding their eyes. Had they been like me, they would have seen my downcast gaze as deferential rather than shady.
Guillermo and Serena started arguing in Spanish, one of the languages I had no mastery of beyond my favorite items on a menu. Owen glanced at his husband before meeting my eyes.
I dropped my gaze to stare at the apples of his cheeks, but I still caught the wariness in his eyes.
He nodded at me and slipped out of the room. Neither Guillermo nor Serena seemed to notice. I at least excused myself to the bathroom before leaving them.
Owen led me to the kitchen, where my sensitive ears could still hear the passionate debate in the other room, and started making tea.
“When they’re heated, it’s impossible to get a word in.”
I smiled at the man’s back. The hormones leaking from his skin overpowered the gentle scent of the tea leaves with unctuous violence.
“Why won’t you meet our eyes?” he said.
Finally. A real question. “No one understands how I made Serena part of my sleuth. There were similarities to what happened with Erikhó:wa, though, and one of them is eye contact.”
Owen paused. “Eye contact? That’s all it takes?” He turned to face me, clutching his teacup. “How is there not a swathe of unwitting passersby, service people, contractors, and even news anchors and senators trailing behind you like complacent thralls then?”
The hair stood on the back of my neck, but I couldn’t rise to the provocation. “I do not force Serena to remain by my side. I do not compel her affection or her labor. She chose to stay without any magical influence.”
Owen took a sip of tea, which steamed his glasses. It should have been funny, but when he pulled the frames down to wipe them, he wasn’t the reserved scholar I’d met. Selfless commitment steeled his soft jaw. Defensive love stared me down, no matter my second skin.
Such dynamic emotion in his gaze penetrated through my best efforts, and I couldn’t look away.
The Alpha inside me, the infantile force bequeathed by Earth magic, recognized the challenge in Owen’s eyes.
Once, I would have held back a sneer at the thought of a human standing up to me. Time and love had softened my bias, but the Alpha compelled a protective overreaction rooted in the same ugly sense of entitlement and superiority.
He was her father. It was natural.
But I am her Alpha.
“Look away,” I commanded.
My magic moved Owen’s head. His cool expression cracked for a moment as his eyes darted away from mine.
He hurled his words at the ground instead of at my face.
“The last shifter who came on behalf of an Alpha lied to us and kidnapped our daughter. This is the first time you’ve even met us, and you tell us—without even asking, mind you—with your almighty Alpha status that Serena is dropping her studies to move in and work for you. You tell us you have her best interests in mind, but you said the same about Eri before you left the raven flock leaderless and in chaos.
“Did you even think before you created this crisis? There are hundreds of businesses that rely on raven supply and demand, and now those people won’t be able to make money for weeks? Months? How long do you think the government will suspend trade with the flock to keep their investigation transparent?”
I stared at his down-turned face in silence.
“The only ones who are making a profit out of all this mess are you and those paid-off bastards chairing the SDA oversight committee, right? They get weeks of free press in the middle of a campaign cycle, and you… fresh territory just handed over by the state of Maryland. New border negotiations for the first time in over a century. Viral news interviews.
“And somehow, in all this crisis management, Kachina hasn’t been sidelined. He executed one of the hierarchy, but I don’t see him facing interrogations. You raided raven lands and ousted their Alpha, and all they did was freeze your expense accounts. They didn’t even reevaluate your security clearances.”
His analysis of the fallout from my ascension to Alpha struck at all my flaws. It had never occurred to me that my actions could have affected the over six-and-a-half million people living in the Washington metropolitan area. I didn’t really feel bad about all those abstract individuals who did not know what I had been doing or why when I had first trespassed into raven lands, but I had not once considered how I’d impact Smirkums’ or Serena’s parents.
They should have mattered, and I’d not given them even the briefest thought when I acted.
The American government’s Shifter Defense Agency had been less than friendly with me, but I couldn’t deny that compared to what the new raven Alpha contended with daily, my treatment looked special. Kind, even.
“What? No snarky comeback?”
Instinct snapped me to attention. The Alpha warned from my lips, “I’ll listen to fair criticism, but don’t provoke me.”
Owen shook his head and gave a frustrated grunt.
The tension grew in the stillness between us. I wanted to talk. The Alpha, though, a force I was still learning to manage, sealed my mouth, waiting to see if the human would heed me before making any allowances.
