Ralph glanced nervously up and down the Savannah Central street. His company was running late. The grey wolf was seated underneath a green awning with his back to the cafe they agreed to meet at. At first, a location closer to the Wolford compound was offered, but the officer pushed for the cafe "Salon de Thé" instead. It's strategic location, three blocks away from Precinct One and eleven away from Nadine's apartment, assured the officer that he had a way out. It also kept where the couple was staying hidden. He grasped the cup of coffee he ordered, and gingerly sipped the hot beverage. Black with three packs of sugar. It didn't taste the same as when his mother made it, but it would suffice.
It had been three weeks since Nadine's attempted marriage, and the couple were still figuring their relationship. While they didn't discuss it openly, the lupine moved in to the feline's apartment less than a week after that fateful confrontation. He was spending all his time between there and work, so it made perfect sense. The closeness revealed another challenge, how to co-exist.
Nadine ate healthy and exercised regularly, something as her former partner Ralph was well aware of. What he wasn't aware of was how much this bled into the rest of her life. Skinless chicken, bland salmon, and fresh vegetables cooked at home were regular staples of the feline's diet. The wolf could honestly say that he ate more homemade meals in the past three weeks than the last six months. She also woke up early and stretched before work. The lupine could barely wake with his alarm. These differences were discussed between the couple, and compromises were made. They would eat at the apartment six nights a week, and go out or order for one night. Nadine would stop asking Ralph to work out with her in the morning, and in return he would try to get up with his alarm. The wind blew, and the officer caught a familiar scent. He turned with perked ears in the direction of the smell.
A young black wolf, wearing a pair of dark jeans and blue polo, was walking towards the officer. He wore a blank expression, amber eyes appearing bored, as he approached the grey wolf. The newcomer pulled out the chair across from Ralph, and sat down. He folded his paws, and silently stared at the officer.
Ralph smiled nervously, "You, uh, called this Gare..." He leaned back into his chair, picking up his drink and watching his former brother, "You go first."
Gareth frowned. "I apologize…" he started, voice just barely above a whisper, "I'm not used to these...situations…"
The officer chuckled, "Yeah I get that...so why set this up?" He paused, then motioned with his cup to the other wolf, "I hope you're not about to waste our times trying to convince me to come back."
The black wolf shook his head slowly, "No...I have no illusions of your return. Only Juliet talks that way...but I think that's more out of wish than reality."
Ralph's brow quirked, "She wants me back?"
Gareth breathed out, the corners of his mouth twitching for a moment, "We all do Ralph...well the siblings do." The black wolf glanced away briefly, "Father...doesn't talk much…"
The grey wolf remained silent, choosing to sip his drink rather than delve into what his former father's thoughts on the matter. He eyed the black wolf cautiously, still not sure why Gareth reached out to him. If it wasn't to convince Ralph to come back, and it definitely wasn't for small talk, what was the reason? Finally, he sighed and placed it cup down.
"You still haven't said what the point of this little get-together," pressed Ralph, staring nonchalantly back at the other male, "What's stopping me from getting up and walking away?" Gareth shifted uncomfortably. The officer's gaze narrowed on his former brother, "What is it?"
Gareth glanced at the grey wolf then away, "...Mom wanted to talk to you…"
Before Ralph could question his brother further, another familiar scent drifted in the air. It was the smell of gentle kisses and warm hugs. Of encouraging words and soft smiles. Of first words, first steps, first everything. Of home cooked meals, coffee served perfectly, and never ending love. It was the smell the wolf would always connect with home. The officer jumped out of his seat, staring wide eyed at a hesitantly approaching wolf.
Black fur stood out against the modest peach colored dress she wore, one that she had worn a thousand times before. Her paws nervously clasped onto an old faux alligator pawbag that the siblings all chipped in for a birthday. Green eyes, partially hidden by a white sun hat, stared intently at the grey wolf. She stepped forward, as if to rush to the officer, but stopped.
"...Mom…?" whispered Ralph, heart racing and eyes growing misty as he gazed at the mammal who gave birth to him.
Luna Wolford smiled softly, "Hello Raphael. It's been awhile…"
"Yeah," croaked the officer. He cleared his throat, and wiped his eyes with the back of his paw. "What, uh…" He cleared his throat again, "What are you doing here?"
The older female gave the officer an expectant look, "You rush off in the middle of the night without saying goodbye, and expect me not to look for you?" She laughed and wiped an eye, "You can figure it out!"
