"He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf ..."
--King Lear, Shakespeare
Body dump at Flare Construction site. Female shifter abducted three days ago. Sherwood pack alpha's daughter-in-law.
Don checked the text one more time, clipped the phone onto his belt and got out of the SUV. Adjusting his sunglasses to deal with the glare of the early morning sun, he surveyed the construction site that had become his crime scene. Already, it was a hive of activity.
Besides his own team, there was another pair of LCIS investigators, forensics techs, local Detectives, patrolman and a handful of construction workers crowded toward the edge. Not to mention the curiosity seekers and reporters hovering right up against the tape.
Automatically, Don searched out his people and found them easily, despite the commotion and press of bodies. David, notebook in hand and all-business expression firmly in place, was talking to the local LEOs. Megan had a couple of construction workers pulled aside, presumably those who'd found the body. Colby in his honey brown fur slunk quietly around in his wolf form using preternatural senses to seek out minute clues too small to be picked up by the crime labs fancy equipment.
To an outsider, it might look like a finely honed team. An efficient group automatically dividing up the labor. But Don was looking closer. There was no eye contact between them. No subtle body language or small gestures communicating silently with each other. Each went about their job expertly and professionally as a group of individuals who happened to be working together on the same case.
That would be fine for another team. One that wasn't an MCRT. One that wasn't a pack. Don's pack.
He'd seen it, with other MCRTs around the country. He'd worked with one memorable team in Virginia when he'd been teaching at Quantico. At first glance, they'd seemed like a hodge-podge of opposites and conflicting personalities. But they'd worked together so smoothly they seemed to be reading each other's minds.
Don knew part of the problem was the flux of wolves in and out of his pack since he'd moved back to LA and taken over the team. First, the majority of the old pack had requested transfers when their old alpha retired. Then the previous Assistant Director had replaced them by plopping David onto his team to keep tabs on Don. That had worked out alright, though. Sinclair had shown his loyalty was to the job and to getting things done right. In hadn't taking long for Don to accept him into the pack.
Then Terry had left, forcing David to become Don's beta. A role he wasn't comfortable with. The addition of Megan and Colby had done nothing to make the team feel more cohesive. Both were smart and competent assets to the team but they were each reserved and aloof, in their own ways.
Even after months of working together, that was all they did. Work together. And run together three nights each month. They hadn't even attempted to cultivate that close-knit atmosphere.
As alpha, Don knew it was his fault. The packs strength had to come from him. His own attitude set the tone. His own detachment made it easier for the others to hold onto theirs. It was his responsibilities to fix it. He just didn't have the first clue how to do it.
David caught sight of him, said a few more words to the patrolman in front of him then headed over.
"What have we got?" Don asked.
David opened his notebook and flipped a few pages. "The victim is a member of the Sherwood pack. Dr. Sandra Leigh. Her husband is Ethan Leigh, oldest son of the alpha and considered the alpha-in-waiting. She was kidnapped three days ago by a masked man with a gun while jogging with a friend."
"Man? Not a wolf?"
David shrugged then glanced toward the LCIS pair still talking to the LEOs "Gates and Brown were on the original case. Said the friend was human and couldn't tell by scent. The path is popular and well used and they couldn't get a clear scent, either."
"Why weren't we called in for the kidnapping?"
"We were in court testifying on the Albert case."
"Right. What else?"
"Body temp and smell suggests she was killed this morning. Somewhere else then dumped here. The construction workers found her around 6:15 when they started showing up for work."
Don glanced at the covered body. Wide open dirt all around it. There were lots of nooks and crannies the killer could have tucked into. There was plenty of digging equipment. A wooded area with a pond was only a few miles away.
"He wanted the body to be found. Why?"
David gave another shrug but looked as disgusted as Don felt.
"Because he's a sick son-of-a-bitch."
The voice rumbled over Don's shoulder and he spun, hand on weapon before his eyes landed on the man who'd spoken.
"Ian Edgerton. What the hell are you doing in my city?"
"Same old, same old. Chasing monsters."
They shook hands and leaned in for a one armed hug. Don knew most wolves, in general, were uncomfortable around Ian. As a Changeling, he should have been less powerful than most natural shifters. The fact that he put off an aura that could cow most alphas made everyone a little nervous. Which was the reason why Edgerton had been packless since he was seventeen.
Don, though, was comfortable with his own place and power. Ian was an asset and a good man. He was always grateful for the help when the sniper showed up.
"You know who did this?"
