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Three Things Cannot Be Long Hidden

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Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.
- Siddhartha

-----

Brandon stood in the doorway to Jared's room, staring in at the darkened space, his shoulder pressed to the doorframe.

He didn't think he'd be back here so soon.

Sophomore year had just started at UW two weeks ago, Brandon and Daniel taking the seven hour long bus trip down to Laramie for what felt like the fiftieth time, and they hadn't seen their brother in two years. This year Brandon had managed to get into one of the newer dorm buildings, the facilities cleaner and not covered with the grime of a thousand freshmen. Daniel was across the quad in another building, and as much as he loved his sibling, Brandon was grateful for some distance. He'd needed it. He'd needed to find the space to become his own person, something outside the Padalecki family, something outside of their little secret. He was getting what Jared had always so wanted: the normalcy of a regular college student life. The illusion of being someone who couldn't turn into a giant cat at will.

It was crazy, all the things that he and Jared hadn't talked about. They hadn't talked about applying for college, or moving out. They hadn't laughed together moving into the cramped dorms, jostling and carrying boxes of half-packed things up the stairs, hadn't settled in for that first night of freedom, dizzying and new and nerve-wracking all at once. They hadn't gotten drunk at a party together, or talked after Sophie and he had decided to end it. They hadn't laughed as Daniel made a fool of himself at a mixer, or when he got his inaugural case of crabs, the manslut. They hadn't taken the long bus home for Christmas, mom's desperate hugs and guilt-tripping teary eyes, or moaned over her traditional and traditionally dry fruitcake. They hadn't gotten home together, to the surreality of their old life, tucked into their old beds, taking back old jobs and flirting briefly with old flames.

He hadn't gotten to talk to his brother when Sophie had kissed him sweetly under the mistletoe, and they'd played with the idea of long distance, knowing all the while it wouldn't work.

They hadn't talked when Brandon had met Vanessa, long straight hair and brazenly unshaven legs, always picketing for something and full of fire. They hadn't celebrated the end of their freshman hear together or settled in for the long Wyoming summer, free to stretch into four legs, the three of them chasing each other like they always did, into the anonymity of the unmarred Wyoming wilderness, claws and teeth bared because no one else could see them. He hadn't been at the table when Vanessa came to visit in June, sitting down in their family dining room and making mom fall in love with her and dad proud by helping him change the oil on the pick-up. He hadn't sweated out the evenings, moaning at their parents to get A/C, like they did every year, complaining and gulping down icy pops to survive, all three of them stripped down to their boxers and trying to lie as still as possible in front of the television, watching late night movies like they were still kids.

Brandon hadn't confided in him, on one of those late nights after Daniel had fallen asleep, their faces lit only by the flickering light of the television, that he had decided to declare his major in architecture -- something that had nothing to do with wildlife parks or game or werecats or trees. Something that took him to cities. Cities full of people and concrete. Cities where he could build and make his mark.

Jared hadn't been there for any of that, or for the trip back at the beginning of sophomore year, settling in again, but this time without the nerves or the worry.

Not until his mom had called him in the middle of the day a little under a week ago, her voice wet and strange, telling him what he'd given up hearing for over a year now:

Jared called.

Jared, who'd vanished in the middle of the night over two years ago. His brother and friend, the little kid that he and Daniel used to tease for being a crybaby when they were little, before Brandon grew up and Daniel didn't. Jared, who'd shared in their secret since they were thirteen, discovering all the weird things they could do, trying to research in the public library, learning anything and everything they could about where they came from and coming up with not much. Who was quick talking and amiable but could be so damned bashful at the strangest things, and who balked at the slightest sign of confrontation, always wanting people to get along -- unless it was Daniel, and then Jared could argue until he was blue in the face.

Jared, who'd crawled onto Brandon's lap one evening and rubbed up against him like a horny girl, making Brandon's stomach churn and go sour, sick with the knowledge that this was his brother, his brother, and who he'd shoved away. Jared, who'd run from the room and just hadn't stopped running.

The brother who'd vanished into the night like Brandon would have never thought, and who had never called, even when Brandon was sure he would, when Brandon was certain that he'd show up again in a couple of weeks, because he couldn't be gone. Not forever.

But he hadn't. Two weeks had turned into a month, and a month into two, and two into six, and six into a year, and a year into another year, until it seemed like this was life. Like this was his family and ever would be. Until their unit of three had become two: him and Daniel and the empty room at the end of the hall.

Brandon stared in at the space, a half room really, that had used to be their dad's office. The house wasn't big, only three bedrooms, one for their parents and two divided between the boys when they were seven and too old to all sleep together. Brandon had lucked out and pulled the big straw, earning himself his own room while Jared and Daniel had to bunk together. At nine years of age the door had slammed and Jared declared his living conditions untenable, hugging a pillow to his chest and dragging a blanket with him to the end of the hall, determined to sleep in their dad's office until a solution had been found.

After six months, it was more bedroom than office, and dad had ceded in their war for territory.

Now it was bare and clean, a bed and a desk shoved in as awkwardly as they always had been, but the sheets made like Jared would never leave it, and the desk barren of paper or mess like Jared would never tolerate. The floor was vacuumed and the bookshelves carefully arranged, like a guest room, like something set to welcome a stranger, a museum exhibit of Jared's habitat, instead of the living example. It was always like this. The little room at the end of the hall that no one went into anymore except Mom, to vacuum and dust and keep it from turning into a tomb to the person that had once been part of them.

Brandon's arm was raised, elbow pressed to the doorframe, one knuckle knocking rhythmically against his front teeth, staring in like he could divine what was going to happen, how this was going to unfold.

For the first time in over two years, he was going to see his brother.

He didn't even know where to start.

"Brandon!" his mother's voice called up from downstairs. "Come on now! We're going to miss our flight!"

She sounded excited. She sounded happy. Like two years and everything that came with it was just going to vanish and they were going to go back to how they'd been. Like Jared was going to come home all smiles and no explanation and it would be as if nothing had happened. As if this was going to be anything like simple.

Brandon sighed out, berating himself for his melancholy. Jared had called. They were going to see Jared. He should be happy.

He pushed himself off the doorframe and pulled his cap over his slightly shaggy hair, sweeping it back under the brim.

They were going to North Carolina.

-----

Their plane took off at ten in the morning, headed ever east, and Brandon pushed his seat back as far as it would go(those blessed four inches) and closed his eyes to the sound of his mother's voice, chatting amiably with a stranger beside her.

It didn't take any effort -- the lies rolled off her tongue like they were nothing at all after nineteen years. She could tell the whole story, the whole damned thing exactly like it happened, without ever letting on that any of her boys might be something less than human. Her voice was peppered in pride, happy and over excited, and she was so used to the secret now, it was so deep in her, that she didn't even see it. Brandon knew she didn't feel the same squirming nausea that he did, the vague and inescapable sickness of not knowing.

She'd called him six days ago, emotion so thick in her voice that at first Brandon's blood had run cold, a million awful images running around behind his eyes, before she said He called. Jared called. and the world dropped out.

Apparently the two of them had cried at each other for ten minutes straight before Jared had even managed to get any details out, and even that was just the basics -- he was living with a pride, had somehow managed to insinuate himself into a group of wild werecats, like his own little Gorillas in the Mist. He was down in North Carolina, and Dad had made the flight arrangements the very next day, Daniel and Brandon hoping a bus back up north, bags packed and a lot of silence between them. It was something Brandon might have joked about, six days ago -- the idea of Daniel ever shutting his big mouth -- but today, Brandon was feeling the same.

Like he didn't even know how to begin on cataloging this, let alone talking about it.

He should have been excited.

He should have been dreading this.

He couldn't quite feel either way.

He sighed out, the recycled air of the plane drying his sinuses and making them ache, and he remembered being eleven, the first time he got on a plane, him and his brothers bunched together around the oval of the window, staring out despite how the sunlight on the clouds hurt their eyes. Months of begging their parents had finally resulted in a real live vacation, and not just another one of dad's discounted trips to a federal wildlife preserve, and the flight out to LA was on par with the vacation itself, amazing to three little boys who'd only been as far off the earth as the trampoline could propel them.

It was two years before the secrets came out, two years before he and Daniel would get into a knock down drag out fight over Sophie, the girl that Brandon had had a crush on for months and who Daniel had kissed up against the side of the gym. Two years before Brandon threw a punch and Daniel grabbed his collar and the two of them went to the floor, kicking and wriggling inexpertly, trying to do damage with gawky, thirteen year old bodies, until Daniel was suddenly this huge thing, fur and claws and two wicked saber fangs, and everything stopped.

And then everything changed.

And all the while, somewhere in the background, was Jared. The quiet kid, the one who'd always followed after Brandon and Daniel, like they weren't all the same age, the one who'd been too shy to stand up for himself those first few years of public school, until they were in sixth grade and Brandon finally dragged him out back behind the house and yelled at him until he yelled back. Until Daniel made him throw punches again and again, until Jared stopped wincing his hand away, trying to avoid doing damage. Jared, who'd turned into this cheerful joker, finding his place when he finally toughened up, but had always been content to let Brandon and Daniel have the spotlight, even if they never noticed it.

It wasn't as if Brandon had ever ignored or looked over Jared. They were brothers, and he loved the kid. The thing was, though, he might have just taken that presence for granted. Or at least taken for granted the way Jared had balanced him and Daniel out, made them a unit instead of two meatheads squabbling over this and that. Sure, Jared and Daniel had bickered about everything, but it wasn't like how it was between Brandon and Daniel -- the two of them powerfully possessive and territorial, the two of them mostly getting along, but when they didn't, it got physical.

Jared was always the cool headed one. The one with a placating smile and hands up like he could make everything better, and the only relief their poor mother got, sometimes.

Jared had been gone for two and a half years, and it seemed longer, somehow, than the seventeen years preceding it. Like this was normal life now, and Jared being around had been the illusion.

Brandon was far too old to press himself to the window of the plane, to stare out like flying through the air at hundreds of miles per hour wasn't something mundane and usual. He wondered if Jared would have done it anyways.

He wondered who his brother was now, and if he would find Brandon as different and changed as he used to think he was, before his mother had said Jared called and Brandon had turned back into that punk kid, confused and seventeen and having no idea what the hell just happened.

-----

They flew into Raleigh Durham International airport, which was clear on the opposite side of the state from where they wanted to be. Daniel huffed and complained as he and Brandon took the brunt of the luggage, shuffling their way through the crowds to the bus terminal. Brandon stayed back with his brother while their parents bought the tickets, having to get a transfer in Greensboro, and it was five long hours of watching the highway pass away under them, him and Daniel playing card games to pass the time and doing their weather best to talk about nothing of consequence.

When their bus terminated in Waynesville, they were stuck calling a cab company, and Brandon knew their parents had savings, had always been frugal, but he winced as he watched his dad cheerfully shell out more cash. They'd never been anything more than "comfortable", something that Brandon had been aware of since he was a kid, no matter how much his parents tried to dress it up and keep their kids from worrying. It didn't change his parents expressions though. Jared was out there. Jared, the lost son, was finally coming home.

For them, that was worth any price.

When they finally pulled into Bryson city, after nine hours of traveling, it was just past seven, and the sun was sinking, but still bolstered up in the late summer sky.

"What happens now?" Daniel asked with a grumpy flavor to his tone, one bag slung over his shoulder, and Brandon elbowed him in the side. Their parents didn't need his attitude right now. Their mother, though, answered cheerily, as if she hadn't heard.

"Well, they said they'd meet us in Bryson," she said, referencing the second phone call she'd gotten, three days after the one with Jared. It had apparently been some stranger, someone from the pride that Jared was staying with, calling to get the information on their arrangements.

"Did they say what to look for?" Brandon asked, trying to be helpful.

"No..." his mother replied, peering around the nearly empty streets. "Let's try a little further into town, hmm?"

Brandon nodded and tried to dissuade his father from trying to help with the luggage -- he'd slipped a disk last year, while patrolling the park; he was better now, but Brandon didn't like taking risks with his parents' health, the both of them edging on up towards sixty -- but he eventually had to give in and let the man take one, to appease his sense of pride.

They walked along the clean swept streets and in towards the center of town, more people appearing as they left the outskirts, though there were never thick crowds. All the while, Brandon kept his eyes peeled, though he needn't have tried so hard. When they did locate the people sent to meet them, they were impossible to miss.

