Author's Note: This got long! But rightfully so, because . . . well . . . I don't know. This epilogue made me think a lot, about my life and my relationships with my friends and family and stuff. I sort of got carried away and just wrote and wrote and wrote . . . and wrote some more, and this monster was born. Single-handedly the longest chapter I've ever written on any story I've ever worked on, and I'm so proud of it. I hope you guys like it as much as I did. This story was fun to write, you guys have been so amazing, and I'm happy to present to you the last chapter of "Paradise Reborn."
Epilogue: Once Upon A Time
It was raining on the morning of my eighteenth birthday.
I had no qualms with it, however, for the rain wasn't as morbid as it had been during my youth; a symbol that things were starting to take a turn for the worst. Nowadays, the fog that engulfed the farm whenever a storm hit was a spectacle I would never grow tired of seeing. Snow and I would often sit among the rafters in the barn and catch raindrops that leaked through the roof in our palms, sights set on the lake out in the pastures and how ominous it looked. We'd had an eye for ominous things ever since that day in the Gateway to Paradise three years ago.
I woke up at eight to my alarm clock just as I did every morning, though today I lay still among my sheets for a few moments as I allowed the mist wafting through my open window to settle on my body. It felt nice, because this was by far the hottest summer we'd had in all the time we'd spent on the farm. Our only source of relief was the lake, but some kind bacteria had infected the water, causing fever to spread among those who happened to swallow any while swimming. We'd almost lost a few of the younger wolves who were too weak to fight the infection without special care. The officials at the WRA had sent out someone to decontaminate it, but we wouldn't be able to swim in the lake until the end of the summer.
After turning off my alarm clock, I forced myself out of bed, stifling a yawn as I padded across the wood panels on my floor and shut the window after taking a quick look outside. Nothing seemed to be out of the normal, and no one was wandering around the premises that shouldn't have been.
After we'd left the Gateway to Paradise, we really hadn't known what to do with ourselves. Returning to Fairfield had been our only plan, but a few hours after we'd left Paradise Forest, we received a phone call from Kiba's brother. Dante said not to worry about the police looking for us anymore, and that he would handle everything, but it would probably be in our best interest not to come back home until after everything had settled down. He'd hung up soon after, leaving us confused as to his reasoning behind the call, yet we were even more confused as to what we would do if we couldn't go home. It was Snow who'd brought up the idea of returning to the farmhouse.
At the time, we'd agreed with her simply because we had nothing else to do. The farmhouse was in a rather secluded area, and aside from it being the place where I'd first remembered my death, we'd had a lot of fun there. We stayed for a few days in a tense sort of haze, making small talk with one another that was almost too painful to bear. Since when had any of us made small talk? It was Hige who'd spoken up about the change in our pack and ultimately brought us to the point we were at today, three years later. "Toboe said we have to do something with our second chance at life, right?" He'd said one night over dinner, which was a young buck Tsume and I had come across while we were walking around aimlessly in the woods. "So, why are we sitting here doing nothing?"
His words had hit all of us, me especially, because up until then I hadn't really put much thought into the words I'd spouted at the others when they'd suggested we enter Paradise. We had been given new life for a reason, and I refused to believe that once we'd fulfilled that purpose we were simply hollow shells with no drive. But in those first few days at the farmhouse, we hadn't had a drive at all. I was still recovering from my "mental trauma", as Cheza had called it, Snow was struggling to figure out who she was in the world, and the others were just as battered as I was, only worse. Hige's proclamation made me realize that we were doing what I was most afraid of—giving up.
What does one do with oneself after they save the world? After experiencing all that we had, returning to a normal life just wasn't possible. Everything seemed rather dull and pointless compared to other things I'd done in my past life and in my current one, so I could no longer sit around and do nothing of importance, not when there was so much going on around me that I could do, if I only put effort into it. I wanted to live my life in a way I hadn't been able to before, naturally, but I also wanted to make a difference in this chaotic Reborn world that my friends and I had—in a sense—created.
That being said, we rebuilt the farmhouse. We started with the barn, which was more rundown than the house, and we simply replaced everything that was broken. We didn't start fresh, tear the whole thing down and destroy what little value may have been left within it. In that barn, I saw a bit of myself—a hollow shell that had once been filled with productivity and warmth. I didn't see myself as a once empty shell, however, only a new body created with old parts that only time and effort could repair. So that's what we did. We repaired the barn; we didn't start fresh, and it was now where I spent a good majority of my time. The place was symbolic to me now, and every time I looked upon the fresh wood mixed in with the old, I thought about my own body, which had been carried over from my past life, but was now littered with scars from the new, fresh memories piling over the old ones.
Age had turned me a little sentimental, I suppose.
After we'd repainted and furnished the house, we talked about what we were going to do with it. Kiba had spoken with Dante about it, and his brother had looked up the records of the abandoned home in the country. Apparently the previous owners had filed for bankruptcy and had turned the entire farm over to the bank in Solerno, but no follow-up work had been done with the place and it had been vacant for over fifty years. It was safe to assume no one would return, but even so, Kiba arranged for the place to be bought under his name. Being the son of a high-ranking WRA official did have its perks, it seemed. There was so much land involved with the property, and we hadn't wanted the entire area to go to waste, so we opened it up to people like us—or wolves like us, I suppose. The ones that were struggling to adjust to life as a Reborn and couldn't do it behind the white walls of the WRA.
Such walls were necessary for some cases, but others—like Hige, for example—needed wide open space and a peaceful setting to help them come to terms with what had happened to them, not the smell of chemicals and the pressures of doctors dressed in white, and who better to help them than the Wolves of Legend themselves? Only a few came to stay at the farm at a time, because having too many "dogs" would make the authorities suspicious, and there was only so much Dante and Kiba could do when it came to keeping our tracks covered. The need for secrecy was a must, because there were still those out there that would love nothing more than to harm wolves, like those men that had attacked Hige and I outside the bar all those years ago. It really did feel like a lifetime had passed since then—no pun intended—when it had really only been a little over three years.
I grabbed a grey muscle shirt from the floor, pulling it over my head and grabbing my bracelets from my nightstand before making a move to leave the room. I wasn't in the mood to search out a pair of pants, and no one was up at this hour to see me in my boxers anyway. I raised my arms in a long, luxurious stretch as I left the comforts of my bedroom, walking downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast before I moved on with my day. The walls in the kitchen were a dark blue, all the appliances a grey, stainless steel. There was absolutely no white in our house at all. I'd been to the WRA once with Kiba when we went to get more medicine for Hige a few months after I faced Darcia. All that white had been slightly daunting, and after all the time Hige had spent in that place, the color always did something to him whenever there was a lot of it. So we avoided the color if at all possible.
I opened the fridge with a slight sigh, not exactly sure what I was looking for. My last run to the store in Solerno had been last week, and with Hige around nothing stayed uneaten for long. I shook my head in amusement, staring into the fridge as the sound of someone coming down the stairs filled my ears. I didn't bother to turn, however, for those footsteps were almost as familiar to me as the sound of my own voice. "Tell your boyfriend he needs to go to the store soon. We're running on rations here."
The stool in front of the granite island we'd installed in the middle of the kitchen screeched as it was moved, creaking as its current occupier sat down. "Seriously? The day I let Hige shop on his own will be when Paradise freezes over."
I turned, giving Snow a cheeky grin as she stared at me with mirth and exhaustion in her blue eyes, polished blue fingers drumming against the counter before her. She was wearing nothing but a bright pink sports bra and a pair of loose-fitting grey sweatpants, but I was hardly fazed. The worst of my hormonal adolescent wolf years had come and gone.
Like myself, my best friend had gone through some significant changes in the three years since I'd "saved the world." Even after so much time had passed, she still wanted nothing to do with regaining her memories as Blue. She never had nightmares or gave any indication that she was seeing flashes like I had, but the one thing she had embraced was being able to actually be a wolf. I thought she'd gotten fed up with being the weakest and the smallest out of all of us, so around the same time the two of us had turned sixteen, she asked me if I would help her unlock her wolf side. At first, I wouldn't do it, because I thought that if she turned into a wolf, she would regain her memories like I had. She was determined, though, and after months of prodding and arguments, I finally conceded. At first I had no idea how to help her since Cheza had turned me into a wolf by kissing me, and there was no way I was going to kiss Snow, not that it would help since I was no longer divine. Hige had offered to help in that department, but at that time Snow was in no mood to be toyed with and slapped him for the suggestion.
Kiba suggested we work on her instincts first, but after a few weeks of lessons, there was still no change. Having exhausted every possible way to help her that we knew, Kiba had called Dante and asked how to jump start a Transformation. His answer hadn't been exactly complex, but it was more detailed than we'd expected. "Just have her fall asleep underneath a full moon. Whatever you do, do not strap her down and make sure she isn't left alone when the Change starts. She'll need someone to be there." Kiba had been perturbed by his brother's response, saying that Dante had never been so attentive to a wolf's feelings when undergoing a Transformation, but we didn't really give it much thought.
On the night of the next full moon, a week or two after we'd called Dante, Snow slept out on the porch by herself while the rest of us stayed awake in the house, sitting in the living room with the television on but not really watching it. At around two o'clock in the morning, the screams started. That night was hard for everyone, Snow especially, but when the sun rose the next day, we had a new black wolf on the plantation. Snow's memories hadn't returned—still hadn't to this very day—and she was still every bit the white cat I'd found four years ago, even if she sometimes appeared as a wolf. She could still turn into a cat if she wanted, and she was rather proud that she had three different forms that she could alternate between.
Hige had stopped pursuing her after she turned into a wolf, and it seemed that it was what had needed to happen to spike Snow's interest in him . They'd starting dating officially when Snow and I were seventeen, Hige had just turned eighteen, and they'd been doing fine ever since. Even if it hadn't played out the way Hige had imagined, I thought that this was good for the both of them.
Hige had been off his medication for a year and a half now, no longer plagued with false memories or attacks that I myself still had sometimes. They had stopped around the same time he and Snow had started dating, and I couldn't help but think that it was because of her that he was doing so well. What Hige had needed was a fresh start, and in a way, he found that with Snow. She was a pure spirit in sight of everything we'd had to suffer through, something familiar to him that didn't cause pain. They sometimes had fights when Snow accused him of comparing her to Blue, where Hige would reply that she was Blue, and then they wouldn't speak for a few hours until one or the other conceded. It was a never-ending circle, their relationship, twisted and rocky, but I could see the good it caused in our lives.
"And besides." Snow said off-handedly, stifling a yawn as she braided her sleep-mused hair quickly, laying the black weave on her shoulder. "Shopping is your job. You're conservative and know how to handle money responsibly. You sure you want Hige anywhere near our hard-earned cash?"
"Never mind then. You can go shopping for him."
"Oh!" She exclaimed suddenly, shooting up out of her chair. "Where are my manners? You turned eighteen today, didn't you, baby boy?"