"Yeah. The bastard wants them to be found because he's not just torturing the victim, he's torturing the whole pack. That begins in earnest when they know exactly what's happened to their pack mate."
Ian sat on the desk of the briefing room, one leg swinging while he waited. At another table, Don and Megan flipped through the initial crime scene photos as they waited for the rest the team.
Charlie was the first one off the elevator, though, and Ian felt his lips twitch a little at the sight. Tweed jacket over faded t-shirt, curly hair unruly around the handsome face, he had his full bottom lip caught between his teeth and a lost look, as if he hadn't been to LCIS field office dozens of times before. Don's little brother was a mass of contradictions. Part brilliant, confident and celebrated professor. Part lost and naive little kid.
Both parts tugged at Ian in a way that nothing else had in a long, long time.
Which was why he took such pleasure in needling the younger Eppes. Ian liked to make the younger man think, instead of blithely assuming he knew everything. He liked to keep him a little off balance. Liked to see him blush and stutter and drop those long lashes in confusion when Ian subtly flirted.
Unfortunately, that was as far as Ian would indulge himself. Charlie was Don's brother and he respected the alpha too much to mess with his family. The Professor Eppes was not a one night stand type and Ian didn't sleep in the same bed two nights in a row. A man who perpetually lived out of a single knapsack didn't make permanent connections.
Especially a lone wolf who didn't exactly have a choice in the matter. Not many alphas were comfortable with Ian. Don was one of the few who didn't try to hurry Ian out of his territory as quickly as he could. But he was sure the alpha didn't want him to linger, either. And he most certainly wouldn't want Ian touching his little brother.
So Ian schooled his features into the studied boredom that gave nothing away while he watched the sexy movement of Charlie's lithe body maneuver through the maze of desks in the bull pen. Just because he didn't intend to touch, didn't mean he couldn't watch the pretty show.
"Don." Charlie called out to his brother before he'd even entered the room, struggling to pull the strap of his messenger bag over his head as he sidled his way through the door. "Sorry, I didn't text back right away, but I was in a class and had my phone off--" He stopped mid-sentence when his gaze collided with Ian's. "Agent Edgerton. I didn't know you were on this case."
The mathematician sounded a little breathless, though it was more likely from his struggle with the strap than with Ian's presence, a wolf could enjoy the ambiguity.
Ian dropped off the desk and let his lips twitch up into a half smirk and his eyes narrow a little in a considering rake over Charlie. Right on cue, soft pink stained pale cheeks. "It's nice to see you again, too, Professor."
"Uh, so, um, what's the case?" Dark eyes flicked over Ian quickly before shifting toward his brother.
"Ian's going to brief everyone on it once Colby and David get back."
The sound of the elevator doors open again, over the din of the bullpen and Ian caught the scent of the two other pack members approaching. "They're coming."
Don glanced through the glass wall and nodded in satisfaction as he watched Sinclair and Granger enter the room, closing the sound-proof door to give the group some privacy. To Ian, it seemed the alpha's eyes were a little more intense but then he shifted back and rolled his shoulders.
"Alright, Ian, you've got the floor," Don said, once everyone was settled. "Tell us what we're looking at."
He flipped open the first case file but didn't bother to glance at it. He'd memorized the details when he'd first got the case.
"Eleven years ago, Eliza Core was kidnapped. She was the wife of a small-town pack alpha. Ten days later, her body was found in a ravine two hundred yards behind her own house. Forensics showed she'd been kept alive but beaten and tortured for three days before being strangled and dumped."
"Sounds familiar," Sinclair murmured through clenched teeth, looking at the photos still scattered on the table.
"It's going to get downright repetitive. No arrest was made. The killer had managed to mask his scent and was smart enough not to leave any clue or trail to follow. Six months later, the daughter of the beta of a neighboring pack disappeared. She was found dead a few days later."
"Same MO?" Granger asked, though it was more a statement than a question.
"How many, total?" Megan asked, her voice hitching a little, though her face remained impassive.
"Two more in New York City, from two separate packs. The adopted son of an enforcer and then a single female pack member three months later. A year after, in Chicago, a soccer mom was the first victim. Six weeks after her body was found, a nineteen year old boy from another Chicago pack was snatched from an over/under club. He somehow managed to escape from his kidnapper and provide enough information for the Chicago LCIS agents to capture the abductor."
He plucked the mug shot from another file folder and stuck it to the white-board behind him.