There were three of them, dressed in the most oddly plain clothes -- not a brand or icon on them, just bare cotton shirts and simple cotton pants, like three travelers out of a time machine, straight from the 1880s. The clothes were monochromatic -- muted colors, clean but bearing old, residual stains along with rips and tears that had been sewn shut more than once. They were all three of them leaned up against the oldest beat up pick up truck Brandon had ever seen, and, most notably, none of them were wearing shoes.

"You have got to be shitting me," Daniel muttered, and their parents paused, before somewhat awkwardly making their way over. The truck was parked in a spot beside the open air area of a restaurant, mostly ignored in the loud socializing of the evening, but a few locals seemed to know exactly what they were.

Brandon had never met another werecat, outside of his brothers. He couldn't help but feel a pinch of curiosity, hidden somewhere within the thicket of his own emotions. Nervous, as well.

"Do you mind riding in the back?" the woman asked, her frizzy hair pulled back and tied up.

"No, that's fine," Brandon replied, lifting the bags he was toting along and placing them in the bed of the truck.

They ended up with Brandon and Daniel in the back with two of their escorts with them, while their parents rode up in the cab with the driver.

"Good thing it doesn't look like it's going to rain, mm?" Brandon asked, trying to strike up conversation. The man and the woman just glanced at each other, then back at the two of them and didn't say anything.

"Sociable lot, aren't they?" Daniel mumbled, and Brandon hushed him instantly.

Still, it wasn't like Daniel was wrong. For the whole two hour drive, not another word was said, the two groups just looking at each other and the surrounding wilderness.

It was beginning to darken as they rose up the mountain, the light in the sky lowering and dimming, dark blue and orange bleeding over the rolling hills and mountains, and it was beautiful, but Brandon was used to beautiful -- used to Wyoming and Yellowstone and endless stretches of trees. They all looked the same, after awhile.

When the truck finally came to a stop, reality came back in, strange and sudden when it had been gone all day, all week even, and Brandon felt his stomach drop out. They were here.

"This is it," Daniel commented, and Brandon just nodded as he wet his lips, getting out of the truck and lifting their bags, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do, how he was supposed to handle this. What he and Jared would say to one another after two and a half years and one incident of incest between them.

They hauled their bags through the woods, following their silent guides away from the shed where the truck had been parked, and were just emerging into another clearing, the trees parting and giving way, when Brandon heard his mother exclaim: "Jared!"

Her voice was full of joy, and grief, and broke once, and Brandon's eyes snapped up the slope of rock, to see a few figures waiting near a large building. It took him a moment, a shameful few seconds where he didn't know which of them was his brother, before he made out that familiar floppy hair, and he tried to get a handle on the maelstrom of nameless emotion that was thundering through his metropolis.

It was his brother, unquestionably, and yet it was also a stranger. Jared was a little taller than he had been before, his shoulders a little broader, and his skin was a darker tan. He was still skinny as a bean pole, except for the pot belly he was sporting. He didn't look like he was hurting or unhealthy. He didn't look like a teenaged runaway.

Jared looked over at them, smiled, and caught his mother when she ran over to embrace him, enveloped by their father a moment later, and even hugging Daniel as Brandon stood dumbly with the luggage.

The questions were already pouring out, mostly from their mother, and Jared was just trying to keep up, to assure her that he was fine, that he wasn't hurt, that yes, he was taking good care of himself. His eyes kept flicking to Brandon, and Brandon didn't know if he was imagining the nervousness or not.

It was only when another man stepped forward -- not quite as tall as Jared or Brandon, but taller than Daniel, muscular with short cropped hair and a sharply defined jaw -- introduced himself as the alpha here(alpha, like a pack of wolves), that Brandon had a moment, stepping uncertainly forward. He and Jared looked at each other, the space between them as long and uncomfortable as a million miles, and, predictably, it was Jared that crossed it first.

"Hey," he said, the barest of things.

"Hey," Brandon managed to respond, and their hands met in a shake. It was the touch that did it, that made Brandon feel the smile stretch shaky and grateful across his face. His voice trembled when he spoke again. "So freaking glad you're alright."

Jared just laughed, the sound watery, and Brandon seized him into an embrace.

-----

The first night was definitely weird, and unavoidably so.

Everyone was tired from the long day of travel, and it was obviously not the time to get into all the details, but it was hard not to just grill Jared for answers. Brandon felt both ways about the whole thing -- he wanted to know what had happened to Jared since he left, where he'd been and what had made him decide to join a wild pride. He had plenty of questions. But the question he didn't have, the question he knew would be foremost on his family's tongues, was why Jared had left.

It wasn't like Brandon didn't have his own questions about the whole thing -- like 'what the fuck, man? What the hell were you thinking?' and other...less savory questions -- but they definitely weren't things he wanted to ask in public. The awkwardness of the whole situation aside, Brandon didn't really want to get caught out after having told his family a million times that he didn't know why Jared left. He'd been the last one to see his brother, and he'd sworn backwards and forwards that nothing had been out of the ordinary. Everything had been totally normal.

Normal. It had been anything but.

Everyone seemed to at least be aware that now wasn't the time to open the conversation, and they were sat down around a large table in the main building they'd been guided to and were served a dinner of cooked meat and reedy vegetables. Brandon could see the eager look on his dad's face -- that geeky biologist look, and it wasn't like the man wasn't glad to see his son, but the minute they sat down, surrounded by this whole other culture, by whole other animals, Brandon knew his dad would be all over it.

For once, his dad babbling on about his job and all the "fascinating" things about tiny amphibious creatures that lived in mud wasn't so embarrassing. The questions he peppered the other werecats with made for a good distraction from the conversation hovering over all their heads. The werecats seemed to be comfortable with fielding most of the questions, the 'alpha' doing the majority of the talking as they all ate, answering questions even when they were aimed at Jared, and that made Brandon frown.

Brandon looked across the table at Jared, who was watching the alpha as he spoke. Jared's eyes flicked over once when he felt Brandon's gaze, then turned to him completely. They looked at each other, the both of them embarrassed and uncomfortable with it. Brandon attempted a smile and Jared returned it and Jesus, this was the guy he grew up with. Why the hell was this so hard? Why did it feel like he was at the table with a complete stranger? Two years couldn't erase seventeen, yet it felt like they might well have, and Brandon didn't feel so hungry anymore.

After the meal, with some of the other werecats cleaning up, Daniel and Jared began to poke at each other, just like old times, and it ended with Daniel getting Jared in a headlock. Brandon just rolled his eyes at their antics, but he couldn't help notice the way all the werecats stopped in their motions, watching the scene. Brandon didn't have time to suggest that Daniel break it up before a tall man with salt-and-pepper stubble came over, gently but firmly pulling Daniel away with a low growl. Daniel put up a token protest('what the hell, man?') and the stranger let him go. Jared reached out to put a hand on the stranger's forearm, and after a moment, the man nodded and walked away.

It was bizarre, and, if anything, Brandon was more uncomfortable than before.

The alpha ended up directing them to some cots set up over in the corner, and which point their father cheerily volunteered that he'd packed their tents, as they didn't know what kind of accommodations they'd have, and they were happy to set them up. Daniel and Brandon both gave him the 'Father, you are shitting me' look, and settled down on their canvas cots, Daniel grunting as he tossed and turned and tried to get comfortable. Brandon pulled his covers up, listening to his parents exchanging grateful pleasantries with the alpha.

Brandon couldn't help but notice that Jared was ascending the staircase attached to the wall at the far end of the building. He had a younger werecat -- a werecub, Brandon assumed -- in his arms. Jared glanced over at them, catching Brandon's gaze, then looked away, walking up the stairs until he was no longer visible from where Brandon was lying.

"Well, this is going to be fun," Daniel commented under his breath.

Brandon grunted and rolled over on to his side, staring darkly at the wall a few inches from his nose.

-----

The morning came far sooner than Brandon would have liked, and he was far too used to college, to waking a few inches before noon and rolling out of bed. That didn't seem to fly here, because by six AM there were people moving around the main room, plates being shifted in the kitchen, and Brandon could hear their father's over eager voice floating by somewhere, talking about who knew what.

For a little while, Brandon tried to pretend like he could get back to sleep, but it was a lost cause, and he kicked his brother until he got up as well.

He could see mother just outside the building, wringing her hands and waiting. She only smiled when Jared appeared, that same little cub running along near Jared's feet. Their mom hugged him like she hadn't hugged him for half an hour straight the night before, but Jared didn't seem to object, smiling with understanding, and Brandon watched, detached.

"You should show us around," their mom encouraged, her slight hands resting on Jared's forearms. "Show us where you've been living."

"Yeah, I could...I could do that," Jared replied, looking up and over at his family, smiling tightly. He took them down the slope, showing what he called 'pride ground' -- a collection of shacks hidden in amongst the sides of the forest on a stone hill, the last rolling edge of a mountain to the west of them. It wasn't large. In fact, the whole area could be seen from the main building at the top, and it only took them about ten minutes to reach the bottom, with Jared pointing things out -- not half the distraction that had probably been hoped for.

Something to put off the inevitable.

"So," their mother started, and it was predictable that it would be her to broach the subject. The two years had been hard on her, one of her children missing and gone, with no answers to soothe her. Nothing to let her know what had happened, what had gone wrong. It had killed Brandon to leave her in the dark, to make her wonder, but it wasn't as if he'd ever had any idea where Jared went. Or why things had happened the way they had. All he knew was that it had happened at all.

"So," Jared replied, glancing down at his feet, where the little werecat cub was still sitting. Brandon wondered where the hell its family was.

"Honey..." Their mother reached out, putting her hand against Jared's forearm as she took a step forward. "You know you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to..." And that was a lie. There was no way they weren't going to have to talk about why Jared had left. "But we were worried about you. I was worried about you... I was so scared."

Her free hand came up to brush Jared's cheek, and he raised his head.

"I know... I know, Mom, and I'm so sorry about that. I never meant to make you guys worry."

"Then why did you leave?" Her brow furrowed, that same choked fear and grief marked on her face that Brandon had gotten used to seeing -- even at Christmas, smiling and celebrating, he'd catch her looking out the window, searching for someone who wasn't coming home that year.

"It's...complicated," Jared replied, and Brandon barked a laugh, gathering way more attention than he wanted, but god, if that wasn't the understatement of the year.

"Nothing, it's--" Brandon shook his head. "It's just that you were gone for two and a half years. Have you been here the entire time? Why here? Why a feral pride?"

"They're not feral, Bran." Jared frowned, then took a deep breath. "And no. I wasn't here the entire time. I just... I freaked out with what was going on with me, and I ran away. I didn't come here until a few months ago. Before that...I was living by myself down river."

"By yourself, honey..." Their mother's expression tightened, upset by that. "You should have just come home..."

Jared winced.

"I...couldn't."

"Why?" their father asked, not accusative, but still needing to know. "What happened, son?"

"It's... There's a lot. It's complicated."

"Jare, c'mon, man." Even Daniel had something to say -- as aloof as he liked to act, he wasn't unfeeling. Brandon knew his brother had missed Jared, even if he hadn't said as much.

"No, really. It's really complicated. I can... Can we have this conversation later? Somewhere more private?" Jared looked a little desperate, eyes darting around like someone else was going to hear them and Brandon couldn't help the jolt of suspicion, uncomfortable with the idea of his brother living with people who were watching him. At Jared's feet, the cub gave an attention-needy call, its paws pressed up against Jared's jeans. Jared crouched down, picking it up and cradling it in his arms.

"C'mon," he said after a pause, his eyes still fixed on the cub for a moment, then looked back up at them, his expression somehow more relaxed. "We'll head back up to the main house. I guess it's way passed time we talked..."

"Well that's the understatement of the year," Daniel felt the need to tack on, and Brandon elbowed him firmly in the stomach. Jared just seemed amused, as if their brother being a dick was a relief.

Back up at the top of the slope, Jared turned to a stocky cougar that was sitting outside. The cougar glanced up, as Jared spoke to it.

"Brutus -- we need the house for awhile. Can you make sure we're not disturbed?"

'Of course.' Brandon could hear the response in his head, as could Daniel -- that weird way that they were able to communicate with each other when they were in their cat forms. They'd learned a long time ago that humans couldn't hear them, and when they were teenagers, the three of them used to lounge around as cats just so they could have "secret" conversations from their parents.

