It takes Claude the better part of four days to get home from Buffalo. He could have made it back to Philadelphia the night of the moon had it not been for the vampire he’d kept watch over. He actually could have been home sooner than that, but he spends more time than not, walking rather than running or just doing something simple, like getting on a plane. He needs the time to think. So he walks.
Claude has no fucking idea why he did what he did. He didn’t know the vampire or the vampires attacking him. Daniel, his mind helpfully supplies. He had no idea which side he was choosing, whether Daniel deserved what was happening or not. He had no real reason to step in and possibly mix himself up in something far bigger and more frightening than himself. He doesn’t know why he did it, but it’s too late to second-guess it now, because he can’t change it.
He killed those vampires. And if anyone ever finds out about it, he’s fucked.
Claude tries not to procrastinate going home but he can’t help it. He’s not actively avoiding returning to the den, he just finds himself wandering, letting his feet do the thinking for him.
Truth be told, he doesn’t want to go home.
There is far too much waiting for him. He knows that life is more or less standing still without having been there. They’ve been stuck in a stalemate for months now, scattered and just toeing the line of frantic. Leaderless, in the wake of Richie’s death, and, quite frankly, frightened with the ensuing loss of Carts, the pack has still been unable to name a new Alpha.
Claude knows what they want, that they need someone to step in and take the position, to watch over the slew of young Betas Mike had turned shortly before his death, but knowing it and doing it are two different things. He’s capable, he knows this. And it’s not that he doesn’t want to do it, there is just something picking away at his head and his heart, keeping him from stepping in and accepting the role as leader.
He can’t put his finger on it, and when he tries, he finds himself walking away from the situation entirely. It’s not who he is to desert his pack, especially not when they need him like they do. But long before the moon rose, Claude had fled the state. He just needed to be alone. And with the pack stretched as thin as it is, threatening to snap at the increasing pressure from the Six to name an Alpha or have one named for them, he needed out.
So he got out. And involved himself in vampire business.
Which brings him right back to the new set of problems that he’s created for himself. None of which he can solve.
He feels a little like tearing his hair out. Instead, he heads for home.
Claude barely even looks up when the front door opens as he digs for his key. He knows it’s Scottie without having to see him. He could smell him before he even got to the porch. He wonders vaguely how long Scott’s been pacing around, waiting for him to come back, but he’s sure he’s about to hear it anyway, so he keeps his mouth shut and pushes passed him.
Scottie grabs hold of his sleeve and pushes him into the den off the entryway, barely taking time to shut the front door behind him.
Claude rolls his shoulder against the instant mounting tension and rakes his fingers through his hair. Scottie follows him in, flicking on the light and shoving at his chest. Claude wasn’t expecting that. He stumbles back a step, looking for the first time at Scottie’s murderous face. His sharp reply dies on his tongue.
“Where the fuck have you been?” Scott demands, sounding an awful lot like his father rather than his packmate.
“Out,” Claude snaps, folding his arms against his chest.
“Fuck you,” Scott growls. “Five days, Claude,” he says, holding up his hand unnecessarily.
Claude rolls his eyes. “I know how many five is, thank you,” he says sweetly.
“You’ve been gone for five fucking days, Claude. You missed the moon. Do you know how fucking nervous the kids were? Do you have any fucking idea how hard it was to get all seven of them through it?” Scottie is shouting now and, while Claude doesn’t blame him for it (he’d be yelling if the situation were reversed too), he still resents being treated like a child though.
“I’m sure you handled it just fine. You’re treating me like you’re my goddamn Alpha all right,” Claude snaps back.
Scott opens his mouth like he’s going to say something but he just laughs instead, a loud, incredulous sound that actually makes Claude feel more guilty than anything Scottie’s said to him so far. He rakes a hand through his curls and tugs enough to spark pain along his own scalp. “You are un-fucking-believable,” Scott says quietly, shaking his head.
“Don’t act like you’re some fucking martyr,” Claude growls, folding his arms again, even though he’s not feeling nearly as defensive as he was a few minutes ago.
Scott just shakes his head again. “I’m serious, Claude,” he says, his voice lower now, like he doesn’t want the kids to hear, regardless of the fact that they can read his thoughts. “You’re supposed to be here. You’re supposed to be stepping up and filling the void now.”
“I’m not Richie,” Claude says quietly.
“No one’s asking you to be, you selfish shit,” Scott says, shaking his head again, like he’s disgusted with Claude. “You were being groomed for this, not me. Not fuckin’ Kimmo, not Max, not anybody else, Claude. You.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Claude spits.
Scott lets out a slow breath and shrugs. “I have no idea, Claude. All I know is that we have a dead Alpha, seven Betas under the age of twenty-five and you’re off doing fuck knows what on the moon.”
Claude looks down at the floor. “I know, Scottie. Christ, I know, all right?”
He’s a little surprised when Scottie’s hands clasp on his shoulders and when he looks up, the other ‘wolf’s eyes aren’t as hard as they were a moment ago. “We have got to present a new Alpha at the next Summit, Claude,” he says seriously. “The Six is not going to let us slide anymore. If you don’t want to do it, then you need to say that so we can work something else out. But for fuck’s sake, do it now.”
Claude has been over this a million times in his head since Richie died. He knows he’s next in line by blood, he knows this is what they’re all expecting, hoping, that he’ll do. Hell, he wants it. He wants to be this for his pack. But he just… something inside of him is holding back. And that fact alone is enough to scare him away from the idea. He has the sudden urge to run again, but he stays rooted to the spot and keeps his mouth shut.
He’s not sure what his own thoughts look like to someone else, but he’s assuming they’re mostly the dark snarl of emotion that they feel like in his head, because Scott seems to pity him. Scott sighs, hands gentling and sliding around his shoulders, pulling him in against his chest. It’s not a tight hug, because Claude could shove out of it, demand the distance between them be restored if he wanted; he brings his hands up to rest on Scott’s back. It’s all right.
Nothing is good, right now. But this?
This is all right.