"I'm hardly a baby anymore, Snowbell." I exclaimed as she engulfed me in a fierce hug, giving me a firm kiss on the cheek. Snow didn't really remember when her real birthday was, so she decided it would be on the day I'd found her on Main Street, June 3rd. And since my birthday was June 21st, she'd turned eighteen two weeks ago and had declared herself officially older than me. In a sense, I was still the runt of the pack, even if I did have more years under my belt than she did.
"What do you want to do today?" She asked, gripping my forearms rather tightly with mischief present in her blue eyes. "We should make something out of the first few hours of your adulthood. Want to go get a fake I.D.?"
I bit my lip, pulling myself from her hold. "I'll pass, even if the offer does sound tempting. I was going to go hunting actually. You can come if you want, I suppose . . . "
Snow blinked, the tips of her eyelashes brushing the fray of her bangs. I slowly watched as realization and understanding filled her gaze. "I'll come." She said, nodding.
"Shouldn't you go put a shirt on?" I asked as she started for the door.
Not even bothering to turn around, she replied, "Shouldn't you go put some pants on? Wolves don't wear clothes, now are we going hunting or not?"
The rain hadn't lessened by much when we exited the house, and our pelts were immediately soaked as soon as we stepped off the porch. Snow gave her midnight black fur a shake—not that it helped any—and followed after me as I made a break for the woods. We passed the lake along the way, and the resident swans took to the sky when they saw us, causing Snow to release an almost inaudible huff. She'd really taken a liking to the elegant white birds, though because of Hige they were wary of wolves. Their numbers had depleted since the bacteria broke out in the lake, but there had been seven new chicks last mating season, so I wasn't too concerned.
"So, what are we looking for?" Snow asked once we were safely concealed within the trees, standing underneath a giant oak in hopes of keeping her fur somewhat dry. "Deer, squirrels, bobcats, foxes?"
"What's the point of killing the bobcats or the foxes? I kind of like them. They're entertaining and fun to talk to if they're in a good mood."
Snow bared her teeth in disgust, eyeing the area around us as if she expected a bobcat or a fox to come slinking out of the darkness. "Which is never. Cornflower has a new litter of kits and if she finds us anywhere in the area, she's going to be less than pleasant; not that she ever is, of course."
Cornflower was a fox that lived a few miles out from the farmhouse. We rarely ever saw her, though like Snow had said, she was never very friendly and tended to make a mess of the ducks and swans out at the lake. She and Snow had never gotten along well. Hige said it was something about female hormones or whatever. "Let's try for a deer." I suggested, watching as her eyes sharpened and her body straightened out. She had proved to be an excellent hunter, taking her ratting skills and expanding them so she could take down much larger prey. Snow as a hunter was an almost completely different wolf. She was graceful and confident and completely serious. I was still the fastest runner, but when it came to cunning and tactics, Snow was the woman in charge. "If we catch one we might be able to coax Hige out of his room this early in the morning."
"Doubt it." She replied, stepping out from underneath the oak tree and into the downpour once more. "Now lets hurry. Any scent trail a deer might've left will be washed away in this rain before too long."
I followed my dark-furred friend through the undergrowth as she stalked almost silently along, checking the surrounding area for any trail of deer. After almost fifteen minutes of searching, we stumbled across deer droppings, and from that alone we determined there was a female deer nearby, with no fawn to protect this year. We tended to stay away from does with fawns, because even if we were killers in our own right, we didn't want to leave anything without a mother. In a way, we both knew what that felt like.
Snow and I separated once our target came into view, sneaking up on opposite sides of the unsuspecting doe. She didn't even left her head once as I slunk closer to her, my scent and sound concealed within the pour of the rain. With a growl, I leapt from my hiding place and charged at the doe, steering her in Snow's direction. The doe let out a cry of fear and reared up, flailing her legs before taking off in the opposite direction. I continued to give chase, driving her towards the blue-eyed female waiting to make the final blow further down the slope. When our prey was in range, Snow leapt out from behind a tree as well, white teeth bared before sinking into the fleeing animal's neck. The two of them crashed down onto the damp ground that was mostly concealed in the downpour, and I dove forward, grabbing onto a flailing leg so it wouldn't hit Snow while she was otherwise preoccupied with delivering the final blow. A few more moments passed as the body slowly stopped convulsing, and I released my hold on the doe's leg, swiping my tongue across my bloody jaws, panting. "You okay?"
Snow grunted, turning to look at me. That battle lust was still present in her eyes, but it slowly started to fade as she realized the battle was over and won. "Yeah, I'm fine." She said slowly, shaking out her fur. "She wasn't that hard to handle."
I nodded, moving to sit on the other side of the dead animal and waiting patiently as Snow prepared to tear into it first. It was her kill, after all. It was only fair she have the first bite.
"So, what's this really about?" Snow asked instead, removing her paw from the doe's body and swiping her tongue across her bloody jaws. I watched, almost in a daze, because the action reminded me so much of Darcia. "You only want to hunt at this hour if something's on your mind."
I said nothing for a moment, wrapping my tail around my paws as I stared down at the deer's sightless brown eyes. "You know me too well."
She tipped her head slightly, blue eyes filled with concern. "Of course, I do. You're like my brother, Toboe, I have to know what's up with you."
I didn't react to her words aside from a small twitch of my tail. Being the only female around the house had changed Snow a bit. She wasn't as rough around the edges, more understanding and caring. Having to compete with us had made her tougher though, and she and Tsume often butted heads because of it. I wouldn't say she acted like our mom or anything; she was just fiercely devoted to making sure everyone was happy and cared for. It was that part of her personality that convinced me she was right for Hige. "It's just . . . I'm eighteen now, Snow, and I'm no better than I was that day I saw Darcia." I said, a small growl escaping me.
She blinked in surprise. "What? But you've been so—You don't scream at night anymore. I thought the nightmares had stopped."
"Just because I don't cry out doesn't mean they've left me." I murmured. "Nothing's changed. Sometimes, I can't be around you because you remind me too much of him." She flinched slightly, hurt, but I continued before she had a chance to make a rebuttal. "It's your eyes mostly. They're the same shade of blue as his was. And your fur is dark like his. Sometimes I look at you and you change right before my eyes."
Snow stood, maneuvering her way around the dead animal so she could sit by my side. "Toboe, I know you told Kiba that we had to work hard to make something of this mess," I flinched at her words, because lately I'd started regretting saying that after seeing how little I'd changed, "and I believe that someday you're going to beat this, but you can't just expect yourself to be completely okay overnight. It's only been three years."
"Hige's better. Kiba too. I'm still stuck in the past."
"Hige and Kiba are older and have been dealing with this since they were born." Snow retorted, leaning over to lick my ear soothingly. "You may be the most mature out of all of us, but you're still a kitten . . . or a pup, rather."
"I'm hardly the most mature. But I suppose you're right."
"Of course I'm right!" Snow said, humming in a soft, comforting kind of way that reminded me of a purr. She often exhibited feline tendencies when wolf, like purring or being far more graceful than any wolf I'd ever seen. She was truly one of a kind.
I wished to relish in the moment of closeness with my friend, but something was still nagging at me, just as it had been for weeks now as my birthday loomed closer, and as I watched Kiba have conversations with Liv after she showed up unannounced to check up on her son a few days ago. Snow seemed to sense that something was still amiss in our world. "What's wrong now?"
"Do you miss how things used to be?" I asked instead of answering her question, standing up and moving away from her slightly. "Before I ran away, I mean."
"Sometimes." She replied slowly, lifting a paw hesitantly as if she were debating getting up and following after me. "But I like my life here too. Why?"
"I miss it." I said hollowly, my eyes tracing a squirrel as it scurried to-and-fro in the treetops. I heard the cries of her children, and she disappeared inside a nest of leaves and twigs, ready to qualm their unease. "Or certain aspects of it."
"You miss Mom." Snow said without hesitation. "And Hiro, Kato, and Airi."
"I told Airi I would stay in touch, but I haven't." I admitted. "Every time she calls Tsume has to make an excuse, because I'm too terrified to face them." I turned to face my companion, and the way her eyes looked desperately lost pulled at the strings of my heart. "I've been too afraid to see them, let alone talk with them. So much has changed since I left. I mean . . . if I ever saw them again, would they even recognize me?"
"Toboe." Snow said quietly, but trailed off, as if she wasn't sure of what to say to me. I wasn't sure what to say either.
We'd opened up our farmhouse to troubled wolves with the intent to move back to Fairfield at some point, let someone else take over once we'd found ourselves again, but three years had already passed and we were still here. Three years had passed since I first ran away from home. Three years had passed since I last saw my family.
Kiba assured me that Dante had explained everything to the police and to my family and not to worry, that they knew I was safe and would return home at some point, but that point had yet to come. I'd never called, simply because I was afraid of what my family would think now that they knew the truth about me. Would they hate me because I was a wolf? That's what I'd thought back when I was fifteen, and some of that anxiety was still with me today as an eighteen-year-old. If it had gone away fully, I would've called home by now. I also hadn't wanted to see them because I still wasn't completely better. There were still nights when I would wake up screaming from my nightmares, like Snow had said, visions of Darica with Snow's entrails in his jaws refusing to let me have a moment's peace, and that was something I didn't want my mom or my brothers and sister to see. If they were going to see me as I truly was, I wasn't going to let them see how it affected me. There was nothing wrong with what I'd done with my life, and I wasn't going to give them any indication that there was.
"Nothing's changed about you." Snow spoke again. "You're older and wiser, and you cut your hair, but you're still the same boy you were three years ago. Time isn't going to change that."
"I know." I said with a small sigh. "You're right. I guess I was only thinking about it because turning eighteen is sort of special and—"
"You wanted them to be here." The black she-wolf finished for me, for my throat closed around the words. "I get it. But today will still be awesome even if they aren't around. And when you're ready, we'll go back home and we'll see them and everything is going to be fine."
"Your optimism makes me feel like a piece of shit sometimes, Snowbell."
"I take back what I said earlier. If anything's changed, it's the fact that you curse like it's going out of style now." She growled playfully, rolling her eyes before looking down at the doe thoughtfully. "What do we do with this?"
"That's not what I meant, Mr. Smartass."
I laughed, walking over to her once more to take a mouthful of the dead animal's soggy hide. "I suppose we should drag it back to the house. We could put it in the barn since Zeus, Orion, and Artemis are gone."
Zeus, Orion, and Artemis were our most recent wolves, though they were sent back to the WRA for the summer to see their mother and have tests conducted that we refused to do ourselves. They were all three years old, and while Zeus was the only Reborn of the group, Orion and Artemis had come along simply for their brother's peace of mind. Orion had been the one to fall ill from the contaminated water in the lake, and while he was young and much more frail than most wolves his age, he'd been in no real danger. The three had made things lively, that was for sure, but they would be back at the end of the summer.
Snow and I were about to start the long trek back to the farmhouse when we heard a howl. "That's Kiba." Snow said, dropping her end of the deer. "What do you suppose he wants?"
"I have no idea." I replied. "Lets leave this here and come back for it later."
She nodded her consent, and the two of us raced back through the woods once more, howling back to Kiba to let him know we were on our way back. The rain had started to lessen somewhat, and by the time we cleared the forest it was only a light drizzle. "Beat ya to the porch, old man." Snow taunted, although she knew it was pointless to goad me into a battle that she couldn't win.