'Brutus' got up from where he was laying, standing aside to let their family pass through the doorway, and then seemed to take up a watch post as Jared shut the door behind them.

"Wow, big cahuna," Daniel commented, letting himself drop casually down to a bench, leaning back against the table that had been set up for them to eat from last nigpht. "Does everyone here obey you?"

Jared snorted.

"Not hardly. Brutus is..." He paused and shrugged. "He's here to keep an eye out for me."

Brandon felt any amusement flee, that prickling on the back of his neck returning -- the feeling that this place wasn't as idyllic as Jared wanted them to think that it was. Jared had some kind of watchdog assigned to him, keeping an eye on him and keeping him in line... It felt like there were too many parts of the story that they weren't getting.

Jared was setting his little cub companion down when the brief reprieve lifted, and the conversation resumed itself. Brandon wasn't surprised. There was only so long it could be held back, after all that had happened.

"Jared, honey..." their mother started -- she'd been devastated by Jared's disappearance, devastated and trying to deal with it the best she could, but she'd always been afraid of losing them. It was the inevitable result of raising children that weren't hers, even legally. Children that were a federal crime to possess at all. In Brandon's memory, their mother had always been a somewhat flighty woman, always easy to worry, easy to cry.

It was only when he grew up, when he looked back with older eyes and an understanding of exactly the kind of stress they'd undertaken, that he understood their presence had worn on her over time. Their father had once mentioned that she used to wake up in the middle of the night, dreams of men in uniforms invading their house, taking her children and disappearing into the night in her head.

"Mom," Jared replied, his brow so expressive and knit. "I'm sorry. I want you to know...that I'm sorry, about how I disappeared. I was...going through somethings, and I needed to get away. I needed to find answers, I guess."

"Answers here?"

"Yeah. I mean, I did eventually find them here. At first I just kind of...ran. I didn't know where I was going, just that I had to go."

"But...why?"

"It's hard to explain--"

"Well fucking try, man," Daniel interrupted, leaning forward, his face set. "You know how much mom freaked?"

"Daniel," she said, looking at him. "Language, please. And I appreciate your defense but...we don't need to be attacking Jared right now." She turned back to Jared, hands placed in her lap but tense, as if she didn't know what to do with them. "I just... We were so worried. You were sick and then you were just gone, and... I just wish you had called. I wish you had just come home. Whatever it was, we could have sorted it out."

Not likely, Brandon thought, but said nothing. He knew he was being unusually quiet, knew he was usually the one to take his brothers in hand and take charge, but right now he felt like he was just along for the ride. There was nothing he could say to make this easier for anyone. No explanations that would make anything better. And all the questions he had couldn't be asked, not here.

Jared was quiet for a moment, looking down at the floor, and apparently collecting his words -- whatever excuses and reasons he could think up without giving away the secret. Then Jared licked his lips and Brandon felt a jolt of panic, heart rate doubling as he wondered if Jared was just going to out and out say it, admit to having run away because he'd crawled into his brother's lap, admit it to their parents, but when Jared looked up, his face didn't look like someone who was about to cop to incest.

"You guys have always known I was different from Bran and Daniel. I've always known I was different." Jared shrugged once, and it was only their father whose expression didn't change -- that academic face of a biologist, stuck in science mode and Brandon was used to it. His father had always liked puzzles. "I wasn't sick, back then. I was..." Jared cleared his throat. "I was going through some stuff. Ailure...puberty, I guess. But I didn't get that, at the time. It messed with my head. It freaked me out and I...wasn't really thinking straight, when I ran away. And by the time it passed... I dunno. I blamed myself for the whole thing. I thought there was something wrong with me, so I just...stayed away."

"Ailure?" their dad asked, eyes bright over his bushy mustache.

"Uh, werecat. Us. Our...people."

"And the...the ailure here," their mother responded, pronouncing the foreign word a bit oddly -- more like 'allure.' "They helped you understand what happened? What you were going through?"

"Yeah." Jared's shoulders slumped with relief at being understood, and he smiled. "They did. There's all this stuff... Stuff we never knew. And they've helped so much. I thought I was wrong, for being different. But it's normal. I'm normal."

"I always worried about that happening." Their mother smiled tightly, and absently smoothed out the wrinkles and folds of her skirt. "I loved you boys more than life itself... But Stanley and I always worried that we would miss something. That we wouldn't be able to provide for your needs."

"I know enough about taking things out of their environment," their dad chimed in. "How dangerous it can be. For both parties. But we couldn't stomach the idea of leaving you three back out in the cold."

"And we're glad of that." Daniel made the finger guns and Brandon rolled his eyes before speaking up.

"You guys did what you could, and we're always going to be appreciative of that, you know that. If it weren't for you guys, we'd have frozen to death, or grown up feral... We're not blaming you."

"I know," their mother continued, eyes a little red. "But I'm your mother. It's my place to worry. I wanted to do what was best by you, but...even Stanley didn't know much about werecats, and a lot of the other rangers that had been around back when the pride lived in the park refused to talk about it... I guess they were just so used to the media going after them, or maybe the government asked them to keep quiet but... We just didn't know if we'd be able to take care of you. We did our best but... I'm so sorry, Jared. I feel like I failed you."

"No!" Jared hastened to reply, taking a step forward and lifting up a hand. "Please, don't say that... You did everything. Everything. You made me who I am and you did everything else. I don't want you to ever think that any of this was your fault. I was stupid, and a teenager and hormonal and I just... I didn't even know what I was doing at the time, Mom. And I wish-- you don't know how much I wish -- that I'd done things differently."

"At least you called." Her voice was soft, a little rough with tears but she was smiling. "At least you're coming home."

And it was only when there was a pause, when Jared just stood there and didn't say anything, that the idea of Jared not coming home with them occurred to Brandon at all. The option had just never presented itself as an option of any kind. Jared had run away and gotten lost and turned around and he'd called for them to come and get him, to help him, and then he was going to come home with them. That was just what was going to happen, and Brandon could see it on the faces of his brother and mother, both of them watching Jared with similar expressions of confusion, as if the idea was only just occurring to them as well.

Only their father didn't look surprised. He was staring down at the floor, fingers knit together and elbows on his knees, hands pressed to his mustache.

And that was the moment that Brandon cracked, and all the crazy emotions that had been churning untouched and unnamed in his gut came spilling out and up, straight through him as he shot to his feet, hands clenched at his sides.

"You have got to be kidding me!" he shouted, leaned forward as if set to charge. "You're staying here?!"

"Bran, I have to--"

"Bullshit!" he cursed, and it was rare for him, so usually the good boy, so very much the exemplary student and the well mannered athlete and the good son. "That's crap, Jared! You can't stay here. Why the hell did you call at all if you were just going to stay gone?"

He could hear his mother suck in a breath, but he pushed on, couldn't stop if he tried, completely taken by the anger and the confusion and everything that had festered for two years straight.

"What the hell are you going to do out here? We're in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of wild cats-- Jared, you're coming home. You have to come home."

"I can't, Bran."

"Why? Why the hell can't you come home?"

"It's...complicated." Jared's eyes skipped to the side, looking away.

"I can't believe you!" He wanted to kick something. He wanted to punch something. He wanted to throw a full on tantrum he was so wound with tension, but he had to settle for slamming the side of his hand into a wall. "You run off in the middle of the night, you don't call for two and a half years, and then when you do you tell us you're just not coming home because it's 'complicated.' What the hell is with this place, huh, Jare? You have some guard following you around, keeping an eye on you? What? Making sure you don't escape or tell us something they don't want us to know?"

"Brandon, that's ridiculous--"

"Is it? Cause you're not giving us anything else!" He threw his arms out to either side of himself. "You're living out in the wilderness like it's nothing, and you won't answer any of our questions, and last night, that guy answering for you all the time? Your cult leader?”

“My alpha,” Jared answered with more heat.

“Your alpha, right. That what they’re calling them these days? You’re not an animal, Jared.”

“Don’t act like you’re better than me--”

“Don’t act like a spoiled brat!”

“You have no idea what I’ve been through!”

“Because you won’t tell us! Maybe if you let us have a goddamned clue as to what’s going on I wouldn’t have to be guessing why you want to live like a backwoods, crazy ass mountain man instead of--”

“I have a son!!”

The yelling had reached a fever pitch, the both of them screaming at each other, and Brandon was sure that ‘Brutus' could hear them, and maybe even further than that. It was loud enough that when the silence came it was sudden and sharp, like someone had cut the volume on a film, and Brandon could still hear it ringing in his ears. He was staring at Jared, his expression unchanged -- not because he wasn’t shocked, but because it was like everything had come to a stand still. Like he didn’t even know how to feel, and he was certain he could feel the heartbeats of his family all around him.

He rocked back on his feet when he managed to take a breath, and he saw his mother to his left, her hands up and over her mouth, tears between her fingertips, and even Daniel looked shocked, his eyebrows raised and mouth slightly dropped.

It was like a bomb had gone off, quick and hot, leaving only their shadows in their wake, and Brandon struggled to take a breath.

“I can’t--I--” Jared started, voice quieter now, like respecting a hush, like whispering a secret at a funeral. He swallowed. “I can’t go home. I have a son here.”

“A son?” their mother asked, her voice wavering. She looked down to the cub that had slunk behind Jared’s feet during the screaming match, and Brandon’s gaze darted down, eyes growing wide and round, because that’s why the cub was following Jared wherever he went.

“He’s not... I mean, I’m not biologically related to him. He...got lost.” Jared’s eyes shifted to the side, as if he were leaving things out. “I found him and brought him back here. But I’m... I’m his parent. And don’t tell me I’m not.” He looked around them, as if challenging them, as if expecting someone to call him out. “Mom and Dad are our parents, I don’t care who gave birth to us. And I’m... Tristan is... He’s mine. And I won’t leave him.”

“Can I...” Their mother got to her feet, a little unsteady, and Brandon wanted to go over, to take her hand, but it meant going closer to Jared, and he wasn’t sure either of them could deal with that at the moment. “You named him...Tristan?”

“Yeah.” Jared shrugged a little, glancing around behind him to look down at the cub. “Didn’t know what else to call him... He lived with me down where I was... At my campsite. I looked after him, when he was still a baby. It was...awhile, before I brought him back here.”

“...may I hold him?” their mother asked, taking another cautious step forward. Jared softened and nodded. She reached out, delicate hands stretching out to the cub, who leaned up to sniff at her fingertips. She slipped her thumbs under his elbows, picking him up, his rear end dangling like a sack of flour, and she pulled him in, holding him like a baby. The cub looked up at her, paws large and floppy, and Jared was smiling slightly, watching.

“I remember,” their mother started, with such tenderness in her scratchy voice. “I remember when you three were this big, and your father and I would feed you bottles of formula. There was this big pen that Stanley had made for when we were nursing those grizzly cubs, and we used it for you, so that you’d all have a place to run around and still be safe.”

“That was before you...before you figured out...?” Jared asked.

“Yes,” she replied, though her eyes were still focused on the cub, rocking her hips back and forth instinctively, making her sway. “That was before we knew.” She lifted her free hand, letting the cub bat at her fingers. “So...this is my grandson...?”

“...yeah,” Jared replied, voice rough. “Yeah, he is.”

“I didn’t think it would be so soon...”

Or at all, Brandon amended in his head. It was one of those things that everyone knew but no one talked about. They’d never be able to have children with a human. They could take human shape, but they were a different species, in terms of genes. They couldn’t interbreed. Brandon had always known that he would have to adopt, if he and his future wife ever wanted kids. He’d already told Vanessa as much, not wanting to risk her asking about Artificial Insemination. Any tests on him would show what he was, what they’d worked his whole life to keep secret.

“You should know...” Jared’s voice broke through the reprieve. “His...Tristan’s other parent. Jensen. The three of us-- It’s the other reason I can’t go. I’m--he’s--”

Their mother looked up, curious and uncomprehending, and Brandon already felt his fingers begin to tighten, angry, but angry because it was his brother. His brother who was being taken in by this place, who was giving up all the things he’d ever dreamed of or talked about, all the things he’d wanted to be, where he wanted his life to go, because some asshole had convinced him he couldn’t leave. Couldn’t go home.

“We’re...together.” Jared looked down at the floor. “Mated, I guess.”