Ralph stood in shock, mind blank as he continued to stare at the older female. His mom was here. She set this up. Not Gareth. The grey wolf's phone vibrated in his pocket, and he swallowed dryly, unwilling to look at the received text. He might have accidentally killed his mom. The officer collapsed back into his chair, a paw supporting his head as he stared at his drink.
"Ralph?" questioned Gareth.
The grey wolf looked up at his counterpart across from him, and smirked. "I had a feeling something was gonna happen," began Ralph, straightening up in his chair as his mother approached, "so I someone to back me up." The lupine laughed with the shake of his head, "But apparently everyone's running late!"
"I...I can leave," suggested Luna reluctantly, shuffling a step back.
"No!" exclaimed Ralph with paws raised, almost jumping out of chair once more, "Just give it a bit of time." He sighed as he leaned back into his chair, "Why don't you guys get something to eat or drink, then we can talk. Sound good?"
The officer saw the black wolves share a quick glance, before the older female smiled softly. "That would be nice," Luna replied with a nod.
Ralph smiled, and waved a paw to the door, "Alright then! Go on while I enjoy my drink." He watched Gareth move quietly, and escort Luna into the cafe. Once the officer was sure the pair were away from the entrance, he frantically fished his phone out of his pocket. A flashing green light in the corner of the phone told the grey wolf what he already knew. He turned the screen on.
"Be there in 10"
Nadine stared at her cell phone like it was about to explode. She tapped a claw restlessly on the table, torn between picking it up or letting it all go. The last three weeks had been challenging for the female. While she wouldn't say it out loud, the tiger missed her family. Ralph was great, and she didn't regret choosing the wolf over her parents, but there were still parts of their relationship they were working out.
Ralph could shed pretty badly, something that the feline's grooming routine eliminated for her personally. There was also his resistance to her cooking, which she would admit was quite bland compared to traditional tiger food. Eventually they worked out a compromise on food, with Nadine feeling like she got the better part of the deal. They still needed to talk about the wolf cleaning the drain every now and then, but that was minor.
One thing the officer only recently became aware of was a budding anxiety of knowing where Ralph was at all times. Nadine recognized it as unhealthy, and a problem she never had before. After his departure from the hotel room, compounded by her removing herself from the Fangmeyer's, the tiger would grow restless if she hadn't heard from him in awhile. It was easier to ignore the nagging sensation at work as the feline knew that the wolf was with Weaselton, but even independent trips to the grocery store could well up a ball of worry in the pit of Nadine's stomach. This was something she was determined to get over, but it was proving much more difficult than first assumed. Even now, knowing that Ralph was at a cafe did little to lower her anxiety. She just didn't want to lose him again.
This lead Nadine to her current predicament of continuing to stare at her cell phone as if it grew teeth. At the moment, there were two mammals she wanted to call more than anyone else, but tiger wasn't sure they'd pick up. The uncertainty gnawed at the officer as she She reached a hesitant paw to the device, before pulling it away quickly.
"Come on Nadine!" grumbled the feline, slamming a fist on the table and shaking the phone, "If Ralph can see his family, then you can make a call!"
She swiped up the device off the table and brought it closer. With practiced ease, the officer typed in a familiar number onto the digital screen. She tapped the green call button, and brought the phone up to the side of her head. The tiger drummed her digits restlessly against the table. It rang once.
Three times, before finally someone answered.
"Thank you for calling Taffin, this is Zaina speaking, how can I help you?"
Nadine hung up. Even though the officer expected her aunt or uncle to answer, that didn't mean she was completely prepared for it. The feline sighed heavily, pulling the phone away and looking down at it. This shouldn't be that difficult. She called her aunt and uncle countless times before, yet the dark cloud of leaving her family hung overhead. The tiger grimaced, redialed the number and called again. It rang once.
"Thank you for calling Taffin, this is Zaina-"
Nadine hung up again. Once more the feline faltered. One more she internally berated her cowardice. She was a Precinct One officer, the finest of the Z.P.D., yet the thought of having an awkward conversation between her and her former aunt had the tiger wishing to fight off savage mammals instead. The feline frowned, and placed the phone back on the table. There had to be something she could do!
An idea emerged.
Nadine would redial one last time, and put the phone on speaker. This way she couldn't hang up the phone in a panic, and may actually talk. The officer brought up the number again, and redialed. She immediately switched it over to speaker and clutched her paws together in her lap. It rang once.