Fortunately for her, I was in a giving mood, so I allowed her to stay a couple paces ahead of me until we reached the house. "I win!" She yowled as she bounded up the steps, letting out a yelp as she skidded on the slippery surface in her haste to stay ahead.
"Yeah, you did." I said, following after her with more care than she had exhibited, managing to keep my footing until I could shake out my fur and wipe my paws on the matt by the front door.
"I feel so domesticated." She mused as she followed my lead in ridding her paws of mud and water. "What proper wolves wipe their paws before entering a house?"
"What proper wolves use a doggy door?" I replied before squeezing my body through the flap at the bottom of the door. I was quite proud of how much muscle I'd put on in the past couple years. When we'd first put the dog door in—having to change into a human just to get inside was a bother, after all—I'd been able to go through it without my fur brushing against it. Snow kept saying I was just getting fat, however.
The house was warm, a welcome change after spending a good half hour out in the rain. I suppose I was lucky that my fur was thicker than it had once been, although it was nowhere near Hige standards. "What happened to our leader?" Snow demanded when she squeezed through the door. "He better not have called us home from a hunting expedition for nothing."
"I wouldn't say it was for nothing." Snow and I jumped as a voice sounded from the kitchen, and Kiba stepped into view, an amused expression on his face as he chewed on a strip of bacon. "Though I never said you had to come back home immediately."
"Well, we're here now, so what's up?" Snow asked irritably, sitting down with a thump to scratch at her ear vigorously with her hind leg. "Don't tell me you just wanted to say good morning."
"Not so much good morning as happy birthday." Kiba replied, eyes filling with warmth and affection as my tail started to thump against the floor involuntarily at his words. "You feel any different today, Toboe?"
"Not really." I replied. "I know Hige said once I turned eighteen I would experience some drastic change but I haven't felt a thing so far."
Snow huffed at my words, shifting her eyes to the staircase, perhaps listening to see if Hige was up and about. "He doesn't know what he's talking about. His 'drastic change' was my willingness to put up with him long enough to have a real conversation."
Kiba and I shared a look before he turned back into the kitchen, suddenly interested in his breakfast once more. "You mean the fact that you started liking him enough to kiss him?" I asked innocently, following after Kiba.
"Well, I guess so, but . . . wait, what?"
Kiba and I laughed as Snow sputtered to cover her tracks, bounding after me with her claws scrabbling noisily against the wooden panels on the floor. "He's only kidding, Snow." Kiba reassured her as he leaned against the countertop with a look of mirth on his face. "Everyone knows your relationship with Hige isn't entirely based on kissing."
Just like Snow and Hige, our pack leader had undergone some changes since our return to the farmhouse. He wasn't as serious about everything, not so uptight and untrusting of anyone outside our family. He even put up with Dante on a regular basis, no longer chucking phones across the room whenever he called. When all his walls were done, he reminded me a bit of Hige, making jokes and acting carefree. But the leader side of him would never go away, and he always dragged it out whenever he deemed necessary. I'd follow him to the ends of the earth if he told me to—even if he told me not to as well—and even if Snow liked to tease, poke, and prod, I knew she would as well.
"Well, as long as that's abundantly clear." She retorted, flashing me an irritated look. I simply flattened my ears against my head, tilted my head a bit, and tried to act as cute and innocent as possible. "Oh, boy." Snow said in response to my actions. "He's giving me 'The Eyes', Fang."
"It's his birthday." Kiba said with a shrug, picking up his glass of milk and taking a drink. "I think it's law to allow him to do whatever he pleases for the rest of today."
"I like the sound of that." I said, moving over to the air vent by the wall and sitting in front of it, sighing in content as the warm air hit my damp fur. "Giving a pup like me power isn't something I would recommend, however."
"You're hardly a pup anymore, Toboe." Kiba told me. "You haven't been for a long time."
I said nothing in reply, only slid down slowly until I was on my stomach, stretching out in front of the warm air that felt oh so wonderful right then. Even after so much time had passed, I still wasn't sure what to do with all the peace and free time I'd been given. I remembered practically everything from my past now—though I wouldn't know even if I was still missing a small piece—and for most of my previous life, I'd been alone and always on the move. After Granny died, I had to fight for my survival, scrounge up any food I could and stay in the shadows lest the humans see me. I liked them, but they were wary of me, assuming that all the wolves had been killed off many years ago, and the ones that remained were vicious and bloodthirsty. Now that I remembered what it felt like to suffer from the pains of starvation—just as Darcia had threatened—his words felt all the more horrifying. Now that I could recall how I used to lay in alleyways at night, cold and alone and practically emaciated from the lack of food, having so much to eat around the house was almost unreal, even if I'd never gone hungry before in this life, despite my family's lack of income. Even sitting here in front of the vent felt surreal, like something I should never take for granted.
In the year following my encounter with Darcia, my memories had come back in quick succession, although there were so many it took forever to get them all settled. There was almost never a moment of peace. That year had been the worst by far, and I hadn't been much help in fixing up our new home, practically bed ridden because of my blackouts. I hadn't liked it one bit, but Tsume and Kiba refused to let me do anything where I could possibly pass out and injure myself after I'd almost drowned while swimming with Snow in the lake. I'd lost a lot of weight that year, so I'd spent the last two regaining everything that I'd lost and then some.
Not all the memories were bad—most even made me feel warm and content—but receiving them had never been pleasant. My eyes would throb, just as they had in the library the day of my fifteenth birthday, and eventually the pain would spread until I passed out. Hige said it would all pass eventually, just as it had when he was going through the process of remembering. Kiba and the others hadn't been able to make sense of what was happening to me, why my memories were coming back so violently and suddenly, but I was certain it had something to do with Toboe and Darcia.
Like my past self had said, he'd been trying to keep things from me for the first few weeks we were together. When I entered Darcia's fog, Toboe was expelled from my very being. Combine that with the fact that his grip on Paradise was loosening, and I was practically a ticking time bomb. All the memories that I should've been experiencing but hadn't thanks to Toboe came rushing in all at once a few days after we left the Gateway to Paradise, when Toboe no longer held any essence of Paradise at all. I'd seen him for one extended period of time in all the years I'd spent here, back when I was bedridden. He'd been my only company while the others were out working, talking me through the confusing images and explaining what had happened in full. Who better to tell me what was real than the person who'd actually lived through it? He disappeared again once I was healthy enough to leave my room, and I hadn't seen him since, but I knew he was still with me.
"So, anything else you want to say to us?" Snow asked Kiba eventually. "We have a deer to eat, ya know."
"I just don't want you two staying out in the rain for too long." He replied. "It's starting to lessen now, but there's been tornado outbreaks to the east of here since yesterday. You can never be too careful."
"You can never be too careful about what?"
With a yawn, Hige made his entrance, and I was surprised he was up this early. On Saturdays, you hardly ever saw him up and about before noon. It was especially surprising since he, Snow, and I had been up late last night cleaning the kitchen after we had a particularly tough time making me a birthday cake—who made a person make their own birthday cake anyway? It started out simple enough, but after a while we got bored, Snow flicked the batter at Hige, and I found myself sucked into the first food fight I'd ever been in. It had been fun, of course, but the repercussions had been less than pleasant, and we didn't even have the dessert to show for it.
He was shirtless—which was no unusual feat—still wearing the same batter splattered jeans he'd worn the previous night, but when he raised his arms for a long stretch, his scent blew across the room over to me from another air vent. It didn't smell foul, mind you, but there was something that accompanied his usual musky odor that made my tail thump against the ground in amusement. Snow met my gaze sheepishly, and it was obvious she knew that I was aware that she'd spent the night in Hige's room. She'd done a stupendous job of masking his scent, but her boyfriend didn't have as much tact. Even Kiba noticed, and while he'd voiced his disapproval on the matter a few times before, even he couldn't keep the smirk from appearing on his face when he saw Snow's reaction.
Hige, on the other hand, was as oblivious as ever.
"About staying out in tornado weather." I answered Hige's question in a tone that suggested I was trying to conceal laughter. "Snow and I went hunting, and Kiba called us back."
"Just to tell you that?" Hige asked, arching an eyebrow in question. "Talk about hovering, Kiba."
"Aren't you going to tell Toboe happy birthday?" Snow demanded, obviously irritated that they'd been found out.
Hige grinned over at me before moving over to the fridge to look for something to eat. "As I recall, I was the first person to tell him happy birthday."
I nodded in agreement. "Right at midnight."
"Where the hell was I?"
"Watching TV while Toboe and I slaved over a hot stove."
"My shows were on. And after all the oppression my people have faced over the years, I thought it was the guys' turn to work in the kitchen."
Hige glanced over at me, rolling his eyes. I knew what he was thinking. Snow had embraced being a human girl almost too much. It had been awkward at first, because there were certain things about females that neither Hige nor I were willing to discuss with her when she asked about them. I remembered the first time she'd received the "monthly gift." The screams she'd emitted when she turned into a wolf for the first time were practically whimpers compared to how loudly she'd shrieked upon waking up on that lovely November morning five months after we returned to the farmhouse. Hige, Tsume, and I had stayed perfectly clear of that entire situation, leaving Kiba to explain to Snow just what being a human female entailed. I thought she and the white wolf had a bond now that was similar to Kiba and Hige's because of it. Once the initial shock had passed after Kiba told her everything, she was far too willing to discuss it openly and with no shame whatsoever. That stage had passed, thank God, but Snow still viewed women as superior to men what with everything they had to suffer through. I didn't really care as long as she kept certain things to herself.
"Women aren't their own people." Hige said dismissively, pulling the milk from the fridge and drinking it right out of the carton. If Tsume were awake he surely would've smacked Hige in the head for it. "We're all equals."
"You've trained him well." Kiba said to Snow.
She shrugged, though her tail was moving against the floor in obvious delight. "I try."
"But if it'll make you feel better," Hige said, moving back to the previous topic of discussion, "I'll say it once more. Happy day of birth, Toboe."
"Okay, we're off to the woods now!" Snow said before I could reply. "I'm not too keen on eating soggy deer meat, and I'm starving."
"Just eat some bacon." Hige said, swiping one from the plate Kiba had been originally eating from. "Kiba made enough to feed an army."
Snow shook her head, and I found myself doing the same. I'd grown up on human food, sure, but there was something about eating raw meat from animals I'd killed that was much more satisfying than I wanted to admit. I blamed it partly on my wolf instincts, which I found were growing stronger every day, though Kiba said my body was just expressing the need for fresh kill that had lain dormant for the first fifteen years of my life. It was new to me, so I wanted to explore it more, and my body would grow accustomed to it eventually and the hunger for it would go away, or so Kiba said.
"We'll be back soon." I said, getting to my paws and moving towards the door, Snow following after me. "Then you guys can do whatever it is you have planned for today."
"Who says we're doing anything?" Hige called after us, his voice filled with mirth.
I paused, turning to glance at him over my shoulder. "Because it's impossible for us to not do something, no matter the occasion."