"Percy Devon. Twelve years ago, he was a member of a small pack in Vermont. According to people who knew him, he was always a little odd and no one was really surprised when he went rogue and beat up his mate. Needless to say she left and pressed charges. He served six months. His pack repudiated and exiled him."
"Vermont? The pack of the first victim?"
"Exactly. The pack of the second victim was the pack his ex-mate married after she left him. After that, he apparently just got a taste for murder."
"But if this guy's in jail, he can't be our guy," David said.
"Except he escaped during transfer five months ago. Chicago put twenty-four hours surveillance on the survivor of the last attack and his whole pack. But three weeks after the escape, another pack in Chicago lost a member. She turned up several days later, dead, with Devon's signature all over the scene. Then he just dropped off the grid. The original FRT assigned couldn't find a trace and I was called in a week ago. When I heard about the missing person case here, it sounded like my man."
David tapped his pen against his lips. "I get the alpha's mate from his old pack, to punish them for repudiating him. But why the beta's daughter? Why not his ex? Or her new husband if he wanted to torture her? Why all the random pack members in other places?"
"He's a serial killer," Colby said from next to the beta. "Once he got a taste for all out murder, his purpose shifted. He saw something in the others that reminded him of that first kill."
Ian hesitated. What he'd discovered hadn't been mentioned in any of the reports he'd seen. No one else thought it was important but he'd learned to listen to his gut a long time ago. And if anyone was open to out of the box thinking, it was this team.
"It might be more than that. Every pack that lost a member to Devon before he went to prison is now, for all intents and purposes, defunct."
"Heart of the pack." Even with his preternatural hearing, Ian almost missed Don's murmur.
He smirked at the alpha. "You've worked with Gibbs and his pack too, huh?"
"Once, when I was instructing at Quantico. His team is something else."
"What are you two talking about?" Colby asked
Ian crossed his arms and leaned back against the desk, dipping his head to give the floor to Don.
"There's an alpha in Virginia who believes every successful pack has a 'heart' that rest of the pack rallies around. It's what holds them together and keeps them from disintegrating."
"Of course, Marvell."
Charlie's excited shout immediately drew Ian's attention. He was shuffling through his bag with that frantic energy and the bright eyed grin that said something brilliant and incomprehensible was about to come out of his mouth. Ian's shoulders actually relaxed for the first time in days as he hopped up on the desk and got ready to enjoy the show.
Numbers and equations were already flashing through his brain as Charlie rummaged in his bag for a spare piece of paper and a pen to capture it. Half forgotten theorems and equations popped and bubbled up from his subconscious, already coming together in plans on how to best help Don and the team.
"You mean Marvell's lynch-pin theory?" Megan asked.
"Yes. Exactly." All those numbers and theories spilled out of his mouth until he ran out of breath.
When he glanced around at the blank, lost faces of Don and his team, Charlie sighed a little, knowing he was going to have to find a way to explain the math so they'd understand what he was trying to do.
Unable to help himself, Charlie's gaze flickered, then lingered, on Agent Edgerton. The man was loose limbed and relaxed sitting on the desk across the room. Instead of looking lost and confused by Charlie's rambling, he looked indulgent, amused and something else that Charlie tried really hard not to think about.
He dropped his eyes to the pad and began scribbling out the string of thoughts zipping through his head as he took a moment to regroup.
Ian Edgerton was sexy as sin. All predatory grace, sharp features and exotic looks. But it was always those dark eyes that made Charlie's heart pound and his body heat.
They had an intensity, a focus that made him wonder what it would be like to have all that attention riveted on him.
Of course, that was never going to happen. Even if Edgerton could be interested in a math geek, Charlie would never risk it. He'd been abandoned enough in his life that he wouldn't intentionally get involved with someone who'd be gone as soon as the case was over.
Even if he was crazy enough to risk his heart that way, the sniper had made it clear the first time they met what he thought of Charlie. At best, he considered him a naive scholar stuck in his academic ivory tower. Thought he lacked real world experience. He was more right than Charlie wanted to admit.
They had managed to find common ground, however, the last couple of cases, and even managed to work surprisingly well together. Despite that, Charlie knew that the gorgeous agent wasn't interested in a mathematician beyond how he could help solve a case. The lone shifter was not someone to allow himself to have a pathetic crush on.
"I studied the Marvell theory in undergrad but I don't remember there being much math." Megan was saying next him as he finished his calculation and pulled his meandering thoughts back from fruitless wandering.