Daniel laughed then, a bark that made everyone jump, but it wasn’t mirthful. He was shaking his head, trying to take in too much at once, and Brandon knew how he felt. Jared, who was like a stranger before them. Someone who was their family, and yet nothing like the kid who’d left two years ago. Someone who had a son and a mate, not a boyfriend or a husband or something that Brandon could take, but a mate, like two stupid beasts rutting in the woods in the middle of the mating season. Like the deer that their dad used to point out to them in the park, explaining the birds and the bees through a lecture on biology.

“Jared, honey, I didn’t know you were...” Their mother trailed off, not accusative, but not open arms either. Brandon knew for a fact there was nothing that any of them could ever do that would make that woman not love them -- Daniel being a prime example of just how much she put up with from her kids -- but that didn’t make this easy for her.

“I’m...I’m not.” Jared shrugged. “It’s hard to explain.”

“That’s all you’ve said since we got here,” Brandon retorted, and he’d never been mean to Jared before. It wasn’t in his nature. He’d always been protective of both his brothers, even when Daniel was being a dick, but both he and Daniel had always been particularly protective of Jared, who could be such a crybaby. The three of them had always fought, like siblings do, but Brandon had never been cruel. And he didn’t know exactly where it was coming from, except Jared was being cruel too.

He’d kept secrets from them. He’d run away without explanation. He’d left them hanging for two and a half years, then called them out of the blue to tell them that he still wasn’t coming home, and that he just couldn’t explain it. Couldn’t explain anything.

“I think,” their father announced, seeing Jared’s face twisting in the beginnings of another fight. “That we’ve probably gone far enough for now.”

He slapped his hands against his knees as he rose to his feet, jointed popping, and he wandered over to his wife.

“I think we’re all still a bit tired from the traveling, and the jet lag... And we have a lot to catch up on.” He looked down at Tristan, who was beginning to wriggle around. “Why don’t we take a break? I’d like a chance to get to know--... to get to know my grandson.”

Part of Brandon didn’t want to stop. He wanted to let it all out. He wanted to get rid of all the fear and anger building inside of him, to make Jared see just what was going on here, what kind of mistake he was making.

But another part of him was just exhausted, and aware enough to realize that whatever happened from here on out wasn’t going to be productive. It was going to be more yelling. It was going to be him and Jared at loggerheads and maybe Brandon shouting a bunch of things he knew he didn’t mean but couldn’t keep back.

Things he’d be kicking himself for, later.

So he sat back down heavily, watching as even Daniel got up to peer at the cub, watching as their mom set him down again, and their parents talking quietly with Jared about nothing at all.

About all the empty things they could find to dance around the truth.

-----

Brandon wished he could say that it was easier with the conversation closed down for the evening. He wished he could say the reprieve was a welcome thing -- but instead it just felt like something dangling over their heads. Something he couldn’t let go of.

Jared and their mom ended up talking for a couple of hours, their mom filling him in on all the things that had happened in his absence, finding anything and everything to talk about, and she was good at that. She seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself, sharing the life he’d missed out on with him. Brandon knew the truth: she was just happy to be talking to her son. The one she’d begun to believe she’d lost. She was a mother who’d lost a boy she still saw as her baby.

Her cub, he thought with a prickly discomfort.

The cub that Jared had been carrying was wandering around the floor, and Brandon couldn’t say he was fully up to meeting his nephew. It wasn’t like the kid had done anything wrong, but it was hard to accept that his brother had a child. He knew he was being a total hypocrite, but he couldn’t help but think that Jared could still leave. That it wasn’t really his kid.

Which was twelve kinds of stupid coming from someone who’d been adopted himself, and who would punch anyone who said his parents weren’t his.

When Tristan came over to sniff and bat at Brandon’s shoes, he did his best to let it go. He leaned over, scrubbing his fingers over the cub’s fuzzy head, huffing a laugh when Tristan rolled over to bat at Brandon’s hand. It was hard to imagine he’d ever been like this. He’d seen some of his parents old pictures, but it was hard to imagine that this little cub was going to grow up to become a thinking, feeling human. He supposed it was no different than looking at a baby, in the end -- not yet able to talk or really emote. It was just he was used to seeing babies grow up into people. Not so much little cougar cubs.

“He’s not so bad,” Daniel said as he came up, poking Tristan’s side with the edge of his boot, letting the kitten latch on and angrily bite the leather. Daniel had that disaffected look on his face that he always seemed so fond of wearing, acting like he didn’t care, but Brandon knew better. His brother was an idiot, and an asshole, but he did care, even if he liked to pretend he didn’t.

“Yeah... I mean, it’s not what I expected, when we came here... Not at all. But.” Brandon shrugged, leaning over with his elbows on his knees. Daniel carelessly deposited himself on the floor, beginning to untie one of his boots, yanking the long string out. He dragged it over the floor, watching Tristan eagerly chasing it.

“How are you boys doing?” their father’s voice interrupted them, and Brandon looked up, scooting down the bench seat to give his dad room to sit. Daniel twirled the shoelace and Tristan let out what Brandon could only assume was meant to be some kind of warrior’s cry as he scrabbled across the floor.

“Alright,” Brandon replied, as his father seated himself with a sigh, popping his knuckles and making Brandon wince with each one. “Your mom’s in seventh heaven over there. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her talk so much.”

“You’ve never had to sit through her book club,” Daniel grumbled, but they both ignored him.

“I’m glad,” Brandon replied to his father. “She deserves some happiness.” Their mother wasn’t perfect, same as any person, but she was kind hearted and devoted, and she’d been ardent through their entire childhood that she, and no one else, was their mother. Brandon had never once doubted her love for them, and the whole ‘adopted' thing had been a non-issue for them. Their mom had always kissed their foreheads and tucked them in, had always hung their good report cards on the refrigerator and sent them to their room with a stern look when they got into fights or made a mess.

“What about you?” their dad pushed. “You doing alright, buddy?”

“You already asked me that,” Brandon pointed out with a rueful smile.

“Yeah, yeah I did... But things got a little heated for you back there, and I just wanted to make sure you were okay. Maybe let you talk it out some.”

“Nothing to talk about, really.” Brandon shrugged minutely, looking down at his hands, dangling between his knees. “I went overboard, I know. Especially in front of you and mom, but... It’s just a lot to take in at once.”

“That it is.”

“And we need to...fix this. Mom’ll be heartbroken if she has to lose Jared again, and it’s obvious that it’s dangerous for him to stay here.”

He waited for his father’s response, his nod and reply in the affirmative, and jolted when it didn’t come. He looked over at his dad.

“Dad. We need to get Jared home. This place... They’ve got him suckered into believing all of this stuff, into thinking he needs to be here. Jared’s smart. He has a future. He’s a good kid that’s just gotten mixed up with some bad people.”

“I... don’t like the idea of leaving him,” their dad finally admitted, and Brandon felt himself begin to untense before their father continued. “But I can’t pretend that I’m in charge of his decisions anymore. He’s been on his own for two years, Bran. And I’m worried that if I start telling him he has to fall in line, he’ll only walk further away from us.”

“But we can’t leave him here. I can’t--” Brandon winced. Jared had always been so easy for the other kids to push around. An easy target. Jared so badly wanted people to like him, think well of him, and Brandon still remembered when the kid had given up his lunch money to buy candy for the other kids, or when he’d almost gotten hypothermia by crawling into a sewer inlet on the dare of some idiot bullies. Jared was a great kid, and a good person, and he was being taken advantage of. Brandon just didn’t know why no one else in his family seemed to care. “He’s my brother. He deserves better than this. You can’t think this is okay.”

Their dad wet his lips, nodding along, not in agreement but in that way that the did when he was thinking, ever the biologist, ever the scientist, considering something in his head. Brandon remembered how the three of them used to tease their dad for being such a nerd -- tall and skinny with a big bushy mustache and a sense of fashion that fit better in the 70s than it did in the present. He’d been a great father, taking them out camping all the time in the park, excitedly showing them everything from the tiniest spiders to great bull elk that wandered through the long grass. He was awful at talking about things, about being in any kind of social situation, unless he was being asked about the mating habits of drosophila or one of the latest articles in Nature magazine.

So Brandon was used to waiting for a response.

“I think,” the man started, slow and considering. “That this is something I had considered, before.”

Brandon’s eyebrows raised, but their dad continued.

“I didn’t expect it, exactly, but I accepted it as a possible outcome, when your mother and I first took you boys in. Once we realized... well. Once we knew. It was something I tried to talk with her about, but you know how she can be, when she gets an idea in her head. And she was already so in love with you three. But I’ve taken care of plenty of animals in my life, and I knew when they were ready to return to their habitat, when they were healed or strong enough, when I had to let them go. And that was something I was prepared to do, if any of you ever chose that.”

Brandon held up a hand, and he was shaking. Their father stopped talking, and Daniel glanced up.

“Don’t you--” Brandon swallowed hard, like he could hardly breath through the anger. “I am not an animal.”

Their dad’s eyes widened.

“Brandon, I didn’t mean--”

“No. I just--” He shook his head, getting up. “I need some time alone.”

He couldn’t be here anymore. Couldn’t be in this room with his family when he felt like lashing out, when he felt like doing more damage than he should. When he wanted to make someone else hurt, someone else carry all his rage, all the crazy stupid emotions that were battering at his innards. His steps were stilted as he strode out the front door, out into the dusk, and he saw ‘Brutus' look up at him, but thankfully the other werecat seemed to know not to bother him. He’d heard Jared and their mom’s conversation stutter when he’d walked past, but they hadn’t gotten up, and he let out a long, slow breath, like he could just breathe it all out. Like somehow he could purify himself of all this mess.

He wished he could call Vanessa. He wished his cell got some damned reception and he could call her and just talk to someone normal, someone sane, and know that the regular world was still out there, still moving and turning, somewhere he could go home to and have everything make sense again.

He needed everything to make sense again.

“Crap, bro,” Daniel’s voice cut into his thoughts. Brandon glanced back at him as his brother walked over to stand next to him, looking down the slope of the strange little commune. “Looks like I’m going to step up my game. I’m the one that’s supposed to throw a fit and walk out.”

“Didn’t I say that I wanted some time alone?”

“Didn’t I say that I don’t give a shit?”

“No.”

“Well, shit -- gonna have to put that on my to-do list.”

Brandon couldn’t help a jerk of laughter at that, shaking his head, far too used to Daniel’s ways, too used to the way the two of them related to one another. Sometimes he wished his misfit brother would clean up his act, stop stressing their poor mom out(and it was one of the few blessings of their infertility with humans -- or else they’d be up to their eyeballs in Daniel spawn) and shape up, but Brandon had mostly gotten over it. Daniel had his good points, even if they were few and far between.

“I’m just so angry, Dan,” he admitted, after a pause. “I’m so angry and it’s like...It’s like I can’t control it.”

“Yeah, well. I think we can see that. I’d almost be a little proud of you, except that you’re kind of stealing my shtick.”

“I just... I can’t let it go. Jared can’t stay here. You know that. And Mom knows it too. What’s he going to do out here, huh? How’s he going to live? He can’t just expect us to leave him behind, to forget about him like he doesn’t matter. He’s our brother. We have to take care of him.”

“I’m not exactly gonna argue... I mean, I’m not wild on it either, but I’m not sure yelling at him is the right way to go about it.”

“Yeah... Yeah I know. It’s just...it’s like every few seconds something new comes out and I can’t process it. I don’t know how to deal with this. And I’m so used to...I’m usually so--”

“You’re used to being in charge.” Daniel shrugged. “Admittedly I don’t really listen to you all the time, but yeah, I know you’re the golden child. You’ve always been the one with the cool head. I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen you like this before.”

Brandon couldn’t help but laugh a little at that.

“You worried about me?”

“Pff,” Daniel dismissed, tucking his hands into his pockets. “As if. I’ve always maintained that you have a giant stick up your ass. Maybe if you let loose a little more often you wouldn’t blow up like Pompeii.”

“Vesuvius. Pompeii was the town. Vesuvius is the volcano.”

“Geek.”

“And it wasn’t even the city that actually got hit bad. That was Herculaneum.”

“Geek.”