Despite being home and showered and back in clean clothes for the first time in nearly a week, Claude cannot sleep. Scott has held things together a lot better than he made it sound like. No one is missing, everyone is relatively healthy, or curled up tight with one of the older Betas who can heal him after the moon, the den isn’t falling apart; nothing has really changed. Richie and Carts are still dead. Everything is suspended midair as it was when he left.
Claude towels off his hair, watching his reflection in the mirror as he does. He’s still a little scratched up from the fight with the vampires and his neck is still a little bruised from where Daniel fed on him, but Scott either didn’t notice or chose not to say anything. He hasn’t felt a prod in his head from his packmate since he walked in the door and it’s more than a little concerning. Scottie is usually always in his space.
He flicks off the light and heads out of the bathroom, moving silently through the hallway and down the stairs. Everything is dark but he can see just fine. He doesn’t want to turn on a light or wake someone with his noise.
He tosses his towel into the laundry room and goes back to the kitchen. Claude stares into the refrigerator for a while even though he’s not really hungry. It’s been a while since he ate anything, though, so he grabs one of the protein shakes from the top shelf and heads for the living room.
Coming around the side of the couch nearly gives him a heart attack. Reemer and Coots are both asleep there, one on each section of the couch. Their heads are resting together on one cushion and Coots has his hand up, lying close to Reemer’s head and James’ arm is hanging over the side of the couch, fingers curled against the floor, like they’d been holding hands.
Claude finds himself staring at the two of them for an awkwardly long amount of time before he realizes that James is looking back.
Reemer holds his gaze for a while, blinking tiredly in the dark, before he slowly pushes himself up on his elbow, rubbing his face with his other hand.
Hey, Reemer offers silently, his mental voice sounds quiet and off-put.
Hey, Claude replies, just as quietly.
Where’ve you been? No beating around the bush, but it’s not as accusatory as Scott was, though equally concerned and more curious.
Claude glances over at Sean, who is still fast asleep, and then back at Reemer. It’s a long story.
James rolls his eyes and sits up as quietly as he can, moving over to create a space between himself and Coots’ head for him to sit. Claude is entirely too exhausted to have this conversation right now, but it feels obligatory, not much like a choice. So he steps silently around the coffee table and sits down gently in the spot designated for him.
James is a surprisingly comforting presence beside him, warm and sleepy, his consciousness brushing gently along Claude’s as he draws a knee up to his chest, managing to make his larger frame appear smaller. He leans back against the cushions and watches Claude, who fiddles with the cap on his drink. He doesn’t feel much like drinking it but it’s starting to make his fingers cold, so he cracks it open and takes a sip.
G? Reemer asks again after the silence has stretched beyond comfortable. Claude looks at him; it’s childish but he knows he’s not making this easy. He doesn’t know how to explain the Buffalo thing. He doesn’t know how to put the Daniel thing into words or make it make sense to his packmates because it doesn’t make sense to him.
James sighs and leans his head over until his cheek is resting on Claude’s shoulder. Claude puts a hand on his thigh and Reemer bumps their knees together. They’ve been close ever since Richie made him, even though it was only a few months ago. He’s felt something akin to responsibility toward James even before their Alpha died. Now, the feeling has only intensified. He knows what’s waiting for him at the next Summit. He knows what the pack wants and needs from him. He knows what he needs to do. He’s just not sure that he’s absolutely ready to accept it.
Reemer takes hold of his hand suddenly and Claude realizes his thoughts probably weren’t as quiet as they should have been. He lets out a heavy sigh and tips his head to the side, letting his cheek rest on top of James’ head.
He doesn’t want to talk, so instead, he opens up his memories to James and lets him see for himself. Everything Claude has done over the past few days is made available to him and Reemer accepts the flow of thought, remaining still and silent until Claude stops the feed.
“Wow,” James murmurs quietly.
Claude lets go of his hand to scratch his fingers against Reemer’s hair. “Yeah,” he replies, for lack of anything better to say.
“Did you know that vampire?” James asks.
Claude shakes his head. “I can’t explain it,” he says, his voice still low, aware of Coots sleeping at his other side, but every bit defensive. “He needed help.” Reemer shrugs and sits up again, sniffing, wiping at his nose. Claude’s eyes narrow at him. “Are you sick?” it’s not really an attempt to change the subject, but if it does that for him then he’s not going to protest.
Reemer’s eyes flick over toward Sean a moment before his gaze drops to his own leg, fingers picking at the plaid pattern on his pajama bottoms. Claude glances at Coots and then back at James. Attraction manifests itself oddly among their kind.
“Reemer…” Claude starts reproachfully.
“I know. Too young, I got it all from Scott already so save it.”
“Don’t tell me to save it.” Claude feels like he should be following that up with something else but he just doesn’t have it in him. Sean’s a sweet, shy kid. He’s taller than Claude but somehow only marginally bigger than him as a ‘wolf. He doesn’t talk much and when he does, it’s mostly to James and Claude. When Richie had first brought Coots around, Claude had protested because of his age, but Richie had seemed set on it. Claude wonders now if maybe the sudden influx of Betas toward the end should have been a bigger tipoff than it was at the time. Not that it matters much anymore. “Does he know?” he asks instead.
Reemer shrugs, looking up again. “I don’t think he’s caught on.”
“I think you should probably keep it to yourself for a while,” Claude says, his voice calm, making it more of a suggestion rather than an order.
James seems to understand that it’s both, looking over at Claude finally. “I guess,” he mumbles.
“I mean it. Now’s not the time.”
“I said okay,” Reemer responds a little too loudly.
Sean chooses that moment to make a fairly pathetic noise in his sleep and flex his hand. When he squeezes nothing but air, his palm flattens on the cushion and fans out, like he’s searching for James’ fingers again. Claude puts his hand on top of Sean’s and it tightens instantly.
It only takes a few moments before he realizes the difference, even in his sleep, and his eyes crack open. He turns his head just enough to look up at Claude and he smiles sleepily, squeezing his fingers. He looks ridiculously young with his hair tousled and his cheek lined with creases from the couch cushion. Claude can’t help but smile a little.