By the time Snow and I managed to drag the deer into the barn, it was around nine fifteen. Between the two of us, we managed to eat a good majority of it, though there was still some leftover if we wanted to eat it for lunch or dinner, depending on what the others had planned for my birthday. It was tradition to go into town as a family for a good majority of the day, go shopping, maybe grab a bite to eat if Tsume didn't want to cook.
I'd refrained from going into town for the first year or so—mostly because I hardly even left the house—but also because I was afraid the residents would recognize me as the boy the police had been searching for. Curiosities had risen when they suddenly stopped their search—Dante's doing no doubt—and since no follow-up had been done on the situation, everyone either assumed I'd been found dead or I was safely back at home. Once I grew up and started to fill out more, I hardly looked like the picture everyone had seen on the media, even more so since I cut my hair. No one ever gave me a second glance when I was out in public, and I'd grown much more confident. Even if someone were to recognize me, I had my wolf form to revert to if things got complicated.
After we left the barn, we returned to the house to find Hige, Kiba, and Tsume in the living room together, watching a basketball game they'd recorded from the previous night on the television. Hige hadn't been paying much attention, flipping through the pages of a novel he'd been reading since the beginning of the month, though Tsume and Kiba had been thoroughly engrossed in the game, each one rooting for a different team. Watching the two of them react to every call was something I never though I'd see, taking into account how they'd acted in our previous life. The spectacle had been rather amusing, especially when Snow tried to get their attention and no one seemed to notice her presence, not even Hige. I knew he would feel her wrath later.
Knowing that it was best to leave them alone when they were off in their own worlds, she and I escaped down to the lake to bask in the newly appeared sun, waiting until the others were ready to rejoin society and continue on with the day. I didn't know how long we'd actually been laying in the sunshine, but the sun had moved a considerable amount in the sky, so I would say it had been roughly an hour and a half of Snow and I enjoying one another's company and making small talk. Most would say that so far, today had been a bust for an eighteenth birthday, but to me, this was more than I could've ever hoped for.
At one point in my life, I never dreamed that I would have friends, let alone leave my home entirely to set off on some grand adventure. I wasn't as socially awkward as I'd once been, though, so when I thought back on my old way of living life, I often cringed at my own shortcomings. Back at home, I more often than not spent my birthdays alone after I turned twelve. Airi, Hiro, and Kato spent more time at summer school or with their friends than at home, and my mom was always working, sometimes not even returning home until midnight. Sometimes I went over to Mrs. Pennon's house, and the two of us would bake cookies together, but even with the company of the one woman who had meant so much to me in both of my lives, I was still alone. I'd spent four birthdays with Kiba and the others so far, and even if the first one had been less than par, what with learning I was a wolf and all, at least I hadn't been alone. I was perfectly content to spend my time in a peaceful quiet here at the lake's edge with Snow, because after spending most of my life with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company, this was something I wasn't going to be taking for granted.
The geese, swans, and ducks were staying clear of us, congregating on the other side of the water. I could even hear their grumbles of distrust from where I lay in the grass. I didn't think they were smart enough to know that in all the time we'd lived here, only Hige had ever chased after them. Snow heaved a huge sigh, eyes closed as she laid on her side in a bare patch of ground a feet or two away from the water's edge. "I should've changed into my swimsuit while we were at the house." She murmured, one ear twitching as a horsefly flew past it. "I need to work on my tan."
"Why don't you just change into a human and do it now? Why do you need a swimsuit?"
"Sports bra tans are unsightly, as are rolled up sweatpants ones. You should know that by now, baby boy."
"Ah, yes, how could I ever forget?" I mused, pawing at my ear vigorously. The mosquitoes had decided to rear their ugly heads with a vengeance today it seemed. Even the infected water did nothing to dampen their numbers. "Paradise forbid you ever receive a tan less than par."
Snow made her wolf version of a purr, cracking open a single blue eye to peer over at me humorously. "Not to bring up old topics, but sometimes I can't believe how much you've changed. You had a sense of humor before, but now it's just . . . uplifting."
She nodded, suddenly serious, lifting her head to look at me fully. "You're so carefree about everything now, aside from a few select issues I'm not going to bring up today. Before it was just . . . I don't know. Your heart wasn't completely in it. I could see it in your eyes."
Sometimes my friend said things that caught me completely off guard, and this was definitely one of those times. I didn't know how to reply, so I said nothing. I tended not to think about how I'd been before, how withdrawn I had been for fear of my siblings' judgment. I knew now I was just missing the part of myself that didn't necessarily care about how he was viewed by others, but simply wished to be himself, and now I just viewed the entire ordeal as a learning experience.
I was about to suggest we go back to the house to see if the game was over, but a sound reached my ears. I stilled, listening with ears perked in interest, for it was a sound I hadn't heard this far out in the country for a long while. Lifting my head over the grass, I stared back in the direction we'd come. The barn was just as magnificent and large as usual, even from so far away, and I could see the shadows of the house underneath the trees on either side of it. The house itself was a ways away from the main road, and we never heard many cars, so I was surprised when I saw the clouds of dust rising into the air as a car drove along the dirt path leading up to the house. Snow lifted her head, finally hearing what I was, tipping her head in curiosity. "Who would come out here at this hour?" She wondered aloud. "Most people aren't out of their beds at ten thirty on a Sunday."
"We were up at eight."
"Well, we aren't most people, are we?"
Abandoning our relaxed state, the two of us raced through the tall grass to make it back to the house before the approaching cars did. I could see three cars now, one black while the other two were red. I didn't like the look of things, because the only people who ever came out this far were Dante, Quent and Sasha during an occasional visit, and sometimes Liv; all of which drove white cars, most likely for WRA purposes, so who were these newcomers, and what did they want? "Toboe, wait." Snow said suddenly, jolting to a stop.
I turned around to face her, panting. "What's wrong?"
"Let's wait and see who they are before we go up. Look, Kiba's out on the porch. Maybe this is something we aren't supposed to know about."
"What's the point in hiding out here in the grass?"
"Think of it as stalking practice."
Like we need any. I thought as Snow grabbed hold of the fur around my neck with her teeth gently, pulling me down so we were concealed within the tall grass. Snow pawed aside a group of stalks so we could see clearly, and the two of us watched—or spied, rather—as Tsume and Hige appeared from inside as well. I couldn't see the looks on their faces clearly from where I lay, so I didn't know if this was a welcome visit or not. I suppose we'll find out.
Snow and I laid perfectly still as the cars pulled up in the pebbled driveway. "Who in their right mind would drive a Ferrari out here?" Snow snorted, eyes fixated on the red car, which had been at the head of the line. "Someone obviously throws their money around."
"Shh." I growled softly as Hige shifted on the porch, and while I couldn't see his face clearly, I could tell he was gazing out in our direction. "This spying business was your idea, so shut up or they'll find us."
"Hey, you don't have to be a douche just because it's your birthday."
I threw her a glare, which earned me an equally irritated look in return, but we refocused our attentions when the driver' door of the red Ferrari opened. Both of us recognized the driver.
"I should've known that car was Dante's, the rich bastard." Snow whispered, creeping forward slowly, not moving a single stalk of grass. "What happened to the white one? Come on, lets move closer so we can hear what they're saying."
I started to follow after her, but then my body froze of its own accord as Dante moved around the car to open up the passenger side door, offering a hand to the woman within to help her out. She had changed since I saw her last, but I knew without a doubt the woman was my now nineteen-year-old sister. Her hair was longer, wavier maybe, and my vision was suddenly all too acute as I assessed her alongside an equally frozen Snow. Her eyes were still blue, of course, but they held a certain warmth that hadn't been there before. She raised one hand to cover her eyes as she gazed around the landscape, and Dante closed the car door once she was out, giving me a full view of her profile. She was wearing a white dress and sandals, and I almost panicked, because she looked nothing like the teenager I'd seen at the party three years ago, sixteen and fuzzy-eyed with alcohol, smelling of smoke. Only the black choker she wore around her neck looked somewhat familiar, but there was still something off about her. Either my sister had gained a lot of weight in the time I'd been gone, or—
"Holy shit." Snow whispered fiercely at my side, blue eyes blown wide. "Is that—Is she—"
"She's pregnant." I finished for her, blinking a few times to make sure I wasn't imagining this.
I wasn't a fool. By the way Dante was handling her, I knew he was the father and the two were probably more than just friends, but never before had the idea crossed my mind that one day my sister would grow up and start a family with someone, especially not Dante Connolly. Airi had been wary of men ever since our father left, so this had never seemed a possibility to me. What had Dante done to possibly change her mind? Kiba had told me a lot of things about his brother in the past couple of years, but his relationship with my older sister hadn't been one of them.
"Toboe would land himself on some farm." I heard Airi say to her companion, though there was no spite or distaste in her tone. For a change, she sounded affectionate and happy, and it made my eyes burn. Her voice sounded so rich and warm. "He always did have a love for animals."
"This is where Artemis has been spending her summers with Orion and Zeus." Dante told her, settling his gaze on Kiba, Tsume, and Hige who had yet to move from the porch. "Your brother helps Zeus in ways the WRA cannot."
"Well, of course. I didn't expect any less from him."
And slowly, one by one, people from my past began to appear, people that I was nowhere near ready to face. I released a small whine that had Snow pressing against my side when my mother stepped out of the red car behind Dante and Airi's, looking so much younger than she had when I last saw her. A little girl with blonde hair jumped out of the back, squealing in delight when she took in her surroundings. She appeared nine or ten, maybe, and I couldn't help but wonder just who the young girl was. Sal got out of the driver's seat, still broad shouldered and sporting that ever present smile just as he had back in my youth, when he used to give us all our groceries for less than what they were worth.
And from the black car came my brothers, by now twenty-one years old, like Kiba and Dante. With a flash of remorse and guilt, I realized I could no longer tell them apart. One was more muscular than the other and had shorter hair, but whether it was Kato or Hiro I wasn't sure. The other looked the same as they'd both appeared when they were eighteen, though more angular in the face and sharper in the eyes, but the resemblance was still there all the same. "What are they doing here?" I asked, my voice trembling slightly. "How did they—What are they—"
"Kiba, Tsume, and Hige don't look surprised to see them." Snow growled lowly, a hint of betrayal present in her voice. I wondered if maybe she was just as afraid of facing our past as I was, but she'd just never said anything. "If this is some kind of birthday surprise—"
I gestured for her to be quiet, for Kiba and the others had moved from the porch and were walking towards our visitors. I watched them, feeling a little betrayed myself, but I suppose I'd been asking for this for a while. I said I missed them all the time, but . . . I never thought they'd ask them to come for my birthday. They hadn't all the other years. What had changed? "You look well, Kiba." Dante said to his brother, nodding shortly. The two weren't as cold with one another as they'd once been, but you could tell they weren't close like my twin brothers.
"So do you." Kiba replied, glancing over at my sister who was giving him a level stare. "I see you're going to be parents soon."
"That we are." Dante replied, wrapping his arm around my sister's shoulders. To my utter shock, she not only allowed it, but leaned further into his embrace in return. "You should've seen the look on Mother's face when we told her."