They both went quiet after that, Brandon crossing his arms over his chest and looking out at nothing in particular. He was used to fights. They were three kids that had grown up together, all the same age. There was no avoiding it. Jared and Daniel used to fight over toys at least three times a day when they were little, and Daniel always used to pick on Jared, making fun of him for being a crybaby, or putting his feet all over Jared until he made Jared cry then making fun of him for being a crybaby. Brandon remembered he and Daniel getting into scraps over everything, from homework to girls to how little respect Daniel showed their teachers. He remembered punching Dan in the face when he’d found his brother out behind school smoking when they were fourteen.

But he wasn’t used to him and Jared fighting. Jared had always been oversensitive and a bit of a mama’s boy, but he was a good person, and he’d always fallen in line. There had been the blow up of ‘03, when they hadn’t spoken to each other for four days straight because Brandon had suggested(maybe just a little strongly) that Jared shouldn’t hang out with Benny Tullis because he was just doing it to hurt Jared. Jared had taken some offense to the suggestion that he couldn’t make friends on his own, and that no one would want to be friends with him for any reason other than to mess with him.

The fight had ended after those four days, after Jared had come home with snot running from his nose and glue and leaves in his hair and his cheeks covered in dirt except for the trails where the tears had cut.

Brandon had been the one to help him shave the mess off, not a word of judgment or 'I told you so' spoken.

They were the same age, but it had always been Brandon’s responsibility to keep his brothers from getting into trouble. And it still was.

Except this wasn’t Benny Tullis. This was something much bigger, much deeper, and far less easy to predict. Brandon didn’t know what the game was here, but he knew that Jared wasin’t safe, and that Jared was trusting too easily again, like he always did. He needed his family. He needed his family to keep him safe, and Brandon would be damned if he was going to let Jared down.

“You gonna come back in?” Daniel asked after a moment, shrugging his shoulders up. It wasn’t as cool here as it was in Wyoming, but the night breeze was cutting in, pleasantly chill over the receding heat of the day. Brandon let it blow over him.

“Yeah,” he replied. “In a bit.”

He heard his brother grunt, heard the turn of his boots against the stone, his steps back towards the building. He heard the door open and shut, but Brandon didn’t look back behind himself, his hands clenched on his upper arms, and he felt immovable.

He would have to be immovable. For his brother, for his family. He’d never let them down before, and he didn’t intend to start now.

He didn’t have time to brood. He needed to figure out how he was going to get his little brother safely home.

-----

The next day dawned as early as the last, only for Brandon to find out that Daniel had volunteered them to go out on a hunt with the locals. Having been raised by a conservationist, the notion wasn’t really a familiar one to him, but he figured he needed a break from the drama, and Jared probably needed a break from him. Daniel wasn’t often right, but he definitely wasn’t wrong when he’d said that the yelling wasn’t helping things.

Maybe a little time to cool down would help Jared get his head in the right place.

And Brandon hoped that doing something as wildly different as hunting would get his mind off of the whole mess. Not to mention that he figured there’d be a reasonable amount of physical activity to drain him.

He had no idea just how much that would be true.

“Don’t we need rifles or something?” Daniel asked, standing out with Brandon at the back of the settlement, a group of werecats milling around, all of them in their cat forms. Brandon could hear laughter flitting through their heads, and one of the cats approached them, looking them up and down.

‘You can’t go hunting like that,’ she commented.

“Like what?” He glanced down at himself -- he thought he was wearing practical clothing.

‘Like that. In that shape. You won’t be able to keep up.'

“You go hunting as cats?” Brandon asked, boggling over that. It just seemed so...inefficient.

‘We are cats. How else would we hunt?’

Brandon was about to respond to that when he caught motion out of the corner of his eye and turned to see Daniel stripping down, taking off his shoes and setting them to the side, then tugging his shirt up.

“You’re really going to do this?”

“When in Rome, bro.”

“The closest you’ve ever been to Rome is Little Caesar’s.”

“Where you get to hunt down wild pizzas and eat them.”

Brandon rolled his eyes, but went looking for somewhere private to take his clothes off. There was no where to store them really, or keep them out of the elements, so he had to settle for just tucking them into a notch in a trunk of a tree. He didn’t shift his form often -- only when they were safe and home where no one could see them -- but changing had never been hard, once he’d figured out how to do it. To touch that bright spot, feeling everything alter, his balance, his equilibrium, his perspective. It was never painful, just a quick dizzy spell, like his blood switching directions suddenly, and then he was on all fours, tenderly padding out from his privacy, returning to the hunting group.

He could easily spot Daniel amongst them. He had a dark coat with lighter stripes, nearly opposite to Brandon, whose back was tan, and his underbelly darker, but their markings were similar in shape, and they both had the long saber fangs, which the cougar werecats seemed very interested in inspecting. There were some murmurs amongst them that Brandon couldn’t quite make out at first, but they ended before he could catch on.

‘It’s true, just like Alpha said,’ was all Brandon caught, before the leader of the group rounded on them.

‘Hush! All of you. We welcome our guests. They’re here to hunt with us, not to listen to you gossip like fertiles at a watering hole.' The group seemed to quiet at that, falling in line.

‘It’s cool,’ Daniel said, spreading his lips in what Brandon knew was his brother’s attempt at his usual cocky grin. ‘I know I’m pretty awesome.'

‘Shut up, idiot.' Brandon figured he should pay the hunting leader the same respect, reining his brother in.

The group began to move out under the orders of the female, about twenty cats in all, spreading out as they entered the woods, heading north towards what Brandon could only assume were their hunting grounds. He winced a little as he walked, unaccustomed to going without shoes, and the pads of his paws only used to seeing the soft dirt of their parents’ backyard. The wilderness of North Carolina was not so civilized or forgiving, all sticks and rocks and the sharp burrs from the chestnut trees that littered the ground, and more than once Brandon jumped in unexpected pain, shaking his paw to dislodge something.

He really thought that hunting rifles would make this easier.

‘Are you doing alright there?’ the female leader asked, shifting her gait to fall back with him, her dark brown eyes tracking his movements. He couldn’t help but notice how she had to slow down for him, and he tried to pick it up, embarrassed.

‘Yeah, I’m alright. I’m just not used to-- I’ve never hunted anything before. Not really something I’m used to.'

‘It’s alright. Alpha told me that this might not be your kind of thing. Still, even if you’re only here for a few days, I think you should get to experience this. To feel the life you could have had.' She was looking at him with something that took him a moment to place on the alien features of a cat -- pity, and that made him draw his head up in surprise. That she pitied him because he didn’t have to turn into a cat and go out into the woods to hunt his food.

He couldn’t help but laugh to himself, shaking his head. He pitied her for much the same -- that she lived out in the forest, that she couldn’t just go to the store and pick up food. That she’d never get any kind of higher education or know about current events. He supposed it was all a matter of perspective.

He could appreciate that, for these strangers.

But he couldn’t for his brother. Jared deserved more.

‘Yeah, well... It sounds like an experience, all right... Is there anything I should know? It’s probably pretty obvious that this is my first time doing this--’ He paused, going for her name and finding that he didn’t know it. ‘What’s your name, anyways?’

‘Nicki,’ she replied, bounding over a fallen tree with hardly any effort, skipping over leaves like her body had no weight whatsoever, something that Brandon knew he had no hope of emulating. He climbed over as best he could.

‘Nicki. Nice to meet you. I’m Brandon. My brother’s Daniel.'

‘Alpha’s consort told us,’ she replied casually, and Brandon had to hold back a growl at that title, disliking anyone talking about his little brother like that. ‘As for what to do... Listen to my orders when we’re out there. Don’t move unless I say -- and always stay quiet. We’re good at our job, so long as you don’t spook our game.'

‘We’ll do our best.' He heard a massive crunching of leaves as Daniel chased a squirrel up a tree, and winced, his brother’s claws in the bark of the tree, staring up at the rodent. ‘...Well. I’ll try my best. I can’t make any promises for my brother.'

He could hear Nicki laughing as she picked up speed, jogging back to the front of her group, long tail twisting through the air.

‘That’s the nature of littermates,’ was all she said, and Brandon felt a little better. Daniel was right about one thing: being here was a lot like being in a foreign country, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Jared popped into his head again, though, and Brandon’s good mood was quickly scattered. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it wasn’t necessarily a good thing either.

They ended up jogging for miles, headed far north of the settlement, and by the time the group slowed for a drink at a stream, both Brandon and Daniel were hard pressed to continue. They were both fit, both strong, but they didn’t have to hunt to survive. They didn’t have to run miles every day to pull down game, and that made a pretty big difference. By the time the group found a herd of white-tailed deer, Brandon knew he’d be no good, even if he ever had been. The idea of killing something with his teeth was just too much for him. Even just imagining the fresh squirts of blood filling his mouth made his stomach roil, but he was happy to see the Nicki wasn’t really depending on them.

It was a little insulting just to be along for the ride, but at the same time, it wasn’t like Brandon was going to be able to do much except embarrass himself.

The group ended up pulling down two deer at the end of the afternoon, Daniel giving it his best effort to keep up, jumping on one of the deer as some of the others were taking it down. Brandon wondered briefly how they were going to get the things back to the settlement when he saw two of the hunters shift into their human form, leather strapped to their arms, with each of them having two knives in sheaths there. Brandon glanced away at the two men’s nudity, but watched from the corner of his eye as each of them squatted down, quickly carving up the two beasts.

It was hard not to wince as they used their knives to casually pop the legs out of their joints, carving each shank away. They disembowelled both deer, the members of the party casually laying down amongst the long grass, sharing the raw organs as some kind of snack. Nicki offered him a piece of intestine, which Brandon declined as politely as he could. Nicki gave him a look, like he was turning down the most prized part of the carcass(which, he had to admit, he may well have just done, as he watched the cougar walk off to consume it), while Daniel took a bite out of the compact black stomach, only to gag and retch, all the hunters laughing and teasing good naturedly. Brandon had seen it before -- been part of it before. The city kid come to visit the country, getting friendly ribbing. It was just that Brandon had never been the city kid before. He came from rural Wyoming.

He and Daniel had gotten well teased when they’d moved down to Laramie, and Brandon had just never thought that he’d be one of the kids they always mocked for having designer jeans, one of those kids that didn’t know how to get their hands dirty.

Daniel took it all in stride, used to horsing around, used to ribbing and being ribbed, and used to taking his knocks and going through that induction ritual, and he laughed in turn as the others teased him. Brandon was never quite as keen to be laughed at, but he still watched it all with a smile at the familiarity -- that it was no different than it was with humans.

The two carvers used ropes to hang all the body parts from nearby trees, each deer in seven pieces: four legs, two sides of the chest, and the neck and head. Gravity caused the blood to drip down, out of the meat and pooling on the ground, and the hunting party settled in for a wait, obviously used to the rhythm of the ritual, talking and horsing around while they waited for the corpses to drain.

‘So,’ Brandon started up conversationally as Nicki snapped the line of intestine, one end in her jaws, the other held pinned under her paw. ‘What happens now?’

‘Once the blood has drained, we strap the meat to our carriers, and we head back to pride ground. The youngest in my unit, the hunters still in training, will spend the evening salting the meat, preparing it for storage. Though I’m sure that Jensen'hrao will want to cook one of the ribs for you tonight.'

Brandon’s mind followed back over the memory of the alpha -- Jensen -- his words covering Jared’s and his eyes so very careful. A man in complete control of the world around him.

‘Thank you for your hospitality.' He could appreciate that the pride was working to accommodate them. He felt like things were being hidden from him, that there was something in this commune that they weren’t mentioning, but Daniel had had a point before. It didn’t do Brandon any favors to be adversarial. ‘For helping us out.'

‘You’re family of family,’ she said, and Brandon was pretty sure it was supposed to be supportive, welcoming. It just made a shiver run up his spine.

Family.

Jared was his family, their family. Not the family of these people.

In front of them, two of the other werecats bounded by suddenly, one chasing the other and kicking up dust, the one doing the chasing swiping with its paws in determined play. Nicki’s head drew back to avoid getting kicked, and she looked sadly down at the rest of her intestine, now covered in grit.

‘Youth,’ she said firmly. ‘Is wasted on the young.'

‘A fan of the theatre, I see,’ Brandon replied with a twitch of his lips.

‘Bleh. I got that one from one of those quote books that you read while you poop.' Her response was so unexpected, so unlike everything else that Brandon had seen since he’d gotten here, that he couldn’t help but laugh, feeling some of the tension leave his muscles.

