Derek shook off his wolf form and surveyed his three betas. They were lying motionless on the floor; their injuries had piled up quickly and healed more slowly than his since they'd been inflicted by the alpha. None of them could move now. Just as importantly, none of them were trying to move. He, and they, had found their limits. Tomorrow they could try exceeding them.
"Isaac, Erica, Boyd," he said, pronouncing their names firmly. "Listen to my heartbeat while I tell you: training is done now. No more ambushes, no more tricks. Once you heal up, no more pain. Do you understand?"
Isaac, most unwilling of the three to fail him, actually managed an intelligible whisper of, "Yes." Erica made a noise of pain and acquiescence somewhere in her throat--her jaw was too mangled for speech. Boyd's breathing had gone badly wrong--Derek could hear the bubbling hiss of a sucking chest wound--but he still shaped the word with his lips.
"All right," Derek said, and only then did he walk over to where Boyd was lying. Derek straightened out his limbs--tugging his dislocated left shoulder back into place and realigning a few bones for faster healing--and then reached under his tattered shirt to brush a hand gently over the wound in his chest.
Derek hadn't been born to be an alpha--that had always been his sister's place, and even Laura had been far from ready when she inherited the role. No one had ever taught Derek anything about it. He knew wounds lasted longer when inflicted by an alpha; he knew, from his few experiments in adolescent defiance, that they could last as long as an alpha's anger. He didn't know whether his grandmother had done anything more than will him to recover when he finally apologized and she gently touched his wounds; all he remembered was the rush of relief as he watched himself finally heal, almost before she'd taken her hand away. He hoped there was nothing more to it, nothing he just didn't know to do--or at least that his betas wouldn't know the difference, or suffer much for it, if they had to wait longer to heal than he intended.
"You're probably lying there thinking about what you're going to do to me in training tomorrow," Derek said as he moved on to Erica, picking her up and bringing her to lie beside Boyd.
"That's good. You should always be thinking ahead." He ran his hand gently over the ruin of her face, over her smashed ribs and shattered hip, over the lacerations that had shredded her legs as easily as her tights.
"But if it makes you feel any better," he added as he knelt beside Isaac, who had kept trying to fight alongside Boyd and Erica even after the unmistakable snap of his spine had left him half-paralyzed. Isaac looked up for him, still wanting Derek to make him feel better.
"I turned for the first time when I was eleven," Derek said, looking at Isaac but pitching his voice to all three of them. "And the first time I had a real training session like this, it was with my grandmother. She broke thirty-eight of my bones. She made me keep count."
Isaac smiled slightly.
Derek laid him down beside Erica on his side, and ran his fingers down Isaac's spine until he found the broken place and pressed it carefully back toward alignment, willing it to heal promptly. Then he settled Isaac on his back and ran his hands over the rest of Isaac's wounds.
"There's more that I have to teach all of you," Derek said, crouching there with their blood on his hands, looking over the three of them as they looked mutely back at him. "Being a werewolf isn't only about what each of us can do, our strength and our senses and our healing. It isn't only about fighting and surviving. It's also about who we are. We have a history that you have all become connected to, now. You need to know some of that, too."
Derek wiped his hands off on his jeans and went to lie down on the ground, perpendicular to them, with his head near Isaac's head and his feet near Boyd's. He could smell their pain and fear-of-pain easing, which seemed to bode well for their healing.
"Tonight I'm going to tell you the story of the very first werewolves," Derek said, feeling his way into it. He'd never had to tell the story to anyone--before this year he'd never even known anyone he could tell it to who didn't already know it as well as he did. He knew he couldn't tell it as well as it had been told to him.
With a sudden stab of crystal-clear memory, he remembered Peter telling it to him and Laura when they were both small enough to sit piled together on their uncle's lap. Peter had done voices and everything, made them feel scared and then brave and proud, even though they already knew the story by heart.
But it wasn't like his teenaged betas wanted him to do voices; there was a reason he'd waited to try telling them a story for the first time until they were a literally captive audience. He forged on.
"Through blood or bite, we're all descended from them--I am through my parents, and you are through me. They lived hundreds of years ago, far from here. I used to know the name of the village, but I don't remember it now; it was in Germany, near the Black Forest. There was a family there with three children--two brothers and a sister."
Erica still couldn't articulate, but she let out a cynical huff of breath. Derek rolled onto his side and popped claws on one hand to lay them across her lips. "Hush. This isn't a story I could change just to help you see yourself in it. I chose you because this is what the story tells us: this is how a new pack should begin. Three children. Two brothers and a sister."
He could have had that if Scott had been willing to submit--if Lydia had turned when she was supposed to--if Jackson had. Two brothers and a sister, even if two of them had been turned by his predecessor as alpha. They could have been a pack. But that didn't matter now; Derek had found his own pack, and they were unquestionably his.
Erica bent her neck, and Boyd and Isaac both shifted closer to Derek--Boyd more successfully, pressing the top of his head to Derek's ankle, Isaac just straining in Derek's direction. Derek took his hand off Erica and retracted his claws to touch Isaac instead, rubbing gently through his sweat-and-blood-dampened hair.
"The children's parents were poor, and they didn't want to see their children starve, so they sent the brothers and sister out into the woods. The children wandered alone and frightened in the darkness until they met a wolf, a mother who had lost her pups. She took the children to replace her own, feeding them her milk and hunting for them. She taught them to hunt and brought them into her pack, but the children didn't really belong with the wolves. They couldn't run as fast as the wolves or fight as fiercely. They needed clothes to cover their naked skin."