Charlie looked over and smiled at her. Before he could say a word, she held up her hand and sighed with exaggeration.
"Wait, I know this one. Everything's math, right?" She laughed and flashed a dimple at him.
"Okay, but what exactly is Marvo's pin theory?" Colby asked.
"Marvell's lynch-pin theory. In the 1920s, Rene Marvell posited that packs with a positive lynch-pin thrived. Those with a negative or no lynch-pin would fall apart within a generation."
"Lynch-pin?" David asked.
Megan answered as Charlie struggled to find the words to translate the mathematical theory to the real world.
"It's a wolf that touches the lives of every other member of the pack in some way on a regular basis."
"Like an alpha?"
"Surprisingly, no. Alphas see the big picture and are focused on protecting and preserving the pack as a whole. Betas, by nature, protect and support the alpha." Megan shook her head as she spoke. "No, usually it's someone who has only a small impact on each individual but a somewhat consistent one. In a way, they tie the pack together with seemingly inconsequential interaction. If they are a positive one, that is. A negative lynch-pin actually drives small wedges between pack members. A pack with no lynch-pin often just drifts apart."
The team listened but looked somewhat skeptical so Charlie jumped in. "Imagine an old engine with tons of gears and pistons and moving parts. If a good mechanic oils and maintains it with care on a regular basis, it could keep running indefinitely. If someone who didn't know what they were doing came in regularly and banged on it with a hammer, used the wrong oil, and moved parts around, it would break down pretty quickly. If no mechanic touched it at all, it would simply wear out and stop working after a while."
He moved to the white-board and started scribbling numbers and symbol as fast as he could.
"Duncan Lawry did a series of studies in the 60s trying to disprove the theory. Instead, he came up with a set of equations to help identify a lynch-pin and determine whether their net effect was positive or negative." Charlie stepped back and pointed at the white-board. "For our purposes, if I can get enough data about local packs, I can narrow down the most likely targets."
"Okay, that's great Charlie," Don stood up and moved towards the door. "Megan, why don't you see if you can get the information Charlie needs and help him narrow it down for us. Colby and David, follow up with re-interviewing the victim's pack and running down any leads forensics turn up. Ian, why don't you and I head out to the abduction site and see if we can pick up anything the original investigating team missed."
Edgerton gave a short nod and hopped down off the desk to follow Don, Colby and David out of the room. The sniper paused at the door and glanced back.
"Nice work, Professor. Good hunting." Then he was gone, the sound-proof door swinging shut behind him, thankfully, before Charlie's heart started hammering in his ears and his breath caught for a second in the aftermath of Ian's intensity.
Megan gave him a small smile but didn't say a word as she started gathering the detailed information they were going to need to find the answers they were looking for.
By seven, Charlie found himself alone in the garage parsing through the data by himself. Megan was amazing at getting all the information he needed. Once he started talking about the math, however, she gave him that tight look and laughed a little, looking completely lost. Eventually, he'd gathered everything up and brought it back to the house.
It was at times like this he really missed Amita and Larry. Not only their help in setting up the algorithms and programs and research. He missed the companionship and the ability to bounce ideas off of someone who understood. At least, he knew that Larry was coming back. He had a couple of months of training in Houston then four months on the International Space Station. In six months, he'd have his best friend back. In the meantime, there was always the phone and email. At least until liftoff.
Amita, on the other hand, was gone for good. Charlie had known he was moving too slow. But old fears were hard to get past. In his experience, people he allowed himself to care about left, one way or another.
Don had practically disappeared from his life for a few years after he joined the LCIS. Susan Berry had chosen education and career over their relationship. His mother... well, it may not have been her choice, but she was gone from his life now, as well.
Still, he had gotten past his hesitation and had thought they were moving forward, getting closer when the offer from Harvard had come. He knew he shouldn't be disappointed that Amita had chosen a once-in-a-lifetime job over a relationship that had barely begun. Especially when Charlie was the one who'd been so hesitant going in. He was though. When she'd told him she was moving all the way across the country and that she didn't think she could handle a long-distance relationship, he'd been crushed.
Thankfully, he'd made it back to the privacy of his office before the anxiety attack had left him breathless and gasping.
The sound of Don calling out to announce his arrival pulled Charlie back from the depressing spiral thoughts of Amita always led to and he dropped the chalk. Wiping his hands on his jeans as he went, Charlie headed into the house only to stop abruptly when he realized his brother wasn't alone.
"Don," he acknowledged with a careful nod. "Agent Edgerton."