‘I feel you... My girlfriend, this real cerebral lady, right? She loves stuff like that. Not the poop books -- theatre, I mean. Always quoting people. The more obscure the better.'

‘Oh, I know the type. Have this little sister, a fertile. She gets the betas to bring her back books from town, all the time, and hides them in the Cove. She’s always talking about how we’re not ‘sophisticated' enough. You should hear her, when I go to eat with my parents. Always talking about how uncultured I am, like I didn’t bring home the meat she’s talking around.' The words seemed harsh, but Brandon could hear the easy affection there. He knew it all too well.

‘Family. They’ll drive you nuts,’ he supplied, feeling a little more relaxed, at the reminder that it was a problem world wide. No one got to escape family, not really.

‘I remember,’ she continued, nostalgia heavy in her tone, watching some of the other hunter gamboling through the long grass. Brandon didn’t know how they had the energy. ‘I remember when I was a teenager, when I was her age. I used to tag along with the betas when they went into town. There was this bar and grill I liked to hang out at. They always knew exactly who I was when I came in, but the bartender always gave me a couple beers on the house.'

‘Trying to get away from your family?’

‘Sort of. It’s not as if I had any problems. Guess I just wanted to set myself apart. And really, that’s all Rachel’s doing. Finding her place. She’ll get there eventually.'

‘And if she doesn’t?’

Nicki shifted her shoulders in what amounted to a shrug, something that looked far more elegant and practiced than Brandon would ever be able to do in this form, and Nicki moved like it was natural, accustomed to this body. It was something Brandon found hard to understand. He found it endlessly frustrating to go without thumbs, to be unable to talk to his parents, unable to open doors or use the remote. Unable to make phone calls. It was an inconvenience, enjoyable only in short segments.

‘She’ll have to. We all do. That’s just growing up.'

‘You seem to have found it okay.'

‘Took my time,’ Nicki commented, warmly watching her unit relaxing in the warm afternoon sun, and Brandon felt curiosity beg to ask. ‘But don’t we all.'

He thought of home, and Laramie, and his little dorm room, new and clean if cramped, with all his things as ordered as they could be. He thought of Vanessa helping him, laughing at him or with him, he could never tell, her long hair in unbrushed tangles. He thought about home, and the empty room at the end of the hall, and he wondered if he’d found himself half so much as he thought he had.

He had been so sure, just a moment ago.

‘Don’t we all,’ he responded, but he didn’t feel like he was talking to an equal anymore, like he felt when he spoke with his professors, responsibility worn like a suit, his face saying to the world that he wasn’t a child anymore. She lived her life covered in fur and eating fresh intestine, hunting game not for sport but for survival, settled in amongst the long grass, and Brandon felt like a child in the face of her.

He turned his gaze away, and wondered how one little phone call could throw him so badly.

He missed the order of mechanical pencils and the perfect squares of drafting paper, showing a world of structure and sense that he could live inside. He missed knowing what was meant to come next.

-----

The hunting party stayed in the field for a few hours, letting the blood drain from the corpses while also letting the hunters rest and relax, getting their energy back for the long hike back. Not that everyone took advantage of that. Plenty of the younger cats spent a good deal of time chasing each other or rough housing -- something that Daniel joined in with the complete expectation of coming out on top. Brandon could see as much in his brother’s cocksure expression, and knew as much from experience.

Brandon and Nicki had been having a conversation about football, something that she turned out to be unexpectedly knowledgeable about. Apparently she’d gotten really into it at the bar and grill, and had a little portable radio that she used nowadays to keep up with things. Brandon hadn’t played anything besides casual games in the quad since he graduated high school, but he still had plenty of good memories of his time on the team, and he and Nicki had plenty to discuss. It was enjoyable -- he hadn’t had someone to talk sports with in awhile. Architects weren’t really into the whole 'sports' thing, and just the word could get Vanessa glowering, so it was nice to talk shop for a bit.

Brandon found himself getting distracted, though, when he saw his brother getting into the sparring. Daniel was big as a cat, both he and Daniel larger than any of the cats in the hunting party, and when Daniel got into a scrap with a cat that was considerably smaller than him, Brandon was tensed to get up and break things up if they got carried away.

He really didn’t want to upset the status quo with Daniel getting over enthusiastic and hurting someone.

He didn’t expect to see Daniel slammed on his back less than thirty seconds later, the three cougars who’d been playing around laughing at Daniel’s quick defeat.

Brandon saw his brother spring back to his feet, leaping in a second attempt, but it didn’t fare any better then the first. Brandon could see the bunching muscles of Daniel’s opponent, and despite the size and weight difference, Daniel just couldn’t move fast enough, or with enough force, to win the match.

‘He has soft paws,’ one of the hunters commented, nudging at Daniel’s foot.

‘I’ll show you soft paws...’ Daniel lashed out, but the hunter danced back as if it were nothing.

‘All pretty stripes and pretty teeth...’ the hunter teased, tone jovial if a bit smug.

‘I always thought a child of Thaylil would be a great warrior.'

‘Dude!’ Daniel objected. ‘I’m an Environmental Science major!’

There were several sniggers, along with the occasional ‘Environmental science!,’ like it was hilarious, and beside him Brandon saw Nicki getting up, stretching her front legs out before she strolled casually over.

‘Alright, break it up, you meatheads. You know, the alpha isn’t wrong -- some reading would actually do you some good.'

‘Aw, Nicki... Don’t do that.' One of the hunters ducked his head, looking put out.

‘Yeah, it’s not like it’s important. We’re hunters.' He said the word with great pride, but Nicki didn’t look too impressed.

‘You’re hunters, not uncultured swine, and I’m thinking I should assign you things, like little human school children. I don’t want my unit the laughing stock of the other hunters.'

There were a few mumbles of ‘this sucks' and ‘C'mon, Nicki,’ but the group broke up, wandering away, Daniel still stretched out on the ground like a cub. He was leering up at Nicki, and it was so very predictable that he would continue to be an idiot. Brandon groaned, rolling his eyes.

‘My hero,’ Daniel said, as if he’d ever been under any real threat, besides a slightly bruised ego.

‘They’re not wrong, you know,’ Nicki replied, looking down at him with something like a smirk. ‘You are a soft paw. How do you expect to provide for your mate?’

Daniel rolled over on to his belly, looking up at her straight now.

‘Baby, I’m totally unattached,’ he started in a voice that Brandon had heard in far too many bars and mixers during their freshman year. He was leaning in to Nicki, making what Brandon thought might have been intended as ‘bedroom eyes' at her. ‘Do you guys do it as cats, too?’

‘It?’ Nicki asked, quirking her head, her expression one of amusement.

‘You know. It.'

‘Oh,’ she responded, voice too knowing, too entertained to be serious. ‘It. That makes everything so much clearer.'

Brandon could hear the other hunters chuckling. Nicki sidled a little closer to Daniel.

‘I suppose given your circumstances you’ve never had the chance to be with another ailure. How deprived...’ Her voice was smooth and seductive, but more like the one hitting on, rather than the one being hit on.

‘I know, it’s so sad. Like one of those sad little orphan stories. I just never had the opportunity... Could rectify that now, you know,’ Daniel purred, quite literally.

‘Daniel,’ Brandon started, but Nicki seemed to be handling her own.

‘Well, aren’t you a pretty little thing,’ Nicki teased, and Brandon could hear some of the other hunters chuckling to themselves, watching the show. ‘I think we already know how the fight’s going to end.'

‘Wait,’ Daniel blinked. ‘Fight?’

Nicki didn’t so much respond as tackle him, the two of them rolling around in the dust, and even in the struggle, Brandon could appreciate just how good Nicki was. Her claws remained retracted, her movements careful -- a fight, but a mock fight, not intended to harm. It was impressive, then, that even with that, she was still able to pin Daniel with relative ease, her jaw seizing the scruff of his neck.

‘Don’t you know how dominants fuck, saber?’ she asked. ‘You thought I’d just roll over for those pretty stripes of yours?’

She chuckled, releasing his scruff and grooming the back of the neck, and even though Daniel was probably completely unaware of what had just happened, Brandon could see how she’d effectively put his brother in his place without ever being cruel or strict. It was still all a joke, still all rough teasing, and she could keep up with boys like a natural.

‘Hey, woah,' Daniel said. ‘Sorry. I didn’t know you were a dude.'

‘I’m not,’ she replied, and got up off his back, padding away casually, and Daniel looked completely baffled. He didn’t get a chance to ask, though, because the next instant Nicki was all business, throwing around names and orders, and varies members of the hunting party shifted, using their hands to load up others, still in their cat forms, tying the meat securely to straps that seemed to work much like saddle bags, nearly half of the group ending up with something to carry. Brandon and Daniel seem to be spared the burden, and Brandon knew it was because they weren’t seen as strong enough.

It was a little embarrassing, but he wasn’t insulted. After all, they weren’t wrong. Brandon wasn’t looking forward to the trek back, even without a few dozen pounds of dead flesh strapped to him.

He took a moment to jog forward to Nicki as they set out.

‘Hey, sorry about my brother, if he offended you or anyth--’

‘Please,’ Nicki said, shaking her head, and there was no malice in her voice. ‘There are no betas here. We don’t walk around with sticks up our asses and our noses wrinkled like we're too good. We don’t take ourselves so seriously, do we hunters?’

There was a chorus of growls and roars, something that reminded Brandon much of a ‘Hoorah,’ and Nicki looked pleased and proud.

‘It’s our way to be a bit rough with each other. If anything, I should probably apologize to you for not warning you,’ she finished.

‘Weirdly? I think this has been the most normal day we’ve had so far.'

‘We do what we can,’ she responded with a quirk of her lips, the group setting back out towards the south, moving back into the woods and towards the settlement. ‘And hey,’ she continued, glancing over at him. ‘If you need anything while you’re here, let me know.'

‘I...thanks. Thank you.' After the last couple of days, the long travel and then getting here only to find out that his brother had no intention of coming home, after blowing his top and feeling like he was the only one in the family willing to fight for Jared, it was nice to have someone just offer him even the slightest bit of support.

‘No problem. That goes for your dumbass brother too.' She smirked, tossing her head to indicate Daniel, before picking up speed and running to the head of the party.

Brandon felt himself smirk, loping forward as they wove into the maze of the trees.

-----

The morning of the third day dawned early, with Brandon still heavy and full of the fresh deer that had been cooked the night before. He woke up from a touch on his shoulder, rolling over only to jerk back when he found himself face to face with the alpha of the pride, crouched less than a foot away from his cot.

“What the--” he started, lifting a hand to scrub over his face, trying to rub away and banish the last of sleep, blinking blearily. The alpha didn’t seem perturbed, just sitting there, as if he were waiting for something, one elbow leaned against his knee and letting the other one pull back from Brandon, dangling down to brush the floor. “What’s going on?”

“I need you to wake your brother,” Jensen replied, like nothing was weird or out of the ordinary about waking someone up at the before dawn with no real explanation. “Then come outside. There’s something we need to talk about.”

Brandon didn’t even know quite what to say to that, but even if he had, he didn’t get a chance. Still trying to gather his words, Brandon watched as Jensen rose from his crouch, walking casually out of the front door. He just stared at the open doorway for a moment before shaking himself, still feeling the last surreal dregs of dreams leaving him, and got up to stumble around, getting dressed while trying to be conscientious of his still sleeping parents.

He was less conscientious of his brother, kneeing him in the side until Daniel finally grumbled and acquiesced, rolling over, then off his cot, dragging himself over to his bag. Brandon rolled his eyes and walked outside to wait, awake enough to be curious now.

The alpha was waiting over on the rock that jutted out of the ground, overlooking the rest of the settlement, and Brandon’s eyebrows rose a little when he saw that Jared was there as well. His brother was standing with a hand resting lightly on his stomach, which looked a bit odd, but Jared dropped it immediately when he noticed Brandon approaching.

They were both understandably stiff with one another, after their last interaction.

“Hey,” Jared said.

“Hey,” Brandon responded. There was a stretch of silence, and Brandon tried for a little more. “Sorry about--”

“Yeah.” Jared shrugged.

“So...what is this about?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.” Jared looked over at the alpha(at his mate, Brandon recalled with a nasty feeling in his stomach). “Jensen hasn’t seen fit to clue me in yet.”

“There’s no point in gathering you all up to talk to you about something if I’m going to talk to you all about it separately beforehand,” Jensen responded dryly, and Jared glowered at him.

