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Blood and Ashes

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Peter, like a lot of people, took his time getting things right. He didn't mind when his mother compared him to Talia and said, "Your sister's been married for five years already, they have two children. When are you going to settle down?"

"When it feels right," he'd answered with a sigh. And it was true. Peter dated around, he dallied with humans, mostly singles, but sometimes couples. It was never serious. Peter knew he couldn't bare the responsibility of bringing someone human into his world. That was for people like Talia. Powerful people. Alphas.

Peter was a beta, through-and-through. His mother had seen it in him as a child, and even though Talia was younger, Peter's sister had been groomed from childhood to be the Alpha. Peter saw it happening again with Laura and Derek, as young as they were. Even though Talia had carried Derek, it was clear she favored the child her wife, Amanda, had borne. Peter doubted Derek could see it, though. It had taken Peter until he was years into being an adult before he recognized what had been done to him.

Not that he wanted to be Alpha! God, no! Sure there was power, and power could be useful, but there was also the responsibility, and Peter didn't want that. Not when he could see what it was doing to his sister – the gray in her hair, the lines on her face. It wasn't for him.

For a long time, Peter thought maybe romance just wasn't his thing. And then he met Them. Luke Warner was the Alpha of a pack out of Sacramento and although Peter hated Sacramento with a passion, when Luke introduced himself at the hotel bar, Peter almost had to sit down with the force of his attraction. And then Janet glided over and Peter could tell he was in trouble.

Luke was dark, with chocolate brown skin, close-cropped black hair, and quick, thoughtful eyes. He was taller than Peter by several inches and yet lean, almost unimposing, if you couldn't feel the power of his wolf thrumming under his skin. Peter liked that about Luke, liked knowing that out in public it wouldn't be so obvious that Peter was the least powerful of the two of them. The apparent equality between them would give both Luke and Peter the advantages of being seen in a double-male triad, without the drawbacks landing on one or the other. Peter had been in the relationship where he'd been seen as the 'second boyfriend,' the pushover, subservient to the man in charge. Peter didn't know why anyone still clung to those beliefs. Relationships were supposed to be equal, after all. That's why people formed triads in the first place.

But Janet. Janet Grange was difficult for Peter to place, ethnically. He supposed it was an academic pursuit at best, and he didn't dream of asking, but it didn't stop him from wondering whether her wide cheekbones were Eastern European or Asian or Native American. Her hair was black and straight, her skin pale, and her fingers spine-tinglingly long. She spoke every word clear as a bell and laughed like a donkey. She called Peter, "Pete," from the moment they met and never by any other name.

When Peter went to bed with them (offering his hotel room as fairly neutral territory, since he technically belonged to his sister's pack) he felt like the entire world realigned itself around him. And Peter realized what he'd been missing.

It wasn't only attraction, it wasn't fondness or love. He'd experienced all of those before. It was finding that balance all the love songs talked about. It was knowing that he was accepted by both of them equally, both as a man, and as something more. As a werewolf. Peter howled when he came.

Janet, laughing, called the front desk and told them not to worry, she'd accidentally turned her TV to full volume on a nature program. Luke bit his lip, probably to keep from laughing with her, and soothed Peter down from the edge.

Less than a year later, Peter got married. He got married and he officially joined Luke's pack. It meant living outside Sacramento, but Peter didn't mind. He'd found his home.

Janet gave birth to twin girls. They both had pale skin and dark hair. Luke laughed and congratulated Peter, kissing him and telling him, "It's a good thing I'm fond of your face, sweetheart. Our girls certainly seemed to have inherited it!"

Peter loved being a father, much more than he ever thought he would. He wasn't as good at babies as Jan, who had the magic touch (or maybe just the magic breasts), but Peter loved holding his daughters tight and listening to their little hearts. He'd enjoyed playing with his sister's kids (until they got annoying), but having his own was an entirely new experience.

When the girls were four, a rival pack challenged Luke's authority. Peter wanted to stay and fight with him, but Janet was pregnant again and vulnerable, and Luke begged Peter to get their family to safety. Peter drove aimlessly for a hours, ignoring the lack of Luke's presence in his head, until finally deciding to go to Talia for help. It was almost the Wolf Moon, anyway. A family reunion could only strengthen them. And maybe Peter could convince Talia to help fight on Luke's behalf. Luke wouldn't like it, he was too proud to accept help from another Alpha, but Peter didn't care. He would do what needed to be done to protect his family.

In the morning, Luke called. "It's over. We won."