“G,” he rasps, voice just barely audible. “You’re back,”
“Yeah,” Claude murmurs.
“Where’d you go?” he asks, yawning widely as he pushes himself up, letting go of Claude’s fingers to rake a hand through his unruly hair.
Claude feels James’ cheek against his shoulder again and he reaches out, stroking a hand down the side of Sean’s face to his neck. His thumb lingers against his pulse and Coots pushes into the pressure. Claude pulls him closer with just the slightest tug and Sean closes the distance quickly. He nudges up under Claude’s arm, tucking his larger body against his. He’s warm and pliable, winding his arm around Claude’s waist with a quiet murmur of sound that turns into a shaky sigh when Reemer’s hand closes around his elbow.
Claude runs his hand over Sean’s back as he settles again. He doesn’t press again and neither does James. He feels Coots fall asleep again fairly quickly and James lingers but not much longer.
“Nowhere,” he finally whispers when he knows that neither of them can hear him.
If Claude hadn’t been exhausted before, then the both of them clinging to his aura would have pulled him under rapidly anyway. As it is, he’s wiped out and the emotions that threaten to surge forth from being reunited with his packmates after nearly a week apart have him tipping his head back against the cushions and falling asleep within minutes.
He feels warm for the first time in days.
“Claude.” It takes a lot longer than it should for Claude to realize that the voice speaking his name isn’t a dream. He jerks awake with a sensation of full-body exhaustion and stiff joints. He’s still on the couch with James and Sean asleep, pressed against him.
He feels frighteningly disoriented as he tries to place the voice. “Yeah?” he asks before his gaze lands on Scott, standing behind the far section of the couch in the dark.
“Come to bed, come on. You’re gonna be sore as hell tomorrow if you sleep there,” Scott grouses, coming around the side of the couch as Claude struggles to get more upright. Sean makes a disgruntled sound and tightens his arm around Claude’s waist.
“Reemer,” Claude murmurs, his voice thick with sleep. He shakes both of them a little and James wakes with a start.
“What?” he asks, blinking rapidly.
Claude shakes Sean until he flaps his hand at Claude and mumbles something unintelligible into his shoulder. Scott takes hold of his arm and pulls him off of Claude. He blinks awake instantly, reaching out blindly to grab onto his shirt. “No,” he gasps and Claude can feel the brief spike of panic. It makes him want to hang his head in shame.
“I’m right here, Sean,” he says, sitting forward on the edge of the couch as Scottie gets him to his feet. He rubs at his face a moment, listening to Coots’ thoughts go quiet again, the rush of adrenaline at being pulled away from Claude fading.
James gets up and moves in to take Sean from Scott. “Let’s go to bed,” he says. Coots looks almost drunk on his feet, and not just from the lack of sleep.
Claude feels incredibly guilty as he watches James maneuver Sean out of the room and toward the steps. He has every confidence in Reemer’s ability to get him to bed without trouble, but he can’t shake the overwhelming feeling that he’s failed them, somehow much greater than he ever thought.
Scott puts a hand on his shoulder and Claude moves, following James silently up the stairs. Scottie turns him toward the room he normally only shares with Kimmo. He’s not surprised to find that they’ve separated beds so that Reader and Bob can join them. The kids are both curled up on either side of Kimmo, Bob with his face buried against his chest, barely visible under the bundle of blankets atop him. Claude stands in the doorway a moment, just taking in the scene. Before he left, before Richie, the kids had all shared a room, sleeping more in a pile with one another than anything else. Now, they’ve split up, seeking out older members of the pack to keep them stable. And Claude wasn’t here for them. He hasn’t been.
What kind of a leader will he make?
Scott pushes him toward the bed, interrupting his doubt-filled thoughts. He welcomes it, allowing himself to be moved so he doesn’t have to think. It’s only when he’s got one knee on the bed that he realizes that it’s not empty. Brayden is bundled up under the blankets, just off from the center of the bed. His head is just brushing the bottom of the pillow and his face is barely peeking out. Claude hesitates again, but Scott just pushes him forward.
Claude scoots in, pulling the covers up over himself, feeling how cold Brayden is and how quickly he squirms in toward him. He doesn’t wake up but Claude lets him push against his chest, his nose cold where it’s pressed to his throat. The overwhelming sensation of having fucked up crashes over him again as he buries his nose in Brayden’s hair. The kid sighs shakily against his neck and Scott turns on his side, not pressing up against him but his hand a steady anchor on his hip. He swallows the feeling of regret at having put himself above every single one of his packmates, of having put his life on the line for a vampire he doesn’t even know.
It’s stupid. All of it is stupid and, while he doesn’t exactly regret saving Daniel, he almost wishes that he hadn’t, because he shouldn’t be thinking about anything aside from these Betas.
And his thoughts keep drifting back.
The kids are the only ones who seem surprised when they wake up the next morning to find that Claude has returned. Max and Kimmo bump their foreheads against his, taking a moment to solidify their connections again before moving on toward the coffee pot.
Claude sits at the breakfast bar, drinking a glass of orange juice as the younger ones filter in. Coots hugs him and it kind of heats Claude’s cheeks, but he pets his back and lets Sean nuzzle all over him until Reemer comes in and tells him to quit hogging him. Sean flushes a little but he looks otherwise unrepentant. Wayne picks him up off the stool from behind in a crushing bear hug that leaves Claude’s internal organs aching.
“Okay, can’t breathe,” he says, smacking at Wayne’s arm.
Wayne ruffles his hair a little harder than is necessary and he gets the feeling that the other ‘wolf is probably angry with him. “Have a nice vacation?” he asks, leaning back against the counter once he’s got a mug full of coffee.
Kimmo looks over at him from where he’s peeling a waffle out of the iron. “Wayne,” he says seriously.
“Just asking. You were gone for almost a week. Had to be nice to get out, eh?”
Claude stares at him and Wayne stares back, meeting his gaze evenly. He knows Wayne is relieved to have him home, he can smell it as much as he can read it in his thoughts, but he knows the hell he’s put them through recently. Wayne has a right to his anger. Claude just wishes they could have this discussion in private and not in front of the kids, who are nervously glancing back and forth between the two of them or avoiding the conversation altogether.