"I can only imagine."
"Cut the crap." Airi said testily, and I was relieved, because at least her personality hadn't changed much. "You've kept Toboe away from home long enough. Where is he?"
"Airi, don't be crass." Our mother said gently but firmly as she walked up the drive with my brothers, Sal, and the little girl behind her. "We haven't come here to fight. Tsume, Kiba, and Hige invited us to celebrate Toboe's eighteenth birthday, not dwell on the past."
"I shouldn't need an invitation to see my own brother." Airi grumbled unhappily, crossing her arms over her chest in irritation, the bottoms of her forearms resting atop the swell of her stomach. "That's bullshit."
"Where is Toboe anyway?" One of my brother's asked, the muscular one with the short hair.
"He and Snow are down at the lake." Tsume said, drawing the glares of my sister from Kiba to him. As far as I knew, the two had never met before. "They should be back shortly if you wish to wait. I'm certain they saw your cars coming up the drive."
Snow nudged me gently. "Toboe, we should go out there. We can't hide forever."
Despite myself, I shook my head. "I—I can't."
"Look, I know I said we'd face this when you're ready, but now we have no time left. They're here, and you've got to face them head-on like you did with Darcia. Remember, Toboe?"
I did remember, but for some reason, facing Darcia had been easier than this. What am I afraid of? Rejection? The anger they might feel towards me for having left them for three whole years? I didn't feel like I knew them anymore. Airi was having a family, my mother seemed to have found a new one, and I could no longer tell my own brothers apart. If I didn't recognize them, then how could I expect them to see me as I was now and make the connection? "Like I said before, they'll know you when they see you." Snow murmured in my ear. "They love you, no matter your form."
And before I could utter a single sound, she had stepped out of the grass and into the open. The others turned to look at her, maybe expecting to see me, and for a moment, Snow didn't move. She didn't turn to look at me, not wanting to give me away if I truly wasn't ready for this, but she didn't move forward. She was giving me the chance to go with her, to face this with my best friend at my side. My heart was thudding painfully in my chest, and I debated running back to the lake to remain there for the rest of my birthday. But then I remembered that day in the Gateway to Paradise.
"I'm done running. All it's ever done is hurt those around me, and I'm through with it."
I'd faced Darcia and every single one of my fears in that fog. It hadn't broken me; it had only made me stronger. I wasn't the same wolf I'd been that day, and I never would be again, but I still held the same values. "I won't run." I said firmly, and I saw Snow relax in front of me, relieved. "I won't."
Snow moved aside as I exited the grass slowly, unable to keep my head and tail held high. I probably resembled a dog that had just been scolded for doing something bad. Airi's eyes flashed, and I saw the muscular brother reach over to push the other one's shoulder. My mother sucked in a breath, bringing her right hand to rest across her chest, clenching it tightly. Sal crouched down and took the blonde girl's hand, whispering in her ear, though I heard every word. "That's Anna's son, Stella, the one we've all been telling you about."
"The Wolf of Legend, Daddy?"
"Yes. That's Howling."
And I froze. Snow halted beside me, looking down at me with sympathetic, worried blue eyes. I wasn't just Toboe any longer, the terrified child of the past that I was now in the face of my family. Like Sal had said, I was Howling, a wolf from a time long ago that had stopped at nothing to save his friends, the one who had died to save a human. I'd died and been Reborn, lived with my memories and lived without them, and I'd faced Lord Darcia III, the epitome of all things evil. I was a proud individual, a conqueror of all things terrifying, and I was going to start acting like it.
I let out a joyful yip, breaking free of Snow's comforting presence and dashing into the unknown, just as my mother recovered from her stupor and made a break for me as well. "Oh, Toboe!" She cried as she fell to her knees in the dirt, extending her trembling arms, which I gladly jumped into. "My baby."
She clenched her fingers tightly into my fur as I nuzzled my head underneath her chin, pressing into her with all the force I could muster that wouldn't knock her over completely. Maybe I would've changed into a human if I were able, but I was far too overwhelmed and excited to even think about maintaining my human form. And I wanted to see how they would react to seeing me as a wolf. So far, I liked what was happening.
"You've gotten so big." Mother managed to choke out through her tears, laughing a little as she pulled back to look at me fully, both of her hands on either side of my head. The statement was sort of funny in its own way, for she'd never even seen me as a wolf to make the comparison. It was like she was looking beyond my wolf skin and seeing the eighteen-year-old human that lay beneath, the boy she'd given birth to. She could see me. "I'm so proud of you, Toboe, I truly am. And Snow . . . look at you, dear."
Snow crept up on my other side, ears pressed tightly against her head before my mother grabbed her and pulled her into the circle of her arms as well. The two of us locked eyes, and I knew we were both equally emotional about the situation. This was everything we could've ever hoped for and then some. I whined lowly as drops of my mother's tears landed on my fur, pressing into her further while Snow licked her fingers soothingly. I'd come to think of this place in the country as my home, but for the first time in the three years we'd been here, I finally felt as if everything had fallen into place.
"I almost forgot how it felt to have a mom." I murmured to Snow.
She looked over at me, eyes glassy with emotions she couldn't express in her current form. "Me too."
Neither of us moved until my mom had reassured herself that we were both alive and well, but even after she released us no one moved. My siblings had yet to move or say anything now that I was out in the open, and I wasn't sure if it was a good or bad thing. My mom released us eventually, wiping away tears with one finger so as not to ruin her mascara more. Snow would probably offer her own to my mother once we got inside, since it was already starting to run a bit and Snow couldn't stand a bad makeup job. Movement beyond my mom caught my attention, however, and I watched as the muscular brother moved to stand in front of Hige. Snow noticed as well, body tensing as if she were fighting the urge to jump to her boyfriend's defense, but she stayed still.
Hige looked on warily, not moving a muscle as my brother looked him up and down, sizing him up maybe. My brother was two years older than Hige, but my friend was by no means afraid of defending himself should my brother decide to take out his frustrations about me out on him. But slowly, stiffly, my brother extended his hand out to Hige, the expression in his ice blue eyes unreadable.
After a moment, Hige took it.
"Toboe," Tsume said eventually, forcing his gaze away from Hige and my brother to glance over at me, "why don't you and Snow turn human so you can say hello properly?"
My ears lowered slightly, as did Snow's, and the two of us exchanged a look before I said, "She's not wearing a shirt," just as she said, "He's not wearing pants."
"What did they just say?" Airi muttered to Dante.
He didn't reply, though I saw the exasperation present in his brown eyes, a look mirrored by Kiba's own blue eyes. I'd probably end up with extra chores if I dared say so aloud, but the two of them had never looked more like brothers than they did in that moment.
Even after I did find a pair of jeans to put on, I still didn't leave the safety of my bedroom. I could hear the voices of my friends and family from downstairs, my mother conversing with Kiba and Tsume as if she had never bore a grudge against them, but I couldn't bring myself to join them. I merely sat cross-legged on my bed and stared out the window, tearing at the frays of my torn jeans. I wasn't hiding. I wasn't afraid. So why was I up here? Why couldn't I go down and face them after the initial hello?
Maybe it was because I was so used to it just being the five of us around the house. Everything was usually so quiet. Even when Artemis, Orion, and Zeus had been around things hadn't been too eventful. The peace and quiet wasn't something I'd had a lot of growing up. In one life I'd been fighting for my survival, while in the other I was fighting for my sanity. And after three years of only listening to the crickets and Hige's snoring, the movement going on outside my bedroom door was slightly unnerving. Perhaps living out in the country hadn't been good for the development of my social skills.
My gaze shifted to the door when I heard a knock, and I hesitated slightly before saying, "Come in."
When Airi opened the door, I wondered why I hadn't known it was her in the first place. She smelled generally the same, though Dante's scent was so mingled with hers it was hard to make the distinction. Maybe it was because her gait was heavier with the weight of her pregnancy. "Find some pants yet?" She asked, not completely looking into my room in case I hadn't.
I couldn't help but smile, still picking at the denim threads. "Yeah."
"It's not like he was naked, Airi." The door was thrown open as one of my brother's entered the room, leaving my sister and other brother alone in the hall with irritated looks on their faces.
"I respect someone's privacy, unlike some people, Kato." She retorted, moving further into the room while Hiro shut the door behind them.
So, the muscular brother was Hiro. I'll admit I was a little surprised. The brother that had ultimately ended me up in the position I was in today had never really liked physical exertion. What had he been doing in the past three years that he had bulked up so considerably? Now that I looked at the both of them clearly, I knew I would've been able to tell them apart had they talked to me directly outside. Kato still had that scar above his left eye that he'd received from one of the many fights he'd gotten into over the years. His scars would never go away, unlike mine.
Now that the three of them were in my territory, it seemed as if things had changed. They looked like they didn't know what to do with themselves. All three of them were looking at me, mesmerized by the sight of the boy they hadn't seen in so long. I wondered if they could see how much I changed, not just on the outside but within as well. "You cut your hair." Hiro was the first one to speak, sounding far too vulnerable for his body type.
I grinned. "So did you."
The sound of my voice seemed to stir them a bit, and Airi and Kato moved forward to sit on my bed with me while Hiro grabbed the chair from my desk, pulling it closer to the bedside and straddling the back of it.
"It's been . . . a really long time." I said for a lack of better words, shifting my gaze back to the window.
"Too long." Airi said quietly, reaching upward to run a trembling hand through my shortened hair. "You look like an adult."
"You sound like one too." Kato added, gazing around my room, taking in the scenery. There wasn't much to look at because I really didn't spend much time up here unlike at our old house. It was really just my bed and the small table beside it, my desk and a chest of drawers, where my TV sat. I hardly used the thing, mostly because Hige hid my remote from me after I stuck him with cleaning Pepper's stall for a week. I was going to make him give it back to me as a birthday present. "I can only imagine how much your voice cracked."
Hiro nodded slowly, resting his chin on his forearms. "We missed it all."
I sighed, slowly moving my gaze from the window to lock eyes with Airi. She was still running her fingers through my hair slowly, blue eyes unfocused slightly and starting to mist as she stared at a spot on my face, though I wasn't sure what it was. "You . . . You aren't mad at me . . . are you?" I asked hesitantly.
That seemed to snap my sister out of her stupor. She removed her hand only to smack my cheek lightly, finally meeting my gaze. "Don't be stupid." She snapped. "Why the hell would we be mad?"
"Oh, I don't know." I retorted. "I kinda up and left three years ago. No big deal."
"Why would we be mad at you for something we did?" Kato asked me, sounding every bit the authoritative teenager he'd been back in the day, always the ring leader of the four of us. "Your leaving was all our fault."
"My fault, really." I turned to glance at Hiro as he spoke, trying to convey in my gaze alone that I didn't blame them for what had happened. I'd always guessed that they took the blame in one way or another for me running away, but I'd learned long ago that everything in my life didn't happen by chance. I'd been groomed since my birth to enter Darcia's fog and remove his wolf eye from the waters of Paradise. The suffering in my childhood had made me stronger, pushed me to limits that might have otherwise been unexplored. If I hadn't experienced some form of pain, I might not have been as willing to offer up my most secret heart of hearts and let someone exploit every single one of my fears.