“You said you need access to our finances to help monitor security threats. What threat could there be to our daughter?”
“Well, it’s not… It’s about risk prevention. There are many people who—”
“Sycophantic fanboys who want to play shifter?” He sneered. “You’re trending. You’re not famous. No one’s hacking your phone.”
I ground my teeth together. “I’ve worked security for fifteen years. Plenty of people hated me before I became Alpha and have the resources to do something about it if it would benefit them. I can’t be too careful about cybersecurity.”
“What genius persuasion. You were so good at your former job that you made many enemies who conveniently are looking for your sleuth mates’ routing numbers. Try again.”
“Our security systems are the same ones implemented by the government. All our security staff have federal security clearances and are overseen by American regulatory bodies. I wouldn’t even be the one accessing the accounts.”
“Don’t write this off on your golden boy’s tax-funded private army. If this were about American security interests, you wouldn’t be the one asking. Why do you want our money?”
“I really don’t. I’m being honest.”
“Okay. Okay. I’m listening. Why do you really need access?”
If talking about cybersecurity or her future was just going to trigger him again, I tried my last resort.
“It is primarily about security for me, but for her, it probably has to do with the fact that she feels like an outsider in the sleuth.”
Owen’s eyes narrowed. “I knew it.”
I deadpanned. “She’s human, and Earth magic accepted her. I don’t know what you think ‘you knew,’ but please hear me out.” I paused, but Owen kept his mouth shut in a thin line, watching me. “The sleuth is small. All kin when they are this small pool their resources. Right now, the only reason I’m not putting my money into sleuth control is because the SDA has frozen all the assets in my name until the investigation finishes. But besides me, Serena is the only one who isn’t contributing.”
Owen gave me a scathing look. “Contributing? She doesn’t even have an income.”
I held up my hands. “It’s not just about income. It’s about tradition and fiscal responsibility-“
He let out a derisive snort. “Fiscal responsibility? That’s rich coming from you.” He shook his head and sipped his tea.
A loud thump came from the other room. Guillermo’s muted voice came through the walls, and I didn’t need to understand his words to recognize the fiery dismissal. Serena’s light tread hurried toward us.
Cheeks pink and eyes puffy, she interrupted the stalemate between Owen and me. She shot her dad a sour look before looping her arm through mine.
“Time to go,” she said.
I paused. “You sure?”
“Very.” She pulled me toward the door.
Guillermo stood at the end of the hall watching with distrusting eyes. Serena turned her back.
As soon as we’d descended the short stairs back to the sidewalk, she expelled a vast sigh, and the emotion flooded to her eyes again.
“I am so sorry, Lucky. I thought that would go better.”
“Your dads are just being protective.”
“And hypocritical! As if they haven’t been eating up every news story and podcast about us. They’re obsessed.”
“But not because they’re ‘fans,'” I said.
She pulled my arm over her shoulder and snuggled against my side.
“Their loss. But it will get better.”
I smiled. Her sunshine always broke through my gloom.
“Yeah. We’ll keep trying.”
Serena hummed, but stayed pressed against my side. I laid my head on top of hers.
“Procrastinating getting back in the car?” I asked.
“You know it.”
I chuckled and waited a few more moments with her. Neither of us was looking forward to the drive back home.
Few things unified everyone, young and old, shifter and human, like traffic. Everyone stuck in one spot and everyone stuck on the unpleasant spectrum between irritation and road rage.
For me, the extra time let me brood.
“Everything Owen said was a legitimate criticism. Some of it didn’t matter to me, but he made excellent points. How can I be Alpha to you if I’m asking you to put your career on hold?”
Serena sighed. “He’s great at getting others to agree with him because he’s a master at using guilt to override your priorities.”
Ouch. “Yeah. Pretty much.”
“And he may not be wrong, but he’s not totally right, either.”
“I know. Ugh.”
Serena reached for me through our sleuth bond, lending comfort when I didn’t want to hear more reassurances. The intangible connection rooted deep in the pit of my belly, behind my belly button, anchored me with love and need.
She wanted to stay with me. With Smirkums. With Jason. She wanted to make us her family like I wanted to keep her as one of mine.
The bond between us pulsed like a second heartbeat, strong, healthy, steady, before receding behind the hum of Earth song as she let me go.
I shook my head, regretting I needed to lean on her like that after a single conversation with her dads.
“I’m sorry. I’m annoyed. I shouldn’t let it get to me, but I am.”