“It wasn’t like that, Wayne,” Claude says quietly.
“Yeah? What was it like, G?” Wayne asks, setting his mug down and tapping the tips of his fingers against the countertop. “Just felt like running? When we’re down an Alpha and his mate and have a bunch of kids who don’t know how to control the change yet?”
Wayne is barely younger than Claude and he’s been with the pack nearly as long but he knows Claude is the one they’re all looking to in order to get them through this.
“Wayne,” Scott interrupts, his voice loud, booking no room for argument.
“What?” he snaps, pushing away from the counter and taking a few steps toward Scottie who stands up from where he was leaning against the island. “We’re just gonna pretend like that didn’t happen? Like he didn’t just fuckin’ bolt?”
“We’re not pretending anything,” Scott says, keeping his voice low, even though Wayne is precariously close to intruding on his space. “In fact, we’re going to talk about it right now and you’re going to back the fuck up or regret it.”
The tension in the air is suddenly so thick Claude can barely breathe under it. He slides off the stool and gets himself between the two of them, putting a hand on either of their chests and pushing. They both step back without protest, even if they’re glaring at one another around Claude’s head.
“Enough,” he says quietly. “Both of you. Scott’s right. We’re going to talk about this. Sit down.”
Wayne moves back to where his coffee mug is sitting and hops up on the counter.
Claude is silent a moment, looking down at his feet while his heart races, trying to determine where to even begin. This is probably not a discussion they need to have in front of the younger Betas but Scott nudges at his mind and tells him, Let them stay. So he does.
“All right,” Claude starts slowly, finally looking up as he folds his arms against his chest and leans back against the island. “I’m sorry,” he says, not looking at anyone in particular. “I left when I needed to be here. And I can’t change that. But I can promise that it won’t happen again. I’ll be here, for every moon.” Sean has the most innocent smile on his face and it pangs something awful in his chest. He looks over to Wayne. “I needed to think. I’m sorry.”
Wayne drops his gaze but the brush against his aura is warm and forgiving so Claude looks back to Jakub, who seems to just have woken up in time for this unofficial meeting, leaning against the far doorway. Claude meets his gaze and watches the sleepy smile filter across his face. He crosses the distance between them and folds his arms around Claude’s neck.
“Forgive you,” he mumbles, the beginning of the sentence lost to Jake’s accent; he can’t tell if it’s ‘we’ or ‘I’ but either way, he takes it.
Jake pulls back and clasps his shoulders, smiling a moment before his gaze zeros in on Claude’s neck. He wants to squirm away instantly or cover it but he knows his panic has already given it away to everyone so there’s no point in trying to avoid the questions now.
“What happen to your neck?”
Claude rubs at the bruise self-consciously while Scott pats Jakub’s chest, guiding him with a push toward the coffee pot. “Nothing,” he mumbles, looking around. He can tell that exactly no one believes him but no one pushes either. He moves from the center of the room to lean back against the wall, arms folding against his chest again, tighter this time. “The Summit is next week,” he says, changing the subject as much because he has to as for his own comfort. “We need to present a candidate for Alpha.”
There are a few nods and just as many looks downward. He can feel the intense and sudden sadness over Richie and it fills him with a fresh burst of uncertainty. Scott nudges him internally but he doesn’t quite know where to go from here so he falls silent, his thoughts rushing a mile a minute.
It’s Harry who ultimately breaks the silence. “I thought it was gonna be you.” He sounds unsure, like maybe he shouldn’t be speaking at all.
Max speaks before Claude has a chance. “I don’t know why we’re beating around the bush on this,” he says, drawing the attention of the room. He’s looking at Claude though. “We all miss Mike. And Jeff. No one can… replace them, but we need an Alpha. It’s gotta be you, G. No one else fits.”
Claude looks over at Scott who shrugs and it reads so much like an I told you so that Claude kind of wants to punch him for it.
“So we’re in agreement,” Kimmo says. “We suggest G as our new Alpha?”
Claude looks around at everyone. They’re not all looking at him but each of them is either nodding agreement or verbalizing it. He feels so strangely relieved. They haven’t talked about it, none of them have; not since Richie died, taking Carts with him. They’ve all just been assuming and hoping and Claude has let himself be nearly crushed under that pressure.
He’s still not all the way there with it, but hearing them wanting him to be their Alpha does something amazing for his ability to relax.
The Summit is in Detroit. Claude keeps this in mind when he’s picking which Betas are going to go with him. He doesn’t want to leave the kids behind, not after practically jumping ship when they needed him, but he also doesn’t want them around so many vampires. It’s not that he doesn’t trust the Detroit Sire, because disconcertingly enough, he does, he just doesn’t want to subject them to their undead counterparts yet.
Scott comes into the bedroom while he’s zipping up his suit bag. Claude’s freshly showered and packing his things for the flight tomorrow afternoon. His hair is a little wet, sticking to the back of his neck, and his shirt is stuck to his damp chest. The v-neck does nothing to hide the faded bruise on his neck, however, and he knows that Scottie is looking at it without turning to face him.
“You ever gonna tell me the story behind that?” Scottie asks quietly. Claude doesn’t look up from where he’s setting the bag down on the bed. He moves toward the dresser and busies himself with picking out socks to match his ties. “G,” Scott says after a minute of being ignored.
“No,” Claude says without looking at him, turning to tuck his socks into his duffle.
“No?” Scott asks, moving closer to him.
Claude heads back to the dresser, rearranging everything he’s just messed up. “I told you, it’s nothing,” he says, closing the drawer.
Scottie is silent a moment before he says, “Now’s not really a time where we can afford to keep secrets from each other, G.” Claude closes his eyes, his hands both planted firmly on the top of the dresser. He takes a few slow breaths and tries to keep his thoughts to himself; it’s difficult when he’s known someone for so long and been known as well as Scott has known him over the years. But still, he tries. He’s not really surprised when Scottie moves in closer but still gives him enough space that he’s not feeling overtly crowded or trapped. He keeps his voice low when he says, “Just tell me one thing.” Claude keeps his head down but he opens his eyes, giving Scott permission to continue. “Did you let him? Or was it against your will?” Scottie’s voice is careful and measured, like he’s preparing himself to hear either answer and ready to react no matter what Claude says.