The taller agent rolled his eyes at Charlie's formal tone.
"Did I hear the bellowing of my eldest son?" Their father clattered down the stairs and stopped on the bottom riser when he caught sight of the guest. "Oh. Hello."
"Ian, this is my father, Alan Eppes. Dad, this is Ian Edgerton. He's working this case with us. I'm sure you've heard us talk about him."
"Of course. It's nice to meet you, Agent Edgerton." He stepped forward and shook the lone shifter's hand. Charlie had to give his father credit. His eyes only widened a fraction when he got a hint of the powerful aura practically bursting out of Ian. Most wolves flinched a little when they first felt it.
"Call me, Ian, please."
Charlie didn't miss the way dark eyes and an amused smile slipped in his direction when he spoke.
"Only if you call me Alan." He cleared his throat and tugged at the waistband of his pants. "Have you boys eaten yet? I was just about to call in an order to Romano's."
Fifteen minutes later, Charlie found himself in the kitchen, gathering plates and utensils while his father cleared the table and Don ran to the local restaurant for their takeout order.
"You know, you can call me Ian, too."
Charlie gasped and fumbled the forks he'd been gathering, biting back the curse at the damn sniper's ninja stealth. The words had been whispered practically in his ear. Warm breath ghosted along his cheek, a strong shoulder pressed into his when he would have sworn Ian was on the other side of the room.
"I. Yeah. Okay. Ian."
The sniper chuckled. He still stood so close that Charlie could feel the vibration of Ian's amusement all along his arm. He held his breath, knowing it was unintentional and that he was crazy for not wanting to move away. Not even the fraction that breathing caused.
The slamming door and Don's shout broke the spell over him. Charlie scrambled to gather the rest of the silverware before hurrying out to the table. He was acutely aware of Ian sauntering out behind him with a handful of plates and resisted the urge to keep glancing over his shoulders.
As they dug into the delicious food, Don and Ian talked about procedure and leads and Charlie tuned them out, allowing the numbers he'd been working with to dance through his mind.
"With the full moon coming up, we have a little breathing room. He's never taken anyone when he'd keep them over the full moon. It's doubtful he'll try to abduct anyone until it starts waning."
"Good. That'll give Charlie time to figure out the most likely targets. You're welcome to run with us, while you're in town."
"That would be nice. I don't get to run with others very often."
Charlie thought about Ian's uniqueness and other wolves' response to it. He doubted the lone shifter got invited to run with other packs often. Most alphas would be threatened by his power. And too many wolves were tradition bound and short-sighted enough to consider an unusually strong Changeling wolf a freak.
"...Dad runs with us sometimes, but Charlie never does."
Don speaking his name pulled Charlie's attention back to the conversation only to realize Ian was studying him with a frown. When his brother and father got up to clear the dishes, Ian asked, "Who do you run with?"
"Ah, CalSci has a small park set aside for shifters. I run there."
"Is there a university pack?"
"Not really. Some of the students form pseudo-packs that serve as surrogates during the semester when they are away from home. I don't run with any of the students though. Even in wolf form, I have to keep a certain level of distance and propriety. Sometimes, Larry comes out and watches. He's human though, so he doesn't really run. Usually, he just stargazes and ruminates on the cosmos."
Ian's brows came down and he leaned forward but Don came back. Whatever Ian was going to say was left unsaid.
Charlie escaped back to the solitude of the garage as soon as he could. But the inspiration that had gripped him earlier had disintegrated. There were still too many packs on the list he'd generated for Don and his team to effectively to protect them all.
Like New York and Chicago, Los Angeles had a multitude of packs crammed into a relatively small geographical area. They ranged from small, team packs like Don's MCRT, to the medium sized neighborhood pack they'd belonged to when he was a kid. Then there were the large, prominent multi-generational packs that could trace their roots in an area for decades.
Percy Devon had attacked indiscriminately all types of packs. Charlie knew there was a reason he'd chosen specific packs. He just didn't know what that reason was. Yet.
He was missing something critical.
After an hour of frustration, he dug out his cell phone and punched in a familiar number.
"'lo?" The voice answered with a sleepy slur and Charlie winced as he glanced at the clock.
"Sorry, Larry. I didn't realize what time it was. Or think about the fact that it was even later in Houston."
"It's alright. I wasn't sleeping very well anyway. It's surprisingly more difficult than I'd anticipated, re-adjusting to sleeping in an actual bed."