"Now look here!" started her former aunt heatedly, "This is the third time you called, and if this is a prank than I'll block your number-"
"Auntie Zaina…" interrupted Nadine meekly, her ears flicking back momentarily and tail twitching nervously, "...it's Nadine…"
There was a heavy silence on the other end, before the older feline audibly gasped. "Nadine!?" exclaimed Zaina, "I'm sorry I didn't recognize you! Why didn't you call one of our cells?"
The officer shifted uncomfortably in her chair, "I, uh...wasn't sure you would answer…"
"Nadine," softly chided the older female, "Why wouldn't we?"
"Well...because I'm not family…"
Zaina laughed, "Of course you are! Aarav and I would never abandon you...No matter what your parents say!"
Nadine flinched, "Were they...trouble?"
The older female sighed, "They tried to be, but the fight was out of them. Honestly we haven't seen them in weeks, but I know my mate always calls his sister. Just like with you, we won't cut ties because of useless traditions! No ma'am! We only do that to stuck up tigers who can't let go of grudges!"
The officer smiled weakly at her aunt's rant. She wasn't sure whether to believe the other female, but something in the back of her mind was glad it was Zaina who answered. After everything the mother of three had gone through, it made sense that she would welcome Nadine with open arms. Now if only her uncle would as well…
There was a beep on the line.
"That's a customer," groused the aunt, "Gimme five...no, three minutes and I'll call you back!"
Nadine nodded, "Ok."
"Thanks, love you!" Zaina exclaimed, before disconnecting the call.
The officer placed a paw over her heart as it threatened to beat out of her chest. For the first time in weeks, someone other than Ralph said "love you" to Nadine. Of course when the wolf said it, the tiger purred immediately. The couple's love was different than the love her aunt offered. Both were no strings attached, and while the lupine's offered passion and romance, Zaina's was the warmth and support of family. The feline knew in time her partner's would offer the same, but for now it was good to feel it from a different source.
Nadine let out a heavy sigh, and stood stiffly from the chair. She's not sure how long she sat motionless, but it was apparently too long. The feline stretched towards the ceiling and yawned. The building stress from the call melted away, and for the first time since the feline decided on this action she relaxed. The phone buzzed, and the officer's brow furrowed. That was less than three minutes. Her blood ran cold when she saw who was calling.
It was Aarav.
Zaina said she would be calling, not her husband! Nadine was definitely not prepared to talk to her former uncle. The officer stood frozen in place. It rang once.
Finally on the fourth time the tiger lunged for it, swiping the green button and putting it again on speaker. Nadine hovered quietly above the device, watching the seconds tick up.
"H-Hello?" Aarav's voice said from the phone, "Podi?"
"Yes?" squeaked Nadine, cringing at the sound of her voice.
"It's me...Aarrrav...yourrr uncle…"
The male cleared his throat, "You, uh...called not a moment ago…"
The officer gripped the side of the table, her claws digging into the wood. She nodded, "...Yes…"
"Well...how have you been?"
"I've...been ok…" started Nadine hesitantly, not sure what to say. She opened and closed her muzzle.
"That's good..." There was a moment of awkward silence, before Aarav cleared his throat once more. "Nadine...I am not surrre what to say."
The young feline sighed heavily, lowering herself slowly back into her chair. "I know…"
"On the one paw, you are no longerrr parrrt of the family…" Nadine nodded silently. "...on the otherrr, without yourrr sacrrrifice, it would be Margarrret or Susan instead…You did not have to do this, yet you have." He let out a shuddered breath, emotions welling in his voice, "...I will always be grrrateful for that."
The officer slumped forward, leaning her elbows on the table as her paws supported her head. She continued to stare at her phone. Tears formed, but didn't fall. Nadine cried too much the past month, and didn't allow herself to do so now, but she wanted too. Instead she smiled weakly, "I'm glad they won't go through what I did."
"Of courrrse my grrratitude is not enough."
Nadine's smile morphed into a frown, "What?"
"How can I rrreward you, if you do not visit us?"
The officer's jaw fell open, before she slammed it shut and cleared her throat. Nadine leaned closer to the phone, "Aarav...I'm not family... remember?"
Aarav laughed, his mirth spilling through the phone and bouncing off the walls. "Then do not come as family, but as honorrred guests!" His laughter subsided, "No matterrr what happens, you will always be my Podi...and I will always love you."