It takes a moment, and the reminder that he’s already shared with Reemer, before he looks at Scott out of the corner of his eye and sighs, resigning himself to the fact that he will never be able to keep anything from Scottie as he opens up their connection. Scott stands incredibly still as he accepts the chain of memories from Claude, his eyes clouding over, trancelike, as he takes it all in.
Claude still feels weirdly protective of the part about Daniel, but that’s the one thing Scott is really asking to know, so he gives that over as well.
When he’s done, Claude turns, leaning against the dresser with one arm, facing Scottie full on, waiting for his reaction. Scott’s face looks mostly blank but Claude can easily read the surprise in his eyes. His eyebrows are just the slightest bit drawn up and Claude folds his arms against his chest, feeling incredibly defiant.
“Okay,” Scott finally says at length. It sounded like there was more to come after that statement but Scott just remains silent.
“Okay?” Claude asks after a minute.
Scottie drags a hand through his curls and fists it there a moment, blowing out a breath that puffs up his cheeks. “Yeah,” he says, shrugging and letting his hand drop. “What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know,” Claude says slowly. “I thought you’d have more of a reaction, I guess.”
“Oh, I don’t think you want to hear what I have to say.” Scott scratches at his jaw and shrugs again.
“I could just pull it out of your head,” Claude tries not to sneer.
“And where would the fun in that be?”
Claude huffs and looks away. “Great.”
“You wanna know what I think?” Scott asks, eyebrows climbing toward his hairline. Claude looks at him again. “I really don’t think you do.”
“You’re an idiot,” Scott snaps. “What the fuck is wrong with you? We’re expecting you to be named Alpha tomorrow and you’re off killing vampires and letting them drink your blood like some motherfucking fangbanger.”
Claude takes a swing at him. Scott sees it coming a mile away, though and he knocks Claude’s arm away before punching him hard in the gut. Claude folds in on himself and Scott slams him up against the nearest wall. “Fuck you,” Claude spits, voice tight as he tries to regain his breath.
“No, fuck you, Claude,” Scott growls, pinning his shoulders to the wall, drawing Claude up to meet his gaze. “This pack is depending on you and you know it. And what do you do? You kill a couple of vampires and let another feed on you.”
“They were gonna kill him, what was I supposed to do?”
“Let them!” Scott shouts, his voice exasperated as he shoves Claude hard at the wall again before letting go. “Jesus fucking christ, Claude. Who gives a fuck? It’s a vampire. They hate us. They do everything they can to fuck with us and kill our kind. Who cares if they want to kill each other? They’re doing us a goddamn favor!”
Claude hates that he jumps when Scott punches a hole in the wall near his head but he’s not expecting it. He hasn’t ever seen Scott this mad. He’s not afraid, not by a wide margin, but he’s suddenly much more aware of the gravity of what he’s done and how much danger he’s put his packmates in.
Scott swears as he presses his hand against his chest, brushing the drywall dust off of his skin.
Claude watches him for a moment before he blurts out a blunt, “I’m sorry.”
Scottie looks at him. “No you’re not.”
“Not for saving that vampire but for… everything else.”
Scott stares at him and Claude holds his gaze. He won’t apologize for Daniel. He refuses. But everything else, Scott is right about. He can hear the fear in his thoughts, even if he won’t voice it. “If you were put to death over those vampires, this pack would fall apart, Claude,” Scott says quietly, his voice horribly serious.
Claude looks down briefly and swallows. “I know.”
“You have got to stop being so nearsighted. The bigger picture is this pack, Claude. It’s those fuckin’ kids downstairs. It’s the goddamn fucking mess Richie left us in.” That’s not really fair, considering how Richie died but Claude isn’t about to go around pointing fingers at the way his packmates are grieving. Look how he’s handling it.
“I know,” he says again. “No one’s going to find out. He won’t tell anyone.”
“How do you know that?” Scott asks seriously. “How can you be so fucking sure about him?”
Claude doesn’t mean to shrug, doesn’t mean to make the whole thing seem so insignificant and small, but he just knows. “I just know,” Claude says simply, because that’s all he’s got.
Scott watches him for a moment before the fight seems to drain out of him. “All right.”
“The pack is everything to me,” Claude says seriously. Scott nods, because he knows, he can read it in his head. “It was stupid,” he admits. “But, right then, I had… control again.” He feels stupid when he tries to explain but he presses on regardless. “I haven’t felt that way since Mike died.”
Scott’s shoulders slump the rest of the way and he takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Claude can read it in his thoughts that he gets it, he understands, and he accepts it, so he doesn’t voice it beyond a quiet, “All right.”
Claude moves slowly, putting his arm around Scottie’s neck and pressing his forehead to his shoulder. He closes his eyes when Scott’s hand on the small of his back pulls him just a little bit closer. “Come to Detroit with me,” he says quietly. He’d initially planned to leave Scott behind with the younger Betas, but right now, all he wants is his packmate beside him.
Scott nods and rubs his knuckles against Claude’s spine a little. Claude feels better than he has in a long time.
In the end, Claude fears leaving the kids behind without enough of their packmates to protect them (against what, he hopes he never finds out) and takes only Scott with him. They’re only allowed one Beta at their side during the actual Summit itself so that’s all he really needs, he figures.
He’s anxious on the plane, his leg bouncing nervously as he stares out the window into the darkening sky as they close the distance between Philly and Detroit. Scott puts his hand on Claude’s thigh after a while and he tries to sit still, but when he starts shaking his leg again, Scott takes hold of his hand instead. Normally he’d shake the touch off, but right now, he holds on.