I'd never say it aloud, but because of my siblings, I wasn't afraid of being bullied.
"I don't regret leaving." I said. "Even if you were mad at me for it. I saved your futures." Glancing down at Airi's stomach, I added, "I suppose I saved lives as well."
My sister noticed my gaze and smiled. "I look like a house don't I?"
"No." I said quickly, just as Kato replied, "Just a little."
Airi punched him in the arm without taking her eyes off me once. "You wanna feel?"
"Umm—" Airi snatched up my hand and placed it over her stomach before I had a chance to protest. Now that I had the mindset to think about it, I wasn't exactly sure how I felt about the situation. Airi was only a year older than I was, and despite being younger I was still protective of her. It was hard to imagine her having a baby with anybody, let alone Kiba's litter mate. Did that make the two of us in-laws if Airi and Dante ever got married? Small world. I'd never felt a pregnant woman's stomach before, and I had never thought that the first one would be my sister's. Her stomach was hard, not that I'd expected any less, and after a few moments of nothing, I felt a small thump against my palm.
Airi laughed when I jumped, still holding my hand tightly. "You're still the same Toboe, I see. Did you feel the kick?"
"She's six months along." Hiro said, and I could hear the warmth and affection present in his voice. If either of my brothers had issues with Airi's pregnancy, they were hiding it extremely well. "Do you want to tell him what it is, sis, or should I?"
"Hmm." Airi said, pretending to look thoughtful. "Would I like to tell my baby brother the gender of my own child? The answer would have to be—"
"Yes, you dumb ass, she does." Kato said with a chuckle.
"It's a girl." Airi rolled her eyes, though I saw the tenderness and love she held for her unborn baby in her eyes. "We're naming her Aliah."
"After Grandma." I murmured. I'd never met the woman since she and my grandfather had severed all ties with my mom after she had Hiro and Kato. My mother never spoke poorly of them, only talked about how loving the two had been when she was a little girl. I wondered what they would think of the situations their grandchildren had found themselves in if they'd stayed. "Are you scared?"
"Shitless." Airi confirmed, finally releasing my hand. "But I'll be okay. I have Dante."
"Yeah, how the hell did that happen?"
"It's kind of a long story." She said with a breathy laugh, resting her own hands on her stomach. "Maybe when it's not your birthday I'll go into depth, but to put it simply . . . he broke me and put me back together."
Kato and Hiro shared a look as if they'd heard this story a thousand times already, but unlike them, I understood what my sister was saying. The life of a Reborn was about being broken and put back together. It had happened so many times to me over the past few years. "Dante quit his job at the WRA once Airi told him she was pregnant." Hiro said. "They live at our old house now that Mom moved in with Sal."
I stared over at him in shock, then looked back to my sister, deciding to ignore the comment about my mother and Sal for now. Kiba often talked about how devoted the humans and wolves could be when it came to the WRA, Dante especially. He'd lived and breathed it his entire life, and hadn't done much in exploring the world outside its walls. He knew a lot about it, just hadn't experienced it first hand like Kiba and I had. Hearing that he'd left the WRA after all this time just for my sister made me think that maybe he cared for her more than he would like to let on. "He doesn't want her exposed to that." Airi explained. "And neither do I. We'll tell her about everything eventually, but . . . I want her to be human."
"What if she wants to be a wolf?" I asked, thinking about my own struggles with my identity, as well as Snow's. I didn't want my little niece going through something like that.
"Then I'll let her." Airi said firmly, almost talking to herself more than me. "Just because I don't want to be a wolf doesn't mean she can't be."
"What does Dante do then if he doesn't work at the WRA anymore?"
"Well, he didn't quit exactly. Don't listen to Hiro; he's an idiot. Dante just works from the house now. He hardly ever has to go to headquarters unless he has to do an evaluation. And he mainly works with wolves that get sent here, like Zeus."
"If he works so closely with what happens around here, how come you didn't know where I was sooner?"
Airi sighed, looking a bit irritated. "He kept the location a secret from me. I never knew where Artemis, Orion, and Zeus were going. Until Kiba called to invite us down here, I didn't even know you were the one taking care of Zeus."
"Snow and I only care for the ones without memories." I told her. "Zeus is more Hige's territory."
"Because of his episodes?" Kato inquired, and I wondered just how much my brothers knew about the working of Reborns. Zeus did remind me a lot of Hige from when I'd first met him. The young wolf was boisterous and full of mischief on his best days, running around with Artemis and Orion like the children they really were. But on his worst days, the poor wolf couldn't even leave the barn, plagued with visions of his past life. He never liked to talk about it, but Hige told us once that Zeus had been drowned before. While water had been my savior, it was Zeus' eternal nightmare.
I nodded, suddenly feeling morbid. My siblings were much more vigilant than I remembered, however, and they noticed instantly. "So, what else have you been doing, Toboe?" Hiro asked me, sounding a little bit over-enthusiastic, not that I minded. "We have three whole years to catch up on."
He was right when he said we had a lot to catch up on, and I had no idea where to begin. I wanted to know what they had been doing more than anything, but I'd give them what they wanted first. It was the least I could do. "Well, we got a horse." I said lamely, shrugging my shoulders.
Kato laughed, and I shifted in the bed. I couldn't remember the last time my brother had laughed like that. "So, you really have gone all cowboy on us?" He said with another small chuckle. "I wasn't sure what to think when we followed Dante all the way out to this farm."
"Four hours of nonstop driving." Hiro said with a groan. "Couldn't you live closer to Fairfield, Toboe?"
"Do you ride the horse?" Airi asked me curiously. "What's its name? Where'd you get it?"
"I'm the only one allowed to ride her, but I don't do it often, because . . . well, it feels like slavery to me." I explained. "Pepper doesn't trust people much. We saved her from a slaughterhouse back in Cosenza."
"Poor thing." Airi said unhappily.
"I didn't know people ate horse." Hiro said, followed by, "Touch me again and I'll break your arm," when Kato smacked the back of his head.
"I don't know what they were going to do with her, but I'm glad we noticed her before anything terrible was done." Tsume and I taken a trip to Cosenza a while back to revisit Kindlewood Books, where I'd first gotten that book on wolves. I'd told Ms. Harper—the woman who gave the book to me—that if I ever saw a real wolf, I would come back and tell her what I saw. And I always kept my promises, but instead of telling her, I decided to show her. We'd come across Pepper by mistake. I clearly remembered driving down the street and seeing four men trying to load an extremely terrified looking grey into a truck. Her cries for help had immediately caught my attention, and I refused to return back to the farm until Tsume had convinced the men to give us the mare. Getting her back to the farm, however, was another challenge entirely
Pepper had been around for at least seven months, and it had been a long process just to get her to trust me. It helped that I could speak with her and try to tell her that not every human was going to whip her for not moving fast enough. She'd told me once that she had a foal, but it was taken from her right before she left her old home at some other farm and went to the slaughterhouse. I could only imagine what kind of horrors she'd had to face in that place.
"You guys have any other animals? Or is it just you guys and the horse?" Kato asked.
"Maybelline's around here somewhere. She's Snow's cat. She and Pepper are the only ones though."
"So, the cat got a cat." Hiro mused. "Is it just me or does that sound kind of wrong?"
Airi and Kato shrugged, though I understood Hiro's point of view. Snow had found Maybelline almost in the same manner that I'd found Pepper. The two of us were driving to driving to work almost two months ago in April when Snow had forced me to pull over on the side of the road. The dark brown tabby had been limping down the sidewalk, looking emaciated and haggard. Snow refused to leave her, intending for me to keep the stray as a new pet since she was no longer just a cat, but Maybelline had taken a liking to Snow more, probably because she was a feline herself. The brown cat said her previous owners had moved away a few weeks prior to us finding her, leaving her behind in the process, but she wasn't as untrusting of humans as Pepper was. Owning pets was harder for Snow and me since we viewed it as immoral, being animals ourselves, but Pepper and Maybelline had been unfazed by the entire thing. They hadn't even batted an eye when we turned into wolves in front of them for the first time. Apparently everything they'd been through in their lives didn't compare to watching their owners change form.
"Do you work?" Airi asked me curiously, pulling me from my reverie. "Or do you just use the WRA money you get?"
"We all work at a youth center in Solerno on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during the summer when the wolves aren't around." It couldn't be helped that I enjoyed helping others, especially teenagers that were struggling to find their place in society like I had, and Snow just really liked to be wherever I was at first. She'd never really liked kids, so her getting a job alongside the rest of us was something I hadn't encouraged, but she grew used to them in time, and now she was a favorite amongst the preteen girls. The older boys had taken an interest in her as well, which was something Hige hadn't been happy about, but Snow could handle herself.
"You guys seem to do everything together." Kato observed, and I could literally hear the jealousy in his voice. I didn't like it. "Don't you ever do anything on your own?"
"We're family." I replied simply. "Believe it or not, we like spending time together."
Kato looked like he regretted his words, but I spoke again before he had a chance to make things more awkward than they already were. "Enough about me. What have the two of you been doing?"
"I'm going to community college back at home." Kato said after a moment, probably still recovering from the harshness and accusations that my words most likely carried, even if I hadn't meant them to come across as such. "I started the fall after you left. I'm majoring in business."
"I'm glad you decided to go. You guys were always smarter than you let on."
"What about you? Are you going to go to college?"
I didn't say anything for a moment. I'd left Fairfield the summer before I would've started high school, so I never experienced public education past the eighth grade. Tsume and Kiba had insisted that I at least graduate from high school though, so once my memories had settled and I was healthy and stable enough to do so, I started home schooling. Snow had tried to get into the educational fundamentals of life, but it was harder for her than it had been for me, and she'd gracefully declined any more offers of schooling after that. I'd finished everything on time, so I'd officially graduated from high school back in April of this year. If I decided to, I could start college in the fall, but I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I hadn't discussed it with the others yet, but I knew they wanted me to get out into the world like I said I wanted to three years ago. But I didn't want to leave, and not everything college entailed could be completed online. Was it bad that I enjoyed my life here too much that I didn't want to go off to college? With a pang of regret I realized this was something I should've been discussing with my mother.
"I don't know." I said eventually, shrugging my shoulders. It was true that my duties to the wolves we took care of would always come first in my mind, and the idea of leaving them to fend for themselves—even if they would have Kiba and the others to help them—wasn't something I was willing to entertain. I knew what it felt like to be alone and in a place where I felt as if no one understood me, and I was going to do everything within my power to make sure that the wolves that were sent to us never felt that way. That was my passion, my goal now that the world was safe again. Compared to everything else, college seemed so unimportant to me. "What about you, Hiro?" I asked, no longer comfortable with being the topic of discussion. "What have you been doing?"
"Well, I joined the army the spring after you left. I've been stationed overseas for a year or so now. I just got back last month."
"No wonder you look so fit." I told him, which earned me a hearty laugh in reply. "What made you decide to do that?"