Charlie couldn't help chuckling at the disgruntled admission.
"You wouldn't think it was funny if you weren't already used to living on caffeine and the energy generated by your own thoughts." A yawn punctuated his point. "I assume you had an important reason for calling me."
"It's a case I'm working on for Don. I'm stuck and I was hoping to bounce some ideas off of you. Like we use to."
He didn't intend to sound so wistful but the words came out breathy and pathetic.
"I'm sorry that I had to leave so soon after Amita's abrupt departure from your life. If I could have convinced NASA to postpone the launch, be assured I would have."
"I know Larry. It's fine. It's just. Don and his team like my help, but they have no idea what I'm talking about most of the time. It sort of feels like I'm trapped in a foreign country and no one speaks my language."
"Alright, Charles. Tell me about the case and what you're trying to do."
Charlie dove in, talking at a fast pace as he filled Larry in on the current crime and the information that Edgerton had shared about the previous crimes.
"Agent Edgerton? The same one from the sniper thing last year? And the drug company case?"
"Yes. The case where you flirted with Megan by reading that chemist's manifesto."
"I was not flirting with Megan. I was engaging in intellectual discourse on a topic of mutual interest."
"And then you took her to lunch."
"Regardless of my own romantic entanglements, we were talking about yours."
Charlie froze, trying to still his expression even though Larry couldn't see him. "What are you talking about? I'm not involved with anyone right now."
"Which is exactly the problem. It took you years to gather the courage and ambition to approach Amita romantically. When she chose Harvard, a job, I might add, few of us would have turned down, you closed yourself off even tighter from any emotional relationships."
Something sharp and electric zipped through him, leaving an ache in its path. Impatient and unwilling to explore those still recent wounds, he asked, "What does any of that have to do with the case I'm working on."
"Nothing, really. But it does have to do with a certain handsome LCIS agent. And the way you looked at him whenever you thought no one was watching."
"Agent Edgerton? I admit, aesthetically he's very attractive. But he's not even a colleague. I barely even know him."
"Huh. I remember things a bit differently. Like the fact you complained incessantly about his dismissal of your mathematical models on the sniper case. Or the way you spent two weeks trying to quantify his tracking methods when you returned from Sibley. I have to tell you, I think Amita was more than a little jealous of your crush on the man."
"Crush?" He tried to laugh but the sound came out too high and forced to fool anyone. "Even if I did have... even if I were attracted to him that way, he's not interested in me."
The man had pressed closed to him in the kitchen. The intense way he always looked at Charlie with a mixture of amusement and heat... it didn't mean anything.
"I beg to differ, Charles. He watched you as much as you watched him when we celebrated the close of the case. Only he didn't bother to hide it. And he treated you with a combination of respect and irreverence that I'd be hard put to describe as anything other than flirtatious." Larry paused, no doubt to let the significance of his words sink in. "Then, of course, there's the whole lone wolf thing. All very romantic, if teen movies are to be believed."
"It's not romantic at all." Anger burst inside of Charlie. He didn't know the details of Ian's life. Maybe no one did. But he knew enough to ache for the wolf.
"Do you know what a Changeling is, Larry?"
"Ah. It's a human who is changed into a wolf shifter either by choice or by being attacked."
"One of the marks of a Changeling is that they are... less than a natural wolf. Slower, weaker, they have less developed senses and instincts. They smell different. More human." He paused and took a deep breath. "Edgerton is a Changeling. Everyone knows it because they can smell it on him. But he has an alpha's aura."
"An alpha's what?"
"It's hard to explain. Wolves gravitate to a hierarchy. The more powerful a shifter is, the more others can feel it. When we meet an alpha we know it. Often, beta's have an aura, as well. Ian feels like an alpha. One who could easily take over most packs he encounters."
"And this is bad?"
"Not bad exactly. Different. And like humans, there are a lot of narrow-minded wolves who don't like different. Alphas wouldn't want him in there territory because they know they can't win a challenge from him. Other wolves don't know how to treat him. He's a Changeling. Someone who would normally be at the bottom of the hierarchy. But he's so powerful, he makes you want to bare your throat to him."
"I see. So the two of you have more in common than I thought."
That stopped Charlie's anger and frustration in its tracks.
"Both of you have extraordinary gifts that set you apart from others. Both of you have lived without pack for a long time. Both of you deserve to take a little happiness wherever you can find it."
"I don't... I mean, I run with the..."