It was unexpectedly normal, almost domestic.

Brandon was grateful when Daniel loped over, contrite expression on his face as he slowed to join them.

“Alright. So why am I awake?”

“Good,” Jensen announced, standing up and brushing his hands like he doesn’t know quite what to do with them. “I wanted to talk to the three of you. About where you come from.”

“The Yellowstone pride?” Brandon asked, knowing that much. Education on werecats was less than optimal, but everyone knew about Agnus Dei. Everyone knew about the cats of Yellowstone.

“The Hyl’maithen,” Jensen replied, a word that Brandon didn’t recognize, and a quick glance at Jared’s face showed the same unknowing. “It’s the name of your pride. Your people.”

“I thought we were sabers?” Daniel asked, yawning widely.

“That’s your race, your clan. But there used to be other saber prides, once, long ago -- just as there are dozens of cougar prides across the Americas. But the Hyl’maithen...That was the name of your pride. Just that pride. It just so happened that they were also the last of the saber prides.”

Brandon’s interest piqued through the slowly dawning haze of the morning, and he tipped his head to the side.

“There aren’t any other saber prides?”

Jensen shook his head.

“You are the last. The last of your kind, as far as we know. For the last forty years, it was believed that the sabers were extinct. That you were extinct.”

Brandon had always known to keep his head down, always known that if their secret got out, it’d be their parents' heads on the chopping block, and way more media attention than he was willing to deal with. The attack on the Yellowstone Pride was one of the most famous events in human and werecat history, something that had colored all the interactions since, and humans, at least, were of the belief that the pride had been completely wiped out. There'd never been many family discussions about it, after the truth had all come out when they were thirteen. They didn't need them. Their dad had looked them in the eyes, told them that no one could ever know, that they'd be in danger.

He'd never talked about how he and their mom would be locked away for life. It wasn't about that, for them. Brandon had said it to his brothers that night, squirreled away in Brandon's room and talking lowly over the white noise of the television.

He'd always known to keep it secret, but he'd never gotten just how endangered they were -- both as a species and as individuals -- until he looked over at his brothers and realized that, besides himself, he was looking at the two last sabers in all the world.

"None?" he asked, after a moment. "There are no other saber prides out there?"

"None that have been seen by any ailure in forty years," Jensen said.

Brandon had always assumed there were some, hidden in some jungle. It wasn't as if there was a lot of knowledge about werecats in human books. They weren't like chimpanzees or creatures of the Serengeti that a biologist could just go out and live with for a year and study. Werecats could be just as intelligent as humans, and they could easily avoid detection, shifting or moving away whenever humans tried to get too close.

But this wasn't a human telling him their best guess. No humans had seen sabers in years, and now he'd just found out the same was true amongst werecats, who he'd always thought would know better. It had always been a base assumption in his head, never questioned, that there were other cats like him out there somewhere, and he'd just never had the urge to meet them.

He was a human.

Except now that all had a different spin, because they were the last of the sabers, and they were the last there'd ever be, the three of them male and related. Their bloodline would die with them, and he'd been raised by a conservationist, that philosophy too engrained in him for him to not feel a pang of grief at the thought.

Of a species vanishing from the Earth.

"That's why it's of utmost importance that none of you let others know who and what you are. I can't promise exactly how the rest of the ailure around the world will react, but they will react, and I'm sure the human media would as well. It would be a sensationalist story, for both our people and theirs."

"But what about your pride? I mean... they obviously know."

Jensen nodded before replying.

"I have had the betas talk to the rest of the pride. Once it became clear what Jared's lineage was, I made sure that everyone knew to keep it quiet."

"Wait," Jared interrupted then, taking a step forward. He didn't look pleased. "You had a discussion with the rest of the pride about me? Without informing me?"

"I wanted to wait until your brothers got here. There's more to tell, and I wanted you all to hear it at the same time."

"There's more?" Jared asked, arching an eyebrow, and Brandon was a little surprised to see Jensen wince.

"I'm sorry, lovely, but you were already dealing with enough."

Daniel guffawed at the nickname, and Brandon couldn't blame him, tipping his head to the side as he looked at Jared, as if to say 'lovely? Really?' Jared flushed at their looks, shutting his eyes with a set expression.

"Just... Tell us the rest."

Jensen didn't look happy, but he didn't voice any objections, rocking back on his heels as he turned to address them all.

"The Hyl'maithen-- All sabers are sacred to us. To the ailure. In our beliefs, your people were the first born of our kind, the children of Thaylil and Yrsa, and blessed by Saul'hrao."

The words zipped past Brandon, all things he'd never heard before and had no context to fit them. He was a smart guy. He could absorb a lot just by picking up clues and figuring things out, but this was so far outside his realm of knowledge and clearly based in superstition and myths that he'd never heard of before.

"If news of your existence were ever to get out, it would be huge news in the human world. But for the ailure... It would be--" He paused, seeming to weigh his words before continuing. "--much like one of your religious events. I can't promise that there wouldn't be severe political fall out, especially if they found out about your parents."

Brandon stiffened, and Daniel took a quick step forward, squaring his shoulders.

"Are you threatening our parents?" he asked, shorter than Jensen but not seeming to care. Brandon wouldn't bother reminding him how much he'd gotten trounced yesterday, and that the alpha was most assuredly stronger than the kids Daniel'd been playing with before.

"The opposite," Jensen replied, shaking his head. "Your parents are good people, who did the best they could have in a difficult situation. But that may not matter so much to other ailure, when they hear about sabers being raised by human hands. For starters, our pride is very...human friendly. The same cannot be said for all prides. Some are...out and out hostile. The combination of that with your holy lineage could well turn lethal, and I wanted you all to understand that. Both for your sake and your parents sake."

"When were you planning on telling me all of this?" Jared asked immediately, heat in his voice.

"I was...planning to tell you it now, as I just did," Jensen replied, looking baffled, obviously unaware that that was not at all the right response. Brandon almost felt bad for him. Almost.

"Don't be cute!" Jared lifted a hand, a gesture of 'what were you thinking?' "I've been living here for almost five months! How could you keep this a secret from me?"

"You were dealing with so much, lov-- Jared. You already had so much that you were fighting through. I didn't want to heap this on you as well. And besides, I didn't think it would mean much to you. You already knew who you were, where you came from. All this is just our mythology."

"It's still something that everyone around me knew about and I didn't! Where did you get the idea that I'd be okay with that? And besides, who're you to decide what's important to me and what's not?"

"I didn't mean it like that--"

"I don't need any more secrets in my life, Jensen." He paused stiff. "Is there anything else you're not telling me?"

The alpha seemed to deflate a little at that, his shoulders sagging.

"...no," he said, finally, and Jared didn't wait for the single word to finish before he was striding away, and Brandon couldn't help the little burst of schadenfreude at the distressed expression on the alpha's face. The guy deserved it, for what he'd done to Brandon's brother -- messing with his head, tricking some poor kid and taking advantage of him.

He was relieved when Jensen let Jared go, and didn't run after him.

"Good job on that one, man," Daniel commented, and Jensen let out a low growl. Daniel was unperturbed. "No, seriously. Just give him a little while. The three of us aren't so great with secrets, you know?"

Jensen seemed to untense, realizing that Daniel's confrontational methods of advice didn't necessarily mean he was actually being confrontational. Brandon, in the meantime, wasn't wild about Daniel giving dating tips to the creep who was molesting their brother.

"Dan," he commented, arms crossing over his chest. "Why don't you go check up on Mom and Dad?"

"Why don't you go play a nice little game of hide and go fuck yourself."

"Dan."

"It's this game."

"Dan."

"If you lose you go fuck yourself."

"Dan."

"And if you win...you go fuck yourself."

"Dan."

"Oh, c'mon. They're used to getting up at old people o'clock. I don't want to sit through breakfast conversation."

"Daniel."

"Ugh, fine." Daniel tossed his hands in the air, turning and walking away, Brandon watching him go. When he turned back, he was less than pleased to see Jensen's eyes also following Daniel's retreat.

"What? One of my brothers isn't enough? You want to add another to your creepy collection?"

Jensen's eyes flicked over to him, but didn't seem too riled by the comment.

"I assure you, I have no interest in Daniel, as a pride member or otherwise."

"But you're interested in Jared, right?"

"Of course. We're mates."

"Mates. Right. Look, I don't know what your little game is up here, and honestly? I don't care. You can do your weird mountain man thing with all your consorts or concubines or whatever it is you call them, and I'll say 'live and let live.' Not any of my business. But when you involve my brother, my family, then it becomes my business." Brandon kept his voice smooth and firm, a steady beat of anger and control. It was the voice that had made him captain of the football team in high school. The voice that got him voted class president. The voice that made all the drunk coeds clear out of a friend's house at one in the morning when she was crying because they wouldn't leave.

So he was a little surprised when Jensen didn't respond to what he'd said at all.

"Power corrupts," Jensen said, out of nowhere, and Brandon blinked in confusion. "I've read it before, in human books. 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' I read about the man who said it. Lord Acton, correct?"

Brandon thought he meant the question rhetorically, but the pause stretched too long, and he realized Jensen was genuinely looking for confirmation, as if Brandon was a better source of knowledge on quotations. He'd heard the saying before, but he didn't know who the hell Lord Acton was.

"I... yeah, sure." He shrugged and shook his head, more interested in getting back to the topic at hand. Jensen nodded, like he was pleased to have been confirmed.

"I've seen it said by other humans before. It seems to be something they believe. It doesn't make sense to me, as an ailure. We believe that there are those who are born to leadership. Natural alphas. It isn't... It's not a genetic thing. We simply believe that there are those who are born with souls made to lead. Who can bear that burden. Humans seem to think that the desire to lead is evil. In their fables, it is always the pig herder or the peasant who becomes king -- he who wishes not to lead is always shown to be the greatest leader."

The alpha turned his head, looking out over the settlement before continuing.

"We believe that those who don't wish to lead shouldn't lead. How can you be good at something you don't feel in your soul? How can you be good at something if you don't desire it?" He tipped his head to the side, as if considering. "We're not fools of course. There are measures in place, should anyone take advantage of the power they have, but an alpha is not the highest member of their pride. Do you know where they sit, in the order of things?" His gaze turned back to Brandon, who would have guessed the top position, if Jensen hadn't just nixed that one.

As it was, he just shook his head, brow knit as if to say 'this is relevant why?'

"They are the lowest. Always, the alpha is the last. He will be last to eat, last to sleep. He will be last to leave in the wake of attack or fire, and he will be the last to lay his head down in surrender, if his pride is ever threatened. Those who are born to lead are not born with a desire for power -- they are born with the desire to serve. To give order to their loved ones' lives. To bear the burden so that their family doesn't have to... And that is what you've always done, isn't it?"

"I--" Brandon felt uncomfortable suddenly, like this guy he intensely disliked was trying to give him a compliment. "It's not that. I just-- They're my family. Of course I want them to be happy."

"You are a natural alpha. Born to leadership, and you bear their burdens. Even with your captain and his...attitude," Jensen smirked a little. "You care for him. And even if he disobeys you at times, you know he would fight at your back to the bitter end."

Brandon swallowed, feeling naked as this stranger laid him bare -- took one look at him and his family and saw far too much. He and Daniel were often at each other's throats, but every time Brandon had ever gotten into a scrape, every time Brandon had needed a wingman or backup, Daniel had stood there at his side. Always at his side and half a step behind. Loyal.

"Your pride is very small," Jensen continued. "Just you and your captain and the fertile you both cared for. And now I have come and taken one from you. Without barter or trade, without even asking permission. I have stolen from you, transgressed upon your pride and your territory, and if someone else had done the same with my pride, I would see them in challenge -- I would see them yield to me or take their throat in my teeth, for disrupting the order I keep. I have disrupted your order, and for that I apologize. It was never my intention, but intentions don't absolve guilt." Jensen dipped his head -- not quite a bow, but some acknowledgement of power that Brandon was uncomfortable with and desirous of at the same time, like some part of him that he hadn't been aware of before had been looking for it.

He grit his teeth and swallowed hard.

"How old are you?" he ground out, trying to keep control of a conversation that had gone long wide of where he'd wanted.

"Thirty five," Jensen answered without hesitation.