All mirth disappeared from my older brother's blue eyes, and he suddenly looked sharp and serious, something his time in the military had caused no doubt. "Well," he said slowly, "that night you ran away . . . I'm not going to lie and say that it didn't do something to me. I stayed in my room alone for a good amount of time after you left, just thinking, wondering if maybe I could've done something to make you stay. I know I hurt you, and I know it's part of the reason you left, so don't try to tell me it isn't. I realized I didn't want to hurt people, especially not the ones I cared about." He broke off with a small sigh, resting his chin in the palm of his hand. "I guess I thought the only way I could ever redeem myself was to play a part in taking down anyone who dares try to hurt my family and my home. It's kind of stupid when you think about it."
"No," I told him sincerely, "it's not." Deciding that now was a good a time as any to bring up what I knew they were dying to discuss, I said, "It's true. I left that night because of what you did to me, but I also did it because I remembered Tsume, Kiba, and Hige. I didn't know who they were exactly, but I recognized how I felt when I was around them. They were fun, they made me feel accepted, and they protected me, even from myself."
"Around the time I turned fifteen, I almost broke and demanded they take me home. But I didn't know what I was going back to. I thought I was yearning for the familiar, but now I know I was just afraid of them because they were too wonderful. They were nice to me and they acted like they legitimately cared about me, and I didn't understand it. I was afraid they were too good to be true, and I wanted to leave before they had a chance to destroy the hope I had that maybe I wouldn't be the reject younger brother anymore." I continued, fighting past the burn in my eyes and the tightness of my throat. "But then they told me about what I was, about what we were trying to accomplish, and I knew I couldn't go home. I love you guys, and our relationship might be the best, but you're part of the reason I stayed with them. I wanted to give you guys a chance to have a future, like I said. You drove me forward when all I wanted to do was give up. When I was shot, they captured me and they were going to kill me. In those last few moments where I thought I might not make it out of there alive, I thought about you, about how things were and how I wanted them to be. Like back when we were kids and things like you pushing me into the fireplace never happened."
It was amazing I hadn't started crying yet, because normally just thinking about that time in my life left me feeling depressed. "And when we finally reached the Gateway to Paradise, I was the one that had to go in and stop the world from dying. I walked into a place where all of my fears were exploited and made real for you three. I watched you all die in that place, and to this very day it still haunts my dreams. I close my eyes and I see your dead bodies and hear your screams . . . smell your blood."
"Toboe." Airi said quietly after a moment, reaching forward to grab my right hand. She touched the cool metal of my bracelets briefly before running her thumb along the back of my hand. "You have every right to be upset with us. We were so awful to you, and I speak for all of us when I say that we've felt terrible for it all these years. We were all . . . dealing with things, but we had no right to take it out on you. We understand if you hate us for what we did."
"But that's the thing." I replied, laughing a little. "I don't hate you. I told you I loved you when we spoke that night and I meant it. I've learned over the years that the past should remain in the past. You can't let it control you, so I'm not letting my past dictate who I am and how I think."
Airi's hand tightened around mine, and I could tell that all my siblings were thrown by my response, probably expecting me to finally voice all of my frustrations after years of silence. Maybe I had been more upset in the beginning, but I'd been given a lot of time to think things through in the past three years, and I'd learned it was better to forgive and try to move on and heal then let my pain and anger fester within me. It was what had happened to Darcia. The force of his emotions had been enough to corrupt even the most pure of places. The mind was a wondrous and mysterious place, a keeper of all things intellectual and spiritual, and it had the power to make or break a person, even its owner. I liked to think of my mind as something I was forcing into submission with hard work and dedication.
"You're a really special kid, you know that, Toboe?" Hiro said eventually, reaching over to place a firm hand on my shoulder, giving me a slight shake.
And although my thoughts about my past hadn't been able to pull a few tears from my eyes, my older brother's words managed to accomplish just that in a matter of seconds as I processed what he'd said. "Why are you crying?" Airi asked me gently, using her other hand to wipe away the hot trails gently.
"Because—" I paused, collecting my thoughts as I focused on both my sister's and my brother's hold on me. "Because I love you guys, and at one point it never crossed my mind that you might love me back."
The rest of the afternoon passed without much incident, though a lot more tears appeared than the few I'd shed in my room in the presence of my brothers and sister. I'm quite proud to say that I managed to stay relatively calm, even when my mother started telling her tale of how she'd managed to cope with the worry about not knowing if I was safe or not, even after Dante told her that I was alive and well and would return on my own terms.
We all left the peaceful quiet of the farm around dinnertime in favor of eating at a restaurant in downtown Solerno called the Red Stallion. I remember the first time we went there was for Snow's seventeenth birthday, and while she, Hige, and I had made fun of the establishment's odd name, they really did have exceptional food that didn't make me wish I were eating raw deer meat instead. Over the course of the meal, I was able to speak to Sal in an almost discreet way while my mom was otherwise preoccupied with making sure Airi ate something that would benefit her baby. Even if I had been just an infant when my father left us, I had seen over the years just how it had affected my mom and my sister, even my brothers. I wanted to make sure he was serious about everything he was getting into, because if he did anything to hurt my family, I was going to sink my teeth into him. I didn't say that to him, exactly, but I saw the amused unease in his eyes when I spoke to him. I'd never overly liked the man, but it seemed as if he made my mom happy, so I was going to embrace his presence to the best of my ability.
His daughter, on the other hand, was another story entirely.
I knew I was going to like Stella from the get-go. I observed her at dinner, and I realized the nine-year-old reminded me of myself in a lot of ways. She was silent and shy as she sat in-between Sal and Kato at the table, quietly drawing on her menu with crayons like any normal child I'd ever seen, but her blue eyes had been bright and alert as she gazed around the table, listening and comprehending everything and anything that was said. At one point she'd noticed my gaze on her and met my eyes evenly, which was something I never would have done when I was her age. She'd tipped her head, regarding me curiously, then smiled in an innocent sort of way that kind of caught me off guard. She'd then talked me into playing a few rounds of tic-tac-toe with her, and I soon found myself thoroughly engrossed with the child when I probably should've been paying more attention to the family I hadn't seen in three years. She told me her favorite color, what her best friend's name was, how much she disliked school, and then proceeded to ask me dozens of questions that involved wolves.
Like I said, she reminded me of myself. Always the inquisitive one.
In the two hours we all spent at the restaurant, I allowed myself to slip into a false sense of normalcy, like the past three years hadn't happened and I was simply Toboe Asher, enjoying an outing with his rather large and odd family. It felt good to be back in my family dynamic once more, exchanging sarcastic words with Airi and amused glances with my brothers. I don't think I realized how much I'd missed them until they were sitting right in front of me.
But as all things do, it came to an end much too soon for my liking.
Stella had to be back in her own mother's home by the end of the day, and Airi needed to get to bed so she could get up early for a checkup at the doctors the next morning. Dante had been the one who was so insistent on it, causing Airi to snap at him for being too worrisome, glaring at him intensely. Dante Connolly, on his part, didn't react aside from a small twitch of his lips, giving my angry sister a smirk that looked a lot like a discreet smile. Snow and Hige had exchanged a worried glance at my sister and her boyfriend's antics, not realizing that their actions were essentially a part of their dynamic. I knew my sister well, almost too well, and I knew that she had no need for a man that would back down at the first hint of anger on her part. She and Dante were alike in a lot of ways, but one thing that Dante had that my sister lacked was a level head. He contained her anger without stemming it further. I decided I didn't need to give him a talk like I had with Sal. He already knew what he was getting into with my sister. He was far too observant not to.
Now, we were all standing outside the restaurant in a group, saying their farewells. Or rather, everyone else was watching my mom say her rather tearful farewell to me. "Mom, it's fine." I said with a slight laugh as she continued to hug me tightly, practically refusing to loosen her grip or let me go. "This isn't the last time you'll see me. I'll come home to visit soon, I promise."
"I know you will, I just—" She broke off with a frustrated and desperate sort of sigh, finally pulling away but still clutching at my shoulders tightly, tear-filled sapphire eyes darting over my face. "I'm afraid I'll wake up tomorrow and this won't have happened. I'll have dreamt the whole thing!"
I gave her a sympathetic and understanding smile. I'd felt that way for a good few weeks after I left home. "I assure you, this is all real. If you want to, you can call me on my cell phone tomorrow just to make sure. I don't have to be at work until ten."
She nodded, looking thoughtful for a moment before her eyes starting to water dangerously again. "My baby has a job."
"Mom, seriously." Airi said with a small groan, one hand on her hip while the other rubbed the top of her stomach lightly, looking like she would rather be anywhere but here. I knew that wasn't true, however. She was only tired despite her claims to Dante that she wasn't, and I imagined she must have been in a fair amount of discomfort after being on the go practically all day. "He's eighteen now, of course he'd have a job."
"It took a lot of convincing on our part." Snow teased from where she stood pressed against Hige, a smirk tugging at her lips as he wrapped his arm loosely around her shoulders with the same sort of look on his face.
"The lovebirds were the less than enthusiastic ones, not me." I said dryly as my mother laughed, kissing me on my cheek before moving aside to let my siblings say their own goodbye.
Hugging Airi wasn't as awkward as it should have been—considering her stomach and all—but it became a tight fit when Hiro and Kato decided to turn the gesture into a group hug that involved Hiro crushing me so tightly I almost couldn't breathe. "Get off me!" Airi exclaimed after a few moments, pushing against Kato's chest. "Pregnant lady trying to breathe here!"
"Her hormones have been really out of whack lately." Kato muttered in my ear before he made a break for his car, laughing as Airi threatened to castrate him, causing Stella to innocently ask what "castrating" meant.
"Dante, turn into a wolf and infect him with your saliva or whatever." Airi said with a huff as Kato slid into the car and shut the door, locking it behind him. "I like the idea of leading him around with a leash and muzzle."
"Wolves don't work that way, sweetheart." Dante said with a slight chuckle, and Airi flushed at the nickname, eyes darting over to me for a second. I, however, said nothing, only raised an eyebrow in amusement, feeling a smirk tugging at my lips.
Hiro turned back to face me after his laughter at Kato's expense died away, a sad sort of smile on his face. "Take care of yourself, Toboe. We won't be around to make sure no one kidnaps you anymore."
I nodded seriously, saluting him. "Yes, sir."
My twenty-one-year-old brother ruffled my hair fiercely with a callused hand, something I remembered that he'd done during our youth before things turned sour, and made his way over to the car that Kato now occupied. My mom rolled her eyes as the sound of the bass from their music vibrated throughout the vehicle. "They'll be deaf by the time they turn forty if that doesn't stop."
Glancing down when I felt a small tug on my hand, I came face to face with hesitant blue eyes and blonde curls. "You'll come visit us . . . won't you, Toboe?" She asked me, clutching the paper menu on which our games of tic-tac-toe lied with her free hand.
I nodded with a smile, crouching down so I was more on her level. I remembered when Hiro, Kato, and Airi used to have to do that with me. How things had changed. "I promise." I told her sincerely. "Maybe next time you can come visit and ride Pepper. I'm sure she'd love the company."