"Don't Charlie. You may have everyone else fooled but I know you. You let the wolves at CalSci think your part of your brother's pack. You let your brother and father think you're part of a pack at school. In the meantime, you pour all of your energy into your work."
Charlie wanted to deny it, but there was no point. And Larry didn't really give him time to, either.
"I realize you're concerned because Agent Edgerton is a transitory figure in your life. Perhaps that's exactly what you need. No pressure to paralyze you with the need for perfection. No long term planning of a relationship like it's some sort of chess game you need to plan several moves ahead. Just something simple. Two compatible people finding pleasure with each other. No expectations beyond the moment."
"I don't know."
But he did. He wanted it. Except, could he handle temporary? Could he enjoy something if he knew it held a finite deadline? Or would he worry too much about the end to enjoy the moment? Wasn't that exactly what he'd done with Amita? Plotted out all the outcomes before taking that first step. Perhaps, if he'd plunged in they'd have had something stronger and more defined when the Harvard offer came along. Perhaps she would have stayed. Or he would have gone with her.
"Charlie, don't let your past or fear of the unknown hold you back. Just because something didn't work out before, doesn't mean something equally good won't work out in the future. As my grandfather use to say, 'If a fish gets away, put your hook in the water. Another one will be by any minute.'"
Everything froze inside of Charlie, his brain jumping track in a split second. "What did you just say?"
"Never mind. That's it. Thank you, Larry. That's exactly what I was missing."
He hung up the phone, though his mentor was still talking, and raced to his chalkboard. The previous conversation forgotten as numbers swam through his brain like a school of fish.
Don had spent the morning watching his brother eagerly explain his latest genius breakthrough. There was Power Point and math and arm waving and talking so fast he didn't even try to keep up.
It all boiled down to the fact that most packs had other members who could step in and take up the role of lynch-pin. The loss might rock the pack for awhile but they'd recover. Devon somehow figured out what packs didn't have a backup. Which packs he could destroy. Somehow, Don doubted he was using math. Unfortunately, bastards like this seemed to have an innate instinct for how to inflict the maximum amount of damage.
Charlie had managed to narrow it down to the three packs and the individual within each one most likely to be the lynch-pin. Much easier to protect than the dozen or so packs they'd been looking at yesterday. Surveillance teams and protective details had been dispatched to the most likely targets, leaving Don's team free to continue looking for leads and capable of responding quickly if Devon was spotted. Now, he was scouring through the case file, trying to find an angle they hadn't explored yet.
Something heavy landed on his desk and Don looked up to find Ian sitting on it.
"We have chairs, you know."
"I like being up high. Better vantage point. It's a sniper thing."
Don rolled his eyes. "What can I do for you?"
"Actually, it's what you can do for you. You should invite Charlie to run with your pack on the full moon."
Frowning, Don glanced over to Colby's cubicle were Charlie was explaining something with extravagant hand waving.
"Charlie is part of that pack at school. He doesn't want to run with us."
"Wrong. Charlie runs in the same park at the same time. You're a wolf. And an alpha. Use your nose. Does he smell like he belongs to a pack?"
He turned and inhaled deep, filtering through the intervening scents. His frowned deepened, pulling at the skin on his forehead. Ian was right. Other than the scents of Don's own pack and their father, Charlie didn't smell like any other wolves at all. There were a few human scents, most likely students and other faculty. But he didn't smell like pack. He smelled the way a loner did.
Before he could figure out what it meant, Ian stood up and headed for one of the sound proof briefing rooms. Don figured he'd better follow.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Ian leaned against the wall and shook his head.
"I don't need any fancy math to tell me the heart of your pack isn't even officially part of it."
The sniper stared over Don's shoulder as he spoke and Don twisted to see that his gaze focused on Colby's cubicle. Where Charlie was now scribbling something on a piece of paper as David looked over his shoulder.
"I've been here two days. He and Megan were thick as thieves talking about the lynch-pin studies. And Fleinhardt. He took the time to set up some fancy thing to help David find a better apartment more efficiently. And he and Colby were just hip deep in a conversation about some online game."
Ian paused and refocused his eyes on Don. "Not to mention, he puts in a ton of effort to cut down on your workload." His eyes shifted back to stare through the glass and something predatory glinted in Ian's eyes as he watched Charlie. Suspicion bloomed full force as Don watched Ian watch his brother. Somehow, interfering in Charlie's potential sex life seemed easier to deal with than contemplating the idea of Charlie in his pack.
"Are you thinking about hitting on my brother?"