Erica lifted her head--her face was bloodless again, her skin smooth--and she smiled at him as she squirmed over onto her belly and laid her head on Derek's stomach. A few inches lower and he'd have had to push her away, but he could let her have this. He put his free hand in her hair and petted her the same way he was petting Isaac.
"The children asked their wolf-mother how they could become truly a part of the pack, but she told them that as much as she loved them, they would always be different--and anyway, they were growing up, and it was nearly time for them to go out and begin a pack of their own. Wolves don't live as long as humans, and their packs change every year as cubs are born and cubs grow up. It's only humans who look for a pack that can last their whole lives. But the children didn't want to leave the forest and live among humans, because humans had sent them away. They wanted to be like the wolves who had taken them in and saved their lives. The children searched and searched for a way to change themselves so that they could be both wolf and human."
Boyd moved the way Erica had, turning over to crawl closer to Derek. He lay his head on Derek's knee, where he could see Derek's face past Erica. Derek smiled just for him, and Boyd slung his arm over Derek's legs, claiming his place.
"The children knew that it wouldn't be easy to change themselves. They knew it would come at a price. They fought and hunted like wolves, with teeth and claws, and with teeth and claws they shed each other's blood in offering. They offered their blood and pain first to the earth, for they had slept in dens and on the forest floor and run and hunted on the earth all their lives, and they believed the earth must understand what they wanted. But the earth is too big to care for three little children, and the earth's changes are slower than the lives of men. The blood the children offered sank into the earth, and they received nothing in return."
Isaac's wounds had healed, but Isaac was lying just as still as he had been, exactly where Derek had laid him down. Derek didn't doubt that he would lie in that exact spot until Derek wanted him to move. Derek tugged gently on his hair, and Isaac pushed himself closer, rolling onto his side with his face turned away from Derek. He pressed the top of his head against Derek's side, and Derek let his hand slide from Isaac's hair down to his neck, rubbing his thumb across the bare skin of his nape.
"Next the children offered their blood and wounds to the sun, which had looked down upon them every day as they ran and hunted and fought together and with their pack. But the sun is too high above to care about three little children, and it never varies from its path. The blood the children offered to the sun dried up, and they received nothing in return."
Erica lifted her head under Derek's hand and said knowingly, teasingly, "But then...."
Derek tugged her back down by her hair, not too roughly. It was a story they should have heard for the first time as children, or when their mates told it to their children. Derek couldn't remember when he'd heard it for the first time, and those of his family who were turned as adults would have learned it as a story for children and not a story for themselves. They'd have treated the story as tenderly as they did the children.
There wasn't much time now for children, or for tenderness, but Derek still had an alpha's responsibility to think about the future. He needed to tell the story so that it wouldn't be entirely lost if he was killed next. Even if he didn't survive to see Erica's children, she was going to need a story to tell them about how they came to be what they were.
"But then," Derek went on, "the children offered their blood and their pain to the moon. The changeable moon looked down on the children and understood how they needed to show different faces at different times, to be wolf and human both. Under the moon the children learned to change from wolf to human and back. They gained the strength and power to run with the pack, and to found their own pack when their wolf-mother was busy with her new cubs."
Boyd scooted closer to Erica at that, curling up on his side. Erica turned over so that he could fit against her back, and she put one foot out to hook her leg over Isaac's.
"For a long time the brothers and sister were happy together, a pack of three," Derek said softly. "But eventually they got lonely, and they went out among humans to find mates. When the brothers had chosen wives and the sister a husband, they wanted to add their mates to their pack, so that they could all stay together and so that their children would inherit their strength. They asked the moon how they could make their mates like themselves, and the moon said that they could only share the gift they'd been given if their mates were willing to share the price they had paid. The werewolves had all chosen well, and their mates were eager to share the gift, but the two brothers were too kind-hearted and couldn't bear to bite their wives, even to give them the gift."
Derek curled his arm around Isaac's shoulders and shook him a little, nudging Boyd with his knee at the same time. Boyd smiled and shrugged, and Isaac turned his head shyly to look at Derek. Derek smiled back. He'd been a beta for most of his life and had expected to always be one; there was no shame in knowing your place in the pack.
"But their sister was bold and fierce," Derek went on, tugging on Erica's hair again. When Erica smiled she flashed fangs, and her eyes lit; Derek felt his own go red for an instant in response. Erica might have a future different from her brothers', but she wasn't anywhere near it yet. "Their sister gave the bite to all three of their mates, and after that the pack followed her as their alpha, because she would do what had to be done."
All three of his betas kept still when Derek finished, waiting for more of the story or to be dismissed. The story could go on indefinitely--Derek recalled vividly how his mother liked to emphasize that she, like all werewolf mothers, had paid the price in blood and pain for her children so that they could be werewolves--but that was enough for now. Derek wiggled one leg out from under Boyd to hook it over him, and kept his holds on Erica and Isaac.
"Sleep here tonight," he said, listening to their heartbeats slowing even as he said it. "We're stronger together, and you need to rest and heal completely."
Derek kept his eyes open, listening as they obeyed, feeling the minute shifts as each of them cuddled closer to him and to each other. Only when they were all safely dreaming did he close his eyes and let sleep take him.