Claude adjusts his tie when he steps out of the cab and waits until Scottie is beside him before he heads up the stairs toward the building. It’s well passed fully dark by the time they arrive and there are more than a few vampires milling about. Claude feels like his entire body is bristling on sight. There are always too many smells, too many different types of werecreatures, coyotes and cats and fucking bears. He always feels like he’s walking around the zoo whenever the Summits come around.
A zoo featuring the undead, Scott helpfully supplies as they walk through the open door into the lobby.
Claude rolls his eyes toward Scott and promptly runs into someone.
“Sorry,” he says automatically, looking up right into the bright blue eyes of the New York Alpha. His expression tightens even more; they’ve never gotten along with this pack and he doesn’t really know why. There’s just something about them that makes his skin crawl on sight.
Lundqvist nods at him and then at Scott. He’s got his mate and two other ‘wolves with him, the huge one and the one that always seems to be fighting with someone (Claude thinks the two are mated but he doesn’t really care).
“It’s fine,” Lundqvist says, holding out a hand, which Claude shakes out of habit. Henrik clasps his forearm as he does. “We’d like to speak with you before the meeting starts,” he says, gesturing off toward his right. Claude looks over to where Chara and two of his Betas are standing talking with Toews and his mate.
Claude’s lip is pulling back when Scott nudges the small of his back. Walk, Scott tells him. Claude follows when Lundqvist moves, trailing behind his Betas to keep in step with Scottie.
What the fuck do they want? Claude growls in his head.
Well, it’s all Original Six Alphas, so I’m guessing they want to know what our plan is. Just stay diplomatic. I guess.
Big help. Claude rolls his eyes and comes to a stop with his arms folded against his chest. He doesn’t say a word and looks only at Lundqvist.
“You know Toews and Chara,” Lundqvist says unnecessarily. Claude stares at him. “We need to know what you’re planning on doing about your Alpha situation,” Henrik says quietly, keeping his voice even and level, gentle almost.
It still makes Claude want to punch him in the face. “We have it under control,” he says.
“Really? Because you haven’t been able to come up with an Alpha in three months,” one of the Betas beside Chara says. He’s bigger than Claude, his head is shaved and he’s got a strange looking scar above one of his eyes. Claude’s never seen him before, but judging by the look and smell of him, he’s been with the pack a while.
“Shawn,” Chara says quietly, holding out a hand to silence him.
“Fuck you,” Claude growls, instantly on edge. “You ever had your maker and his mate die in two days? Did he ever leave you with seven Betas he just turned who don’t know how to control their change?”
“Claude,” Scott interrupts, putting a firm hand on his chest and easing him back the couple of steps he hadn’t realized he’d taken forward.
“Apologize,” Chara says, looking down at Shawn, who looks like he might mean it, just a little bit, when he mutters an apology.
“No one is implying that what you’ve been through recently hasn’t been difficult,” Toews says in that inflectionless monotone he’s known for.
“Sure fuckin’ sounds like it,” Claude practically spits, throwing his hand out toward Chara’s Beta.
Chara, to his credit, speaks before the Beta can. “You have our sympathy. We’re worried for your pack. You need an Alpha. We can’t delay the vote any longer.”
Claude wasn’t aware that the Original Six Alphas had been acting on their behalf to give them more time to solve the issue. Scott nudges gently at his mind but Claude ignores it. Stupidly, as it turns out.
“We don’t need your help,” Claude says, folding his arms again.
“Sure seems like you do,” Chara’s Beta opens his big fucking mouth again and Claude jerks forward, only to have Scott grab him and tug him back.
“Fuck you!” Claude shouts. “You and your fucking dirty bear blood, who the fuck are you to tell us how to run our pack?”
Chara grabs Shawn by the upper arm and holds him in place, looking down at Claude like he actually pities him or something and it makes his ‘wolf absolutely rage. He struggles to get away from Scott, needing to feel the crack of his knuckles against that stupidly smug-looking Beta’s face, but suddenly Lundqvist is taking hold of the back of his neck and Claude can barely feel his own legs. He’s jerked to the side, thrown off enough that Scott is able to half drag him into the nearby hallway that Lundqvist seems to be leading him toward.
“Listen,” Henrik says, pushing him against the wall and standing far too close to him. He doesn’t touch Claude again but he’s entirely too much in his space and he feels trapped, his ‘wolf pacing restlessly in his blood. “We’re on your side,” Lundqvist says, sounding angry and exasperated. “Chara’s been the one arguing on your pack’s behalf more than anyone else, to give you more time to select a new Alpha.” Claude tries not to show his surprise at that but he can tell the moment it flashes across his face, because Henrik takes a step back and rakes a hand through his hair.
“We don’t need your help,” Claude says again, even though he knows just how badly they apparently do.
Shut up and listen, Claude, Scott supplies unhelpfully.
Fuck off, Claude snaps but he remains slumped against the wall, watching Henrik anyway.
“You really do,” Lundqvist says, but there’s no heat to it, just the worried sort of sincerity he’s come to expect from this Alpha. “We’re trying to help you. We understand what the loss is like. My Alpha died, Chara’s Alpha died, we understand the pain,” he says, touching his own chest. “He was young, your pack wasn’t ready for it. We get that. But we can’t put this off any longer. You need to present a candidate tonight or one will be named for you. And believe me, the vampires are not going to vote with your best interests at heart.”
Claude kind of feels like he’s had a bucket of cold water dumped over his head. He knew all of this, rationally, but hearing it from someone else, another pack with an Alpha he’s never quite liked is different somehow. They’ve never needed another pack’s help before, never needed aid of any sort, because Richie was a good Alpha. He took care of them, never let them want for anything, and now, suddenly, he’s gone. And it’s Claude’s responsibility.
He rubs his palms against his face and tries not to groan. Scott’s hand on his shoulder isn’t exactly a welcomed weight, but he doesn’t shrug out from underneath it.
“You’re the candidate, right?” Lundqvist asks eventually.
Claude lets his hands drop and he meets Henrik’s gaze. “Yeah,” he says, watching the other Alpha nod.
“All right,” he says simply, like that’s all he needs to hear.
“What?” Claude asks skeptically.