Nadine pinched her eyes closed, large tears rolled down her cheek. She covered her muzzle just as a sob escaped. It was too much. The young feline never in a million years would have expected her aunt and uncle to so willingly embrace her back. All the doubts and fears the of officer felt lighter. They weren't gone, but they seemed manageable with the support of those around her. She wasn't alone. No matter how much the fear of one day being abandoned tried to worm into her heart, it would never be true.
"Nadine, are you therrre?" Aarav asked, his voice filled with concern, "I cannot hearrr you."
"I-I'm here," stuttered the officer, her voice cracking, "Just...it's really good to hear from you!" Nadine opened her muzzle to continue, but again her words failed her. She simply smiled, her tears drying but eyes still misty, and ran a claw gently across the edge of her phone. Finally, the feline blurted out what was stuck in her throat. "I love you Uncle Aarav!" exclaimed Nadine, pushing through her emotional blockage, "I love you, and Auntie Zaina, and Dave and Maggs and Susie! I-I love you all so much, and I...I…"
The officer lost her steam. She wanted to tell her uncle that they were so important to her, and that losing them hurt more than losing her parent's. That the feline wanted to watch her nieces and nephew grow up, unhindered of a predetermined future. That she wanted to have a family dinner with all of them and Ralph, just being with the most important mammals in her life. She wanted to say all of that, yet it refused to come out. Tigers didn't show this level of emotion.
Aarav chuckled on the other end. "I know Nadine. We all love you herrre, and you will always have a seat at ourrr table." His chuckle turned into a laugh, "You must let me know when you decide to come with Rrralph. Susan wants to show off herrr new dress to you!"
Nadine smiled, closing her eyes and relishing the comforting sound of her uncle's voice, "I would like that."
"Then it is settled! You must come this week! I will hearrr no arrrguments against!"
The officer's smile turned into a grin, "Yes uncle. I'll figure it out with Ralph, but we'll definitely make time."
"Good...now...I am sorrrrry, but I must get back to my rrrestaurrrant. Goodbye Nadine, and see you verrrry soom!"
The call ended, but Nadine remained hunched over her phone. She was tired, drained from the emotional acrobatics she just performed. Still, the feline smiled softly. Ralph was right, eventually she wondered how her former family was doing. Now, with the urgent need to set a for dinner, the officer had a way to find out. More importantly, her former family wasn't so former after all. They still loved her, and she still loved them.
Ralph once again scanned the street, but trying to keep it inconspicuous. The grey wolf's attention was split between his mother and the street, thankfully Gareth not needing much. He tried to focus on his cooled coffee as well, but the lupine's nerves wouldn't let him. Instead he clasped his paws in his lap, leaning back with a contented smile plastered in place.
Luna and Gareth had gotten their orders taken care of, a caramel latte for his mother and a black coffee for his brother, and were now sitting across from Ralph. The older female talked about the going ons of the Wolford compound, just basic improvements she oversaw. He wasn't fully paying attention, but it sounded to Ralph that the older black wolf was more active in the pack. She mentioned changing the hallway carpets, negotiating with contractors about costs of updating the HVAC, hosting several meetings with all the Wolford's, and so on. All throughout, not once did his mother mention her husband.
Eventually Ralph focused on the older female with a concerned frown, "What's Sirius doing?" The two black wolves shared a quick glance, and the officer's brow rose at his brother shifting uncomfortably. "Something wrong?"
Luna opened her muzzle, but all that came out was a tired sigh as her ears folded back. Gareth grasped his mother's forearm, and gave it a gentle squeeze.
"He hasn't been the same..." stated the younger male quietly, eyeing the older wolf cautiously, "We keep the pack going."
Ralph cocked his head to the side, "We?"
Gareth hunched his shoulders and smiled sheepishly, "I'm...the new Beta."
The grey wolf blinked, "Really? Not Bill or Bobby?"
The young black wolf shook his head curtly, "William didn't want the responsibility...and no one wants Robert to have that much control...so I stepped in."
Ralph grinned, finally grabbing his drink and bringing it closer to his lips. "Well if anyone deserves it, it's you Gare." The officer threw his head back with a hearty laugh. "You are the most responsible of all of us!" He smiled proudly at the second youngest of his siblings, "I'm really proud of you." The black wolf smiled timidly at the praise. The grey wolf turned back to his mother, "What's wrong with him?"