The infuriating smirk returned and Ian leaned back, crossing his ankles as he let the glass behind him take his weight.
"Not gonna' lie. Your brother is gorgeous and the hyper-genius thing is kind of hot."
Don sputtered at the thought of someone thinking his little brother was sexy. Then he narrowed his eyes and took a step forward. He and Charlie may have had a rocky relationship for a while but it was starting to smooth out and he wasn't going to let anyone mess with a member of his family.
"You better be careful. He hasn't exactly had it easy and I won't be gentle on the next person who hurts him."
The smirk softened slightly and Ian gave him an almost imperceptible nod. "Don't worry. I'll make it clear what I'm offering. If I don't think he can handle it, I'll walk away."
Then he unwound himself from the wall and sauntered out to the bullpen to join the conversation at Colby's desk.
Don sank down into one of the chairs and dropped his head into his hand. He loved his brother. But he'd spent his whole childhood having his life revolve around Charlie's. He liked working with his brother, liked that they were finally finding common ground. But asking for his help on the occasional case was one thing. Making him part of the pack, of Don's pack, was another. It meant inviting Charlie fully into his life again and he wasn't sure he was ready for that.
On the other hand, a heart, a lynch-pin, might be exactly what his team needed to finally become a true pack. As alpha, it was his responsibility to put the pack first.
Charlie started in surprise when Don slipped into the elevator with him right before the doors closed. He hadn't seen his brother since the briefing, when the alpha had disappeared into a soundproof room with Ian. Eventually, the lone shifter had rejoined the group gathered around Colby's desk but there'd been no sign of Don for the past hour.
Awkward silence engulfed the small space for a second as both men stared straight ahead. Finally, Don sighed and ran a hand over his hair.
"You should join us for the moon run next week."
Charlie blinked at his older brother, an instant yes on the tip of his tongue. They hadn't run together since they were kids and frolicking under the full moon had been one of the few times they'd managed to connect when they were younger. Charlie couldn't remember the last time he'd actually run with anyone. Interacted and connected with other wolves the way his instincts craved.
Then he took in the rigid way Don's muscles stood out starkly under his skin, the way he still stared straight ahead and the wide bracing stance. He had no idea why Don was extending the invitation now but it was obvious his brother wasn't exactly comfortable with the idea.
Uncertain and off-kilter, Charlie reached forward, pushed a button to get the elevator moving and gave himself a moment to breathe. Then he fell back on his standard answer. "I, uh, run with some of the other wolves at CalSci."
Don finally turned, giving Charlie a hard look and crossing his arms with implacable fierceness. "Why did you lie to me, Charlie? You're not part of a pack anywhere. You may run at CalSci, but you run alone, don't you?"
Embarrassment and dread had him feeling backed into a corner, then anger burned through and chased everything else out.
"I didn't lie to you." The words exploded out with emotion suppressed for two years. "You never asked. You assumed. I just didn't correct you."
"Charlie..." Don's arms dropped and his hands reached out, palms up to highlight his 'be reasonable' older brother tone. A tone Charlie had heard way too much growing up.
"Why do you even care, Don?" The shout echoed through the small elevator as the door opened to a small crowd of the bored and mildly curious waiting around the elevator banks in the lobby.
Don grabbed his arm and didn't stop moving until they were outside in a quiet corner of the cement walkway.
His older brother sighed and let go of Charlie. "I want you to run with us."
Even Charlie's seldom used senses could smell the stress and discomfort, hear the grinding of teeth and see the tension vibrating off the alpha.
"No. You don't." He tried hard to keep emotion out of it. Just state it matter-of-factly. "I see how hard you're working to pull your pack together. You'll already have one outsider to deal with. Two if dad goes along. You don't need another."
"No. Don. You haven't asked in the two years you've been back." Suddenly he realized why Don and Ian had disappeared together earlier. Why they were having this conversation now. "It didn't even occur to you, until Ian said something, did it?"
The way Don's eyes slid away to watch the coming and going of the main door told Charlie he was right and that his brother was embarrassed and uncomfortable.
"I have to go. I have a class to get to."
He started to walk away but a tentative hand on his shoulder stopped him. Don took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, some of the tension draining out of his stance.
"I'd like you to come, Charlie. I think it would be good for all of us."
There was sincerity and a slight vulnerability in the tone. Something Don very rarely let slip through. Still, Charlie didn't want to set himself up for disappointment.
"I. I'll think about it, Don."