Lundqvist runs both hands through his hair, in what is clearly a method perfected over time, shaking it back into place. “We’re behind you on this,” he says seriously. “We’re not your enemies, Claude.” He thinks this is the first time Lundqvist has ever said his name before.
Claude doesn’t know quite what to say to that, so he just lets his gaze drop a little and watches as Lundqvist shakes Scott’s hand and heads back out to rejoin the other ‘wolves.
It takes several minutes before Claude feels composed enough to follow Scott out and into the meeting room.
With the way the Six has been breathing down their necks to select a new Alpha, Claude’s a little surprised that the issue is actually one of the very last things brought up for vote. He’s been sitting, slumped in his chair with his chin in his hand, scratching increasingly dark circles into his notes with his pen when Lidstrom finally mentions it.
He sits up straight and moves immediately when called forward to stand alone before the Summit. His heart is hammering wildly in his chest but Scott’s presence in his mind is soothing and he’s able to regulate his breathing by matching his packmate’s. He straightens his jacket and fidgets a moment, unsure of what to do with his hands.
Lidstrom looks at him. “Giroux, correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Claude says steadily.
“We’re voting on your pack’s candidate for Alpha.”
“Correct.” Lidstrom gestures with his hand, giving him the go-ahead to speak. He feels like he’s about to choke on his own words. “After, uhh, a vote, among my packmates,” he starts, feeling the skin on his neck prick up with the sensation of being watched, “I’ve been chosen to represent my pack as Alpha.” He wants to glance around but he doesn’t allow himself to; this is far too serious a matter to screw up, and he knows he has the full attention of the room anyway. Everyone is looking at him.
Lidstrom glances at one of his Sired and then back at Claude. “You voted on this?”
“Are any of your packmates present to confirm this?”
Claude looks over at Scottie, who stands. “I am.”
Lidstrom glances in his direction. “Your pack is in full agreement of this?”
“We are,” Scott confirms.
“Are you all aware of his inexperience in age? And that he will now cast votes on your kind’s behalf?”
Claude feels ridiculous standing here, listening to Scott speak about him to this vampire like he’s not even in the room. Like he’s not standing on a platform for everyone to judge. He feels itchy under his skin and the sensation of being critiqued so carefully hits him again. He can’t help the glance to his right. His breath catches at the sight of Daniel staring right back at him. His heart rate skyrockets and he can hear the way Scott’s voice shakes at the involuntary jolt he gets from it. It tears Claude’s attention away and back to his packmate, who is glaring at him from across the room. His cheeks heat and he drops his gaze until Lidstrom turns his attention back to him.
“Giroux.” Claude looks up again. “Are you fully prepared to accept the responsibility of guarding this pack?”
“Yes,” Claude says seriously, completely aware that this is the most solemn vow he will ever take.
“Are you prepared to raise your former Alpha’s Betas as your own? And with it, accept responsibility for their actions?”
The heavy feeling of both Scott and Daniel’s gazes on him is making it difficult to breathe.
“Are you prepared to protect them and provide for them?”
Lidstrom looks to Lundqvist and makes a questioning expression. When Henrik nods, he gestures him to speak. Claude turns his attention to the New York Alpha.
“Are you mated?”
“No,” Claude feels his hackles go up and Scott’s aura brushes with his to soothe him.
“Are you aware of the mating ritual and how to perform it?”
Claude’s cheeks are heating and he feels suddenly awkward, knowing that Daniel is listening to this. Why, he’s unsure. “Yes.”
“Are you absolutely certain that you’re ready to bring your pack’s young Betas up in keeping with our most ancient traditions?”
“Yes,” Claude says again, trying to keep the stress off the word.
Lundqvist turns to Lidstrom and nods again. The Sire turns then to Chara, who shakes his head and Toews who also shakes his head. He wastes no time in asking, “Those in favor?”
Claude isn’t surprised when the hands of the Alphas rise, or Lidstrom’s, but he’s a little thrown when Phaneuf’s hand goes up. Claude has never liked him; he doesn’t know a ‘wolf who does. It strikes him then that the Toronto Sire must think he’s going to fail and is voting in favor of it.
He can go fuck himself.
“Congratulations,” Lidstrom says quietly, “the Original Six officially recognizes Claude Giroux as the Alpha of the Philadelphia pack of ‘wolves.” Claude’s heart skips a beat in his chest and then he’s flooded with relief so strong he nearly collapses under the rush of it. “You may sit.”
“Thank you,” Claude finds himself saying.
Scott stands again to hug him when he gets back to his seat. Claude smiles for what feels like the first time in months.
The Detroit Summits are always two days long. Sometimes they can get out of the others in one night but, for whatever reason, when they come to this city, everyone seems to bring every issue they could think of with them.
The first evening draws to a close with just a couple hours before dawn. Most of the vampires head toward their rooms while the werecreatures take advantage of the fact that they don’t have to hide from the sun. It’s more of a flaunting thing rather than any real desire to stay awake past three in the morning.
Scott heads for their room but Claude isn’t ready to sleep yet. He’s beyond wired from being named Alpha. His entire body feels electric and he just really needs to take a walk, wear off a little of the energy. Scott does his best father impression and tells him not to leave the building. Claude just grins and tells him that as his Alpha, he will do whatever he wants. Scott rolls his eyes and ruffles his hair before moving toward the elevator bank. He stops and grabs a beer from one of the dining rooms before he takes the stairs all the way up to the roof. He needs the time and the silence to think.
The roof is blessedly deserted as he props the door open and makes his way over toward the ledge.
“Oh,” he says suddenly, when he realizes that he’s not alone. Daniel turns to look at him and Claude’s heart starts to pound a little harder. “Sorry,” he mutters, coming to a stop a few feet away.
“It’s all right,” Daniel says, looking up at him. He’s sitting on the edge, feet dangling over the side. Claude feels nervous just watching him. When Claude doesn’t speak, Daniel looks down at the spot beside him. “You can sit. I don’t mind.”
Claude has to force himself to draw a breath and nod. He doesn’t really want to sit that close to the edge of the building but when Daniel offers him a hand, he moves closer and sits down without help out of sheer spite. Daniel’s mouth lifts in a small smile when Claude settles about a foot away.