Luna sighed once more, a paw rubbing the side of her head as the other clutched her drink, "He...blames himself for you and James leaving." Ralph sipped his drink quietly. "...I know what you're thinking Raphael, and I agree this is his fault...but my foolish mate wants to mope instead of fixing his mistakes." She shifted her in seat and grumbled, "Sleeping on the couch is helping…"
"He needs time," Gareth offered, "He'll see our side soon enough."
The older female huffed, and sipped her drink. "Not soon enough," muttered Luna darkly, "and the Diet proved that there's a lot of other Alphas out there who need to change."
Ralph sighed, "Well hopefully my speech will change some hearts."
Luna shook her head, "You haven't heard, have you?" The grey wolf pursed his lips. The older female studied her drink, "The Diet collapsed...none of the old alliances are recognized, and wolves are panicking." She looked up, her gaze staring intently at the officer. "Do you remember your cousin Patty? The one who married a Howlson? Well she's back in the compound with her four pups. Jeremy left the Howler's and moved back in with his mother and father. Danielle came in today from the Howlington's, and on and on it goes...so much so that we've had to dust off abandoned rooms. The Wolford pack hasn't been this full in ages."
"Why though?" questioned Ralph.
"Fear." Gareth stated bluntly.
"Something that does no one well," added Luna, sipping quietly from her drink, "Everyone's running scared of the unknown."
The grey wolf glanced away, "I understand that…" A heavy silence fell over the table as each lupine became lost in thought. Ralph drifted back to not so long ago when all hope seemed lost. When he felt alone and hollow. The officer never wanted anyone else to experience that feeling, even those who didn't support him. Out of the corner of his eyes, the officer spotted an old pick up truck slowly closing it.
The paint was an old, worn out grey that had large chunks missing, revealing the rust underneath. On the passenger side door was a crudely drawn outline of a daisy with bold black lettering that read "Flower Power." It sputtered and clanked to a stop in front of the cafe, the driver struggling mightily with the rusted brake. Finally, the driver cut the engine and opened up his door.
James stepped out of the vehicle, wearing his work uniform of a red shirt and green shorts, as he made his way around the front the truck. He stopped dead in his tracks, staring at the seated wolves.
Ralph rose slowly from his chair, paws raised defensively between him and Luna. His gaze darted between James and the older female. "Mom...I need you to not have a heart attack. Ok?"
The older black wolf cocked her head in confusion as James stepped trepidly forward. "What's the matter Raphael?"
Gareth's gaze followed the grey wolf's, and the younger black wolf uncharacteristically gasped as he too jumped out of his chair.
"What's going on?" pressed the mother, gaze bouncing between her sons, "If this is some sort of joke, I'll…" Luna's words trailed off. Her nostrils flared. Slowly, a look a realization grew on her face. Her breathing grew shallow as she deliberately rose from her chair. The older black wolf's paws shook violently, eyes growing misty, as she turned towards the new arrival.
"Mom…" James started, sounding just as weak as Ralph not too long ago, "It-It's me...Jim-" The eldest sibling was unable to finish his statement as the female launched herself at the formerly lost son. James wrapped his arms around the sobbing mother, whining happily as his tail wagged.
Ralph sniffed and wiped at his misty eyes. He was terrible at hiding his emotions. The grey wolf glanced at Gareth, and smirked at the younger black wolf's agape muzzle. "I said I brought back-up," the officer stated, "figured if it was a trap, everyone would be so distracted that I could slip away." His smile grew as he turned back to the embracing mother and son. "Course if it wasn't, you'd find out and at least be able to tell everyone he's ok." Ralph chuckled with a shake of his head and glancing back at the youngest brother, "Never imagine mom would be here."
Gareth was stunned, something Ralph couldn't remember seeing. Finally the black wolf blew out a shuddering breath. "How?"
Ralph shrugged, turning back to the happy wolves, "Luck really." He laughed, "Actually it's all thanks to Nadine!" The grey wolf's mirth turned to a contented smile, "...it's all thanks to her…"
The officer continued to watch his mother and brother hug for the first time in years. Tears turned to smiles, whines to laughter, and tails wagged till they threatened to fall off. He smiled, happy that, for a moment, a small part of his family had been reunited. The prodigal sons had returned, if only for an afternoon.
"...and then a ghost apppeared!"
That's my addition to Halloween. Even though the title reads "Reunification," it's not really. Ralph and James aren't back in the pack, and Nadine is only talking to her aunt and uncle. Still, after everything that's happened, this has to be a win!...Right?
Let me know what you think!