Stella beamed brightly, nodding, giving me a fierce hug that I wasn't expecting before scampering off to climb into my mom and Sal's car, shutting the door loudly behind her with strength that a nine-year-old shouldn't posses. "She's been curious to meet you ever since we first brought you up to her." Sal said fondly as I straightened once more. "I can definitely say you exceeded her expectations."
"That's what I'm here for." I said as the remaining members of my family began to move toward their cars, a small twinge of panic overcoming me. I pushed it away, though, because I would see them again soon, just as I'd promised my mother and Stella.
"Aliah's due September 14th, Toboe!" Airi called as Dante aided her in getting into the red Ferrari. "I expect you to be there. If not, I'll hunt you down and muzzle you myself."
I shook my head in amusement, and I felt warmth from other bodies surround me as my friends approached. Snow and Hige appeared out of the corner of one eye, Tsume and Kiba out of the other, and I was glad they were with me lest I start to blubber like a baby. They reminded me that I wasn't alone, even if my biological family was leaving to go to the home I'd left behind five hours away from this place. A rueful smile crossed my face as I remembered I'd never have to fear being alone ever again. I continued to stand still by the street as one by one, the cars started to peel away from the parking lot, and I didn't move until the last of their headlights had disappeared from my view.
Once they were gone, I released a shaky sigh, linking my hands together behind me head. "You okay?" Snow asked me gently.
I offered her a half-assed smile, too exhausted—both mentally and physically—to do much else. "Not really. That was . . . a lot."
"Sorry we had to spring that on you." Hige said, sounding legitimately apologetic. "We didn't want to say anything, 'cause we knew you'd worry about it up until they arrived."
"Nah, I'm not angry or anything." I explained, glancing up at the sky. It was around five o'clock or so, so the sun hadn't yet started to set over the horizon, but I felt as if I'd been awake since dawn. "You're right. I probably would have freaked out."
"You handled it well." Kiba said to me, and I could hear the proud undertone in his voice. Apparently I hadn't just impressed myself today. "Just like I knew you would."
"I was expecting a brawl." Tsume commented off-handedly. "Or a fight for custody. Perhaps both."
I laughed, feeling light-hearted. Tsume had spent the good majority of our time on the farm worrying over that very topic, about whether or not my mom would call the police and force me to return before I turned eighteen. I'd never been too stressed over it, however, because even though my mom had been worried, she knew I was happy, and therefore, would've left me alone, even if it meant losing a piece of her heart. "Well, we don't have to worry about that anymore." I said to him, pleased with the relief I saw pass over his face for a few brief moments. "I'm an adult now. No one can tell me what to do."
"Oh, really?" Snow drawled, crossing her arms over her chest. "Please do tell that to Michael tomorrow when we get to work. I've been vying for your locker for a few months now."
I shivered at her words, earning an amused chuckle from both Tsume and Kiba. Michael was our boss and most definitely wasn't the most pleasant man around. How he'd ended up being the manager at a youth center was beyond me. He'd often given Hige and I lectures about personal calls during work. In our defense, Snow had been sick for a good while after she turned into a wolf last summer, and Hige and I had worried over her while we were at work, even if Tsume had stayed behind to watch her. "Jacking a dude's locker the day after his birthday." Hige said slowly. "Harsh."
"Speaking of which, did you have a good day?" Snow asked me curiously, looking worried for a second. "You didn't get any real presents." She added, glaring over at Hige, Tsume, and Kiba.
"Hey, whenever we asked, he said he didn't want anything!" Hige said defensively, holding up his hands. "What the hell did you get him?"
"The gift of friendship." Snow sighed dramatically, wrapping her arm around my shoulders from behind and placing a hand over her heart, shaking her head. "Because it is by far the greatest gift money cannot buy."
I nodded grimly, shrugging my shoulders. "She's right."
"But," Snow continued, holding up a hand to halt any further conversation, "I do know that the best way into a man's heart is through material possessions, so I got him a novel that doesn't involve werewolves or vampires, because a good story cannot possibly be told by the undead, and gave it to him yesterday so you shmucks wouldn't feel guilty or anything."
I laughed heartily and Snow kissed me on the cheek like she had this morning. "Kiba, what exactly did you tell her when you were teaching her how to be a girl?" Hige asked. "It's obvious that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Everyone knows that."
"Ah, ah, ah!" Snow said, shaking her head. "Every guy is different. Isn't that right, Fang?"
Kiba smirked, glancing over at Hige. "She's right."
"But still." Snow said with a slight sigh of frustration. "I wish today would've been more fun for you. I'm sure you were fighting a breakdown every five seconds."
"Basically." I said, nodding, not liking the looks of guilt that appeared on my friends' faces. "But I don't really care. Getting my family to come down here was just . . . the greatest gift anyone could've ever given me. Thanks, guys."
Hige smiled smugly over at Snow. "Family. The greatest gift money cannot buy."
"Are you sad they're gone, Toboe?" Tsume asked me, digging around in the pocket of his jeans, first digging out his wallet, then his cell phone, and finally the car keys. We still had the same black van that Dante had given us three years ago when we found Cheza, though it wasn't our only car. Hige and I had found an old, red pick-up truck in the garage separate from the house. The two of us had fixed it up and we considered it our shared vehicle, though I drove it more often than Hige did.
I almost laughed aloud when I thought about when I first learned to drive. Tsume had been given the task, and while I strived to please and never liked to upset him, those weeks we'd spent in each other's company within the truck had been the most trying in our entire relationship, even counting all the times he'd pushed me away in our first life. He tended to yell whenever he thought my safety to be in danger, and I tended to yell whenever I was being yelled at. Everything turned out alright in the end, but even now I liked to make the car jolt whenever I was driving with Tsume as the passenger, amused by his startled reactions.
"Of course I'm sad they're gone." I said in response to Tsume's inquiry. "But I'm glad I had the chance to spend today with them. It was . . . refreshing in a way." I paused briefly before continuing. "And I have you guys, so . . . it's okay."
The three of them stared at me, the looks on their faces akin to what a deer may look like in the glow of headlights. Sometimes I didn't think they understood just how much they meant to me. In a way, I held them in a regard even higher than my own biological family's. These past three years had been so hard, a mixture of fear, regret, longing, and relief, because I was finally in a place where I felt as if I belonged. "Anyway," I said briskly, removing myself from Snow's grasp, "let's get going. I'm ready to start that book you gave me, Snowbell."
She nodded, giving me a huge smile. "Read it out loud to me. I want to make sure you got exactly what I paid for."
"Let's head home then." Tsume said, tossing the keys into the air before snatching them back once more. "I'm exhausted."
"Actually," I said as the four of them moved toward the van, "I think I'm going to run home. I need to get rid of whatever energy I have left."
"I think I'll join you." Hige said instantly, moving back to stand beside me. "You coming, Snow?"
"Are you kidding?" She demanded, snatching the keys out of Tsume's unsuspecting hand. "Claw here promised to let me drive home. Sorry, boys, I'm gonna have to decline."
"Be prepared to pull us from the wreckage." Tsume said with a sigh, following after the dark-haired eighteen-year-old as she got into the driver's seat, starting the engine with enthusiasm that only she seemed to have. "When I'm gone, Toboe, make sure Hige doesn't touch my stuff."
Kiba laughed as Tsume trudged to the car, turning to regard Hige and I in amusement. "Stay clear of the road if at all possible." He said before moving towards the car as well. "She's been waiting too long for this."
"Can she even drive?" I asked Hige quietly as the two of us gave Snow faux smiles of encouragement.
"Not a chance." Hige muttered back. "You see how she is whenever we hunt. The adrenaline is somewhat the same when driving a car for the first time. I think it's why Tsume and Kiba have been holding her back for so long. She's going to push that poor van to its limits."
"Should we make a break for it then?"
"Yes, I believe we should. After you, birthday boy."
And after checking to make sure no one was around to see, the two of us shifted with twin howls of laughter and took off down the street, able to hear the rev of the engine as Snow followed close behind.
I don't think either of us had moved so fast in our lives. It's not as if we really believed Snow was going to run us over, but the competition to see who was the fastest runner had been going on between us for years now. I always won unless, like earlier today, I allowed one or the other to pull ahead of me, and the two of them knew it too. This time, however, Snow had technology on her side, and no amount of yelling Tsume did was going to deter her from using it to its full potential. My pants accompanied with Hige's were about the only things I heard for a good while until I picked up on something else, something that made my heart thud with happiness as well as exertion.
Hige and I both looked as Snow pulled up beside us, looking every bit the wild animal she was during a hunt, although now she was human. Her hair was down and blowing in the wind from the open window, and her laughter probably could've been heard for miles as she sped down the street, the tires kicking up copious amounts of dust and gravel as the concrete streets died away into the back roads leading down to the farm. We still had miles to go though. The fight was still young.
Not for the first time, I wondered how I'd gotten so lucky as to have a family such as this one. Blood and physics weren't what bound us together, but the strength of the human mind and the will power we all had to remain together. Death couldn't separate us. Darcia couldn't separate us. The world hadn't even been able to keep us apart for long. We'd been born in different lives, some in different forms, and yet we'd all still managed to come together in some way or another, more or less telling Darcia and anyone else that would listen to rethink their devious intentions, because nothing and no one could sever the bond we all shared. I believed I could die and be reincarnated a hundred times over, and I would still find my way back to these wolves, the ones that had reshaped my very being into a wolf and a human that took moments such as these and held them in precious regard, because at one point, he'd been alone.
In a cold, dark alley in the dead of winter in Freeze City, a wolf ran from the barrel of a gun, hungry and cold and alone.
On a warm, summer day in the hustle and bustle of Fairfield, a human boy ran after his cat, battered and broken and alone.
Two different times, two different places, two different states of mind.
I had been both, that starved wolf and the lonely human. My lives were different, yet the same in a way that only those who looked closely could see. Maybe someone would have noticed the renewed skip in my step after I met Tsume that day if they'd known how I used to trudge along before. How true and full my laugh had been after I first talked to Hige, compared to how lifeless and dull it had been when it was hardly ever used. How I walked along with confidence after Kiba told me how proud wolves were, compared to how I used to slink through the shadows, an object of weakness in the eyes of humans, crows, cats, and wolves alike. How relieved I was when Blue spoke of Quent with such warmth, because being so attached to humans had been something I was ashamed of before she came along. They made me see a brighter side of things, of how life could be and how to better myself in the wake of the bad hands I'd been dealt in life.
When I was with them, I felt more in tune with my previous life than I ever would have without them. It was when I saw Tsume smile, or heard Kiba laugh, or watched as Snow and Hige exchange soft looks that they normally didn't express in public that I felt as if I even deserved them at all. The Toboe from before had witnessed all these things in a different time and when Snow was under a different name, and he deserved to be with them to the very end of his existence. I was that wolf, starved and alone. I deserved to be with them to the very end of my existence.
And for the first time, as I ran alongside Hige and Snow, and as I realized that the two of them were the ones that had pulled back this time and were allowing me to take the lead, I actually believed it.