It’s barely been two weeks since he met this vampire but it feels as though it’s been months. When he looks at him out of the corner of his eye, it feels like just minutes. Claude twists the cap off of his beer and flicks it out, down to the street below.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Daniel tells him quietly.
Claude takes a drink before he looks over at him. “Why not?”
“You’re polluting the city.”
“This city is polluted,” Claude says with a snort, even though, really, Detroit isn’t that bad.
Daniel gives him a look, like he thinks Claude is too young to know what he’s talking about. Claude’s seen that enough from Richie in the past to identify it. The thought of his former Alpha fills him with such intense and sudden longing that he nearly whips the beer bottle over the edge too. Instead he takes another drink.
Daniel shudders a little beside him and Claude looks at him again, eyebrows drawing together. “You cold?”
“No,” Daniel says, still looking out at the mostly deserted streets below. “We don’t get cold.”
Claude knows that but he doesn’t feel like pressing. He doesn’t feel like much of anything really. He takes another drink. “Right.”
“So, congratulations on being named Alpha,” Daniel tells him, clearly changing the subject.
“My Alpha died and my pack needed me,” he says, feeling defensive all of a sudden and he’s not sure why. He knows he has to watch what he says around vampires, keep their business private, but something about the situation just feels like it doesn’t apply here. Daniel has fed from him and if Claude were to tell the Six that, he would be severely punished; maybe even put to death.
The rush of emotion he gets at that, namely fear, which he doesn’t understand, is quick and powerful and Daniel shifts uncomfortably at his side.
“What?” Claude finds himself asking.
Daniel looks at him. “Nothing.”
“You’d think you’d be a better liar by now.”
Daniel’s eyebrows draw together and he looks something akin to hurt as he turns his attention back out to the skyline. Claude doesn’t know why it bothers him when Daniel looks that way but it does. He kicks at Daniel’s foot with his own.
“I don’t lie much,” Daniel says after a minute. “Never have.”
Claude’s beer is sweating in his hands, even though it’s relatively cold out. He wipes his palms against his thighs when he sets it down beside him and presses the tips of his fingers together. “How old are you?” he asks, unsure why he’s curious, placing it on the fact that he’s never interacted with a vampire before, not like this.
Daniel looks at him. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-four,” Claude answers without much beyond an inhale of hesitation. Daniel nods, biting at his own lips a moment before he huffs a laugh that is visible in the air around them. He doesn’t know if he should press, and normally he would, but instead he opts for a subject change. “You’re from France, originally?”
Daniel nods. “You’re not, I assume.”
“Exotic,” Daniel deadpans.
Claude laughs a lot louder than he means and the look of surprise on Daniel’s face makes him laugh harder. It only takes a moment before Daniel laughs too. It takes a minute before Claude just shakes his head and looks away. “Ass,” he mutters, but there’s no real heat behind it.
Daniel’s feet kick at the side of the building a little and the ensuing silence isn’t at all awkward. “I joined the French Navy to fight for American independence,” he says so quietly that most of it would have been lost to the wind, were it not for Claude’s enhanced hearing. He looks at Daniel. He’s a little taken aback at hearing how old Daniel is. Most of the vampires he’s been forced to interact with at Summits aren’t nearly that old. Daniel turns his head and meets his eyes. “Two hundred sixty-three,” he says, holding Claude’s gaze.
It’s a moment before Claude can murmur a quiet, “Wow.”
Daniel rakes hand through his hair and looks away again. “Yeah, wow.”
“I didn’t mean it negatively. Just… impressed, I guess.” Daniel doesn’t look at him, however, he just nods, and Claude gets the feeling that he’s offended him somehow. He surprises himself when he reaches over and places his hand on Daniel’s arm, and the resulting rush of sensation he gets nearly bowls him over.
His mind is suddenly bombarded with images of the night when Claude saved Daniel, only this time they’re from another perspective. He feels Daniel’s pain and the way his back breaks, the overwhelming feeling and acceptance that he’s going to die, again. He sees himself and feels the way Daniel trusts him, the way Daniel hasn’t stopped thinking about him since that night.
He jerks away in surprise when Daniel manages to cut off the flow of thought. Claude is careful when he pushes himself up, aware of how one wrong move could send him toppling over the edge of the building, but when he’s on his feet he backs away from Daniel, who stands with ease and looks back at him. Claude thinks he can almost feel the sadness, the want, bleeding off his aura and it scares him.
“Claude…” Daniel says worriedly.
This all terrifies him suddenly so much that he just turns and runs from the situation entirely. He makes it down about a dozen flights of stairs before he stops himself, breathing heavily, clinging to the rail to steady himself. His knees feel weak and his legs are shaking but he doesn’t allow himself to slow. He needs to put as much distance between himself and the vampire as he can. He makes it another few flights before he takes the elevator the rest of the way to the floor that most of the ‘wolves are sleeping on.
He realizes too late that he doesn’t have his key, must have left it on the roof, so he has to knock until Scott gets up and lets him in. He looks a little perturbed at having been woken up, but one glance at Claude’s face, and it seems to melt away. He lets Claude practically crush him in his grasp until he doesn’t feel quite like he’s going to fall apart anymore.
Claude doesn’t see Daniel again the next evening but he spends the entirety of the plane ride back to Philadelphia with Scott giving him concerned prods anyway. He shrugs it off and stares out the window again, intent on remaining silent.
He can’t get this vampire out of his head and it’s only serving to cause him considerable stress.
All it takes to remind him of what’s truly important, though, is the way Coots climbs into bed with him when they get home that night. He’s sleep-warm and comfortable against his chest, nuzzling in against his throat. He feels good; all of them do, suddenly much brighter and more prevalent than they’ve ever been in his head.
They’re all depending on him now, he reminds himself, stroking a hand down Sean’s back; even Scott, who is laying silently on his other side. They need him to focus on the pack, bringing them back together and making them strong. They need him and he is going to be there for it.
He’s their Alpha. And these Betas are his.