"We'll come home," Peter offered, but Luke made a noise of dissent.

"No. Stay with your family, Pete. I'll make sure things here are solid and then I'll join you. Make some of that pie I like."

Peter chuckled, because they both knew that while Peter enjoyed elegant food, he was about as useful in the kitchen as a lawnmower. Luke was the dessert chef, while Janet made an eclectic variety of foods, none of which constituted a real meal on any given day. Peter was, however, excellent at ordering take out.

When Peter stepped back into the house, Jan looked up from where she and Talia were writing notes back and forth to each other. It was a habit common among werewolf families, for discussions that required privacy, and Peter wondered what his wife and his sister could be talking about, other than him. He'd seen and heard Talia writing often enough that he could almost make out what she was writing by the scratch of her pen against paper, but not quite. It was Jan's kind laugh and her, "Pete, stop listening!" that convinced him it was nothing serious.

Later in the week, the Wolf Moon rose. Laura and Derek had been allowed to go to a basketball game, or maybe it was lacrosse, at the high school, while everyone else stayed home to help the younger children weather the effects of the full moon. Talia's younger daughter, Cora, was fairly well in control at eleven years old, but Peter's daughters could be little hellions. Violet liked to bite and Wanda was a screamer. When Jan asked to be chained up as well, the baby in her belly taking away some of her control, Peter decided he was glad to be at home among his natal pack, if only for the fact that he wouldn't be trying to control his wife and children alone.

Even so, Peter had to hold onto Jan most of the evening, be an anchor for her, keep all of his attention on her, and that must have been how he missed it. Of course, Talia, Amanda, and their husband Keith missed it as well. Peter's mother missed it. And yet somehow it happened.

Peter's first inkling that something was wrong happened when he caught a whiff of blood, and then Luke's scent. For a moment he thought one of the girls had hurt themselves and he was just smelling Luke on Jan's clothes or something. But the smell of blood grew stronger. Undeniable.

Amanda vaulted down the stairs and into the dungeon basement where Peter's family was riding out the full moon. "What happened?"

Talia looked out from one of the cells, her arms wrapped tightly around Wendy's body, holding the little girl still and calm. Keith had Violet in a similar hold. Eyes wide with alarm, Talia said, "I don't know where that's coming from. Peter? Are you hurt? Is it Janet?"

"We're fine," Jan growled out for them, her teeth long and sharp and her eyes flashing yellow. They caught Peter's gaze and he knew she feared it, too. The scent of Luke was too strong to be remnant from someone's clothing. The scent of blood was too strong to be from anything less than a grievous wound. Before Peter could gather up the will to go investigate what he suspected would be something so wrong his brain didn't even want to speculate on the most likely possibility, the door up to the house slammed shut. Peter caught Jan's yellow eyes and at the barest nod from her, he was up on his feet.

He met Talia in the hallway between the cells, close on her heels as she thundered toward the door. Amanda was there, in her beta form and shoulder to the door. "It won't budge!" Peter wasn't surprised. The door had been reinforced to help contain werewolves who'd lost their grip on sanity.

A cruel, female laughter filtered under the door to Peter's ears. He left Talia to try her strength on the door, and raced toward the secret exit on the other end of the basement. As far as Peter knew, only he, Talia, and their mother knew it was there. The acrid, chemical smell of gasoline urged Peter faster, and he didn't pause to help Keith with his daughters. Their wildness wasn't important at the moment. The source of all that blood was important, the growing smell of smoke was important.

Skidding into the back pantry, Peter came to a halt and gagged against the smell. The shelf hiding the secret exit had been moved and there on the pantry floor lay Luke. In pieces.

Peter passed through immediately recognizing Luke's left hand, to disbelief. It couldn't be him. It was someone else's body dressed up to look like him. Even the face on the head propped up between the canned vegetables had to be someone's idea of a sick joke. It wasn't true. It couldn't be.

Behind Peter, Jan howled. He looked back to see her free of her chains and panting in the hallway. He and met her eyes, read the grief and rage there, and knew that it was true - Luke was gone. He shook his head in confirmation for her, just before the ceiling fell in on top of him. Burning embers fell against his face, searing the flesh down to the bone. Peter howled and tried to fight his way out from under the burning timbers, but his back and his feet slipped in the pool of blood spread between the pieces of his husband's body.

Peter lost consciousness to the sounds of his daughters calling for him, the rage of his wife and sister, and the laughter of a pair of women on the other side of the secret pantry door.