She smiled. “You’re hungry, aren’t you?”
“Starving,” I admitted.
I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and the sun had dropped under the horizon hours before. I’d had no mana since then, either. My mana stores weren’t depleted, but a day answering the same questions with yet another SDA agent, followed up by an emotional parental grilling, had me craving copious amounts of carbs and mana.
Serena carved her way across the grid locked lanes and took an exit toward a suburban neighborhood on the edges of the raven-American border in northern Virginia. We found a spacious corner between two homes large enough to fit a garrison each and parked.
I fetched my worn rune leathers—three-by-three feet each, singed with purification, enhancement, and sealing symbols—from the trunk. Serena walked into the grass and sat down. I joined her, setting the purification rune under me.
The frail voices of the grasses, the hedges, and the trees nearby whimpered over industrialization’s toxin.
Human modernization brought marvelous growth, but the consequences were greater than the damaged atmosphere and toxic water. Pollution weakened the Earth’s mana.
The American capital was full of the sounds of the dead and dying. Instead of a chorus of flowers, the dirge of struggling grass. Instead of the melodies of trees, the electrical hum of cellular towers and their wires. The pulse of human pollution had broken the natural splendor of the swamp DC was built on long before I was born, but even I could mourn what had once been. Every shifter did.
The struggle to survive keening through DC’s Earth song made me sad, but it was the whispers beneath those pleading voices that scared me.
Nuclear war had crippled Earth magic in 1945, unleashing Rot in its mana, an infectious magic that consumed shifters. The corruption was strongest in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where the bombs had been deployed, and in DC, where the violent intention had bloomed into destructive action. I’d heard its uncontrolled whispers of death and gore since I was a child, but they’d risen to screams from the moment I’d set foot in DC. The only thing that dispelled its insidious sound was my sleuth bonds.
I purified the pitiful mana the overdeveloped grounds offered me. I spread my arms out, letting go of mind and body, focusing my heightened senses on the tendrils of nature escaping human control. The few weeds lurking in tight corners in landscaped yards. The hint of sweet decay as the first leaves turned.
There were no words, no gestures, no behaviors that allowed shifters to eat mana. Standing on top of the runes, as long as they were stamped on a natural surface and lying on or made in the ground, deepened the innate connection all shifters had with Earth magic.
I had always heard Earth magic. It was one of the perks that made me special. All shifters could sense it abstractly, but I had always been different.
The rumbling tectonic plates struck the rhythm, and they’re shifting layers of packed soil, the form and texture. Air, water, and fire developed the sound, from pitch to timbre to amplitude. Plants, whose roots dug down in the Earth’s magic, trilled melodies and strung together harmonies. And I was the only one who could hear its music.
Pollution sounded slimy and sleazy, coating each of the Earth’s notes in a sluggish pallor devoid of vibrancy. Earth song was so much weaker in the DC metropolitan suburbia compared to the farmland only sixty miles away.
Rot was evil magic beyond pollution’s smear. Its whispers menaced in the background, separate, sickly, and sadistic. It cut through the beauty of Earth song with promises of violence, disruption, and chaos where balance, structure, and purity should have been.
Through the purification rune, I could make sure that Earth song I heard chorused untouched and unfettered by Rot’s heinous whispers.
As I cleansed the Earth song filling my ears, I started humming. Earth magic joined my voice, an ancient song that uplifted my weary bones and nourished the ground beneath my feet. Purification was always the first step.
Still a little off.
I kept humming until the mana pulsed without Rot’s contamination, then swapped the purification rune out for enhancement. My connection with Earth magic surged with the new rune. Holding Serena’s free hand to keep Rot at bay, I opened my spirit up to the mana I’d amassed under my feet. It reached through the ground, up my boots, around my legs, up my torso, down my arms, and over my head, cloaking me in its melody. The mana filled me up and nourished my spirit.
With my sleuth mate on my arm and mana flowing up and into my body, I let Earth song carry my mind away. It took seconds to top off my stores, but I held on longer, relishing every moment wrapped in the Earth’s sweetest music, cherishing the time when no one needed me, had a question, wanted something…
The Alpha magic reminded me I couldn’t afford to shy away from my responsibilities, but it was my stomach growling that made me sigh, squeeze Serena’s hand, and get up to go back to the car.
At least I was full as we faced the rest of the hour of traffic ahead.
Well, half full.