"Jesus," Brandon hissed, because sixteen years. This man was sixteen years older than Jared, and he was lucky that Jared was at least legal, or Brandon would have knocked his teeth down his throat. "You want to talk about power? How about this: I won't let you have him. I won't let you take advantage of him like this, you sick bastard. He's nineteen and confused, and I don't care how many pretty speeches you make. Mark my words, I will protect Jared from you."

Jensen stood there, the two of them looking at each other, and Brandon felt like he was putting all his energy into his best death glare, putting everything into displaying threat and hostility and everything else, while Jensen just stood there, his face relaxed and unaggressive. Unaggressive and unafraid, as if he were looking out at a scenic vista instead of someone taller than him staring down into him.

And then the moment passed and Jensen moved around him, movement easy and casual.

"You--!" Brandon started, but Jensen stopped and interrupted him.

"I won't fight you for him." Jensen looked up at him, expression still so infuriatingly accepting. "If he wishes to go with you, I won't say a word against it. I can no more make him go than make him stay, though, and I wouldn't influence his decision. But I want you to know that I wouldn't fight you for him, if he chose to leave." He paused again, looking away, and after a beat a small smile touched his face. "I have no doubt that if you had been born into this pride that you would take me to challenge one day. One day, not too many years from now, you would take me to challenge, and I would be unable to yield. And I have no doubt that you would win."

It was strange enough, foreign enough, that Brandon couldn't even come up with a response. Jensen didn't seem to expect one though, because he turned to walk away, like nothing at all had happened, and Brandon didn't even know how to process that.

All he knew was that he didn't like how it made him feel, off kilter and out of control, left standing confused at the edge of the rock and wondering if that had been an insult or a compliment. A fight, or a capitulation.

-----

The rest of the morning after that was thankfully restful, sitting around the table with his parents while they ate some fruit for breakfast, Daniel's expression that of a man headed for the gallows.

"Do you remember," their mother commented, muttering an 'excuse me' as she finished chewing and swallowed. "When they were little, and Daniel used to bring me home flowers he'd picked at the playground during recess? He'd come home from school everyday with a little violet or dandelion."

"Mom," Daniel moaned.

"It was so sweet..."

"Isn't a dandelion a weed?" their father asked consideringly.

"Oh hush. I loved my dandelion presents. You were my little gentleman, weren't you?" she asked, smiling over the table at Daniel.

"Mother," he objected, staring through his scraggly bangs.

"Mom," Brandon interrupted, glancing over his shoulder at his parents, sitting with his back leaned up against the table. At his interjection, both of them looked at him questioningly. "Do you think--...Was Jared unhappy, as a kid?"

Their mom blinked a couple of times, then slowly lowered her fruit. Her expression became more solemn, but still nostalgic, and she took a few seconds to reply.

"I wouldn't like to think so. I wouldn't like imagining that any of you were unhappy. Or that I hadn't done anything to make it better, if you were." She picked at a spot on the fruit's skin, her motions absent and unthinking. "Jared was always a very sociable child. Always wanted to make friends with everyone and everything..." She smiled, looking up. "Stan, remember when you brought home those little porcupines? He just about fell in love."

"Forget the porcupines... When we were nursing that litter of squirrels after that wind storm." The dad chuckled, shaking his head. "They used to climb Jared like a tree. I was half tempted to give in when he begged me to let them stay as pets..."

It had been a close thing, for awhile, Brandon remembered. Or as close to a close thing as it ever got in their family. They were always nursing for this baby animal or caring for that bird with a broken wing, their house always full of various cages and pens, and their fridge always full of unholy mixtures of berries or nuts all blended into mush. But for all that, they'd never had pets. Everything that they took in was always returned to the wild, in time.

But Brandon remembered the squirrels. He smiled slightly.

"John, Paul, George and Mr. Darcy..." Brandon murmured. "I'd almost forgotten."

"He was quite into Austen that summer..." their mother added consideringly.

"Ugh, that was the worst reading assignment," Daniel moaned dramatically, as if he were being forced to read it again right now, dropping his head down to rest on his arms, both of them folded on the table.

"Why do you ask, darling?" their mother queried, looking over at Brandon. Her brow knit. "Do you think he was unhappy?"

"No no," Brandon hastened to answer, knowing his mother too well -- knowing that any hesitation would likely lead to histrionics. She was a bit obsessive about keeping her children happy, as if any little upset would be some blinking neon sign declaring her a bad mother. "No, it's not that. It's just-- I guess I'm trying to figure some things out."

"Why he wants to stay here," she supplied softly, and Brandon nodded. He could see their father open his mouth to speak, and then thought better of it.

After their last conversation, Brandon was grateful for the self-censorship.

"I don't see the point of navel-gazing," Daniel added from his pile of limbs before turning his head up, resting his chin on his arms. "I mean, if he's not going to come, he's not going to come. We can't force him on to a plane."

"Of course not, honey, but..." Their mother drifted off, her thought going nowhere. Brandon saw their father move one skinny hand to pat her's.

"Jared will make the best decision for himself," the man supplied. "And we'll be there for him, no matter what."

Brandon wished he could believe that Jared's decision would be sound, would be the best for him, but Brandon wasn't as certain as his father. He rubbed his forehead.

"Do you remember..." their mother murmured, and he could hear the fondness on her voice, the smallest quirk of her lips. "When he decided he was going to be a basketball player?"

"Two lessons and a sprained ankle," their father chuckled. "That was all it took."

"What about when he wanted to impress all those kids at school by jumping off the roof?" Daniel jumped in, unexpectedly.

"How he used to bring me breakfast in bed every morning for three months straight one summer." Their mother's smile grew deeper -- sadder, but truer. "Until the morning he slept through his alarm. He cried so hard... As if he'd somehow failed me."

"The fishing trip," Daniel said.

"Getting lost in that damned theme park," their father groaned.

"The car," Brandon said, surprising himself for chiming in, and everyone looked at him. He swallowed. "He wanted a car. He worked all summer at the park gift store, saving up. He was going to go on a road trip, when he graduated. He wanted... He wanted to see everywhere there was to see."

The silence crowded back in, and Brandon felt something in his heart clench. He remembered how Jared had promised he was going to do it without them, without his brothers. That for once he was going to be his own person. He was going to go out and see the world on his own and on his own terms. Until the night he'd quietly asked if Brandon knew he didn't mean it.

That he'd never go anywhere without his brothers with him.

Brandon stood up.

"Going for a walk," he announced. He was half expecting it, half surprised, when Daniel asked him if he wanted company. "Nah," he shook his head. "I'll be fine."

Moving through the door way was like leaving a tomb, and Brandon was grateful for the wide sight of the endless blue sky as he stepped outside.

He breathed in deep the sweet scented air of the Blue Ridge, the soft smell of summer fading out as it took on the spicier edge of autumn. He made his way to the treeline before a compulsion took him, rare enough, and the circumstance rare enough too that he gave into it, stripping off his clothing perfunctorily behind a tree, folding it up at the base. When he shifted, he raised his head, scenting the air as he stretched his body, fit himself into those rarely used four legs, long tail swishing back and forth. His jaws parted in a wide yawn, tongue curling between his two saber fangs, and he loped off into the woods, away from the noise and unwanted company of the pride's little village.

After the last few days, after the conversation with the alpha, and the sick feeling in his stomach from the conversation he'd just left -- a living wake for Jared, like he was already dead -- Brandon wasn't much in the mood for talking. Or for listening.

It wasn't as if he'd been under any illusions. He knew how complicated things would be when he got here, after everything that had happened, after how long Jared had been gone. After all the secrets and the lying and the shame. He had no idea how to open a conversation like that with his brother, let alone admit to his family. It didn't matter if it had all been a mistake, as he'd always assumed -- it still wasn't something he wanted to cop to. It wasn't something he wanted people to know.

Lord knew he couldn't just brush it under the rug, as much as he wanted to.

He padded through the undergrowth, his paws more sensitive since the abuse of the hunt, and he moved gingerly. He studied the ground for any errant sticks or rocks, knocking them carefully to the side before putting his foot down, and it ended up being his concentration that made him miss the fact that God apparently hated him.

He didn't even notice the voices until he was close enough to make out words, and he froze instinctually, only belatedly noticing that he was downwind. He was halted, one paw still raised to step, as he glanced movement through the barrier of the trees, and curiosity over took him, making him take a careful step forward.

There was a cat joke in there somewhere.

Brandon studiously ignored it.

Just around a trunk, Brandon could the figures of two people laying on the ground -- he could make out the tops of their heads, which were facing him, and then the lines of their bodies leading away, giving him very little in terms of faces, and he didn't even realize it was Jared and the alpha until his brain picked up their words and jolted him with uncomfortable recognition.

"Doesn't have to mean anything," the alpha's voice was gravel low, and Brandon could just make out a hand lifting to sweep back some of Jared's hair -- a lost cause, always, the mess just tumbling back down into his face.

"Yeah, I always say that, and then it comes back to bite me in the ass," Jared replied, and Brandon tried to figure out what they were talking about. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I never had any intention of letting this slip... Not unless you wanted it to."

"No. Emphatically no. Trust me, I don't want even more attention right now."

"You're alright?" Jensen's tone was more worried there, like there was something specific. Something that Brandon was missing. His ears flicked back as he lowered his head to be more on their level.

"No no, I'm fine. I mean, yes, I'm alright. I didn't mean it like that."

"You're sure?"

"God, we're like a broken record, you and I... Yes, I'm sure. I didn't mean it about--... But this thing, they'll be alright, right? I mean, I didn't think about the whole...saber and cougar thing. That's not bad, right?"

"I've never heard of that particular mix before. The sabers...they didn't do much in the way of mixing. But there's no reason it should effect them. The clans mix all the time. My people, my ancestors, were the cougar prides native to these lands and the Asiatic lions that had come over from Europe. There's no harm in it."

Brandon's eyes narrowed. Were they talking about Jared breeding with some female? What the hell?

"Good," Jared sounded relieved. "Good."

"I wouldn't let any harm come to them, lovely."

"I told you, man. You gotta cut it with the mushy nicknames while everyone's around. Do you understand how long Daniel's going to use that against me? Forever. Like, literally. Forever. Until we are old and have plastic hips and I have to put up with living with him in an old folk's home and he's deaf and hitting on the nurses. That long."

Jensen chuckled.

"I'm sorry... I wasn't thinking."

"You made that clear when you didn't tell me this stuff up front." There was a thwack and Jensen groaning 'ow!' and Brandon saw Jared withdrawing his hand from a flick on the forehead. That shit hurt, Brandon knew from experience. Jared had long fingers. "Next time, don't be a dumbass."

"You are a terrible fertile," Jensen mumbled, and Brandon's ear flicked. He'd heard the man use that word before, but he had no idea what it meant in this context.

"You love me."

"It is my unfortunate fate."

They fell quiet for a moment, until Brandon heard quiet...smacking noises, and he grimaced. Even if Jared weren't involved with a man sixteen years his senior, hearing either of his brothers making out with anyone was gross. It went on for awhile, and Brandon was tempted to stick his tongue out, regardless of how ridiculous it would look in this form. He was about to step back, make his get away before he was noticed, when Jared's voice broken the quiet.

"Jensen..." It sounded like the prelude to a question.

"What is it?" the alpha asked, sounding concerned.

"This... This thing. Us. It's not--... I mean, it's not just cause I'm..."

"Jared?"

"Our thing isn't some kind of...you know. You're not just with me cause I'm one of the last sabers, right? It's not cause I'm this...special Daywalker or whatever, right?"

And Brandon felt his lips curl up, baring the rest of his jutting long fangs, and it took willpower to keep himself from growling, because that was exactly what was happening here. It made perfect sense. Jared just a trophy in this asshole's case. No wonder Jensen hadn't said anything until now.

"No, Jared. No. I will admit that your markings are...beautiful, and I will admit that your form is pleasing to my eye, but that is no reason to form a mateship, and it is only a small part of why I feel the way I do. And it has nothing to do with your status as a Dawnbringer. Make no mistake, I'm...proud of having wooed you, but my decision to do so was based on so much more than that. You are mother to my son. You have proven yourself to be strong and capable, devoted and loyal. You are a fertile that any alpha would envy, and... And perhaps I'm not the best at human poetry. What we ailure see as attractive is probably more...animal than you're used to, but I do see you, Jared. I see all the things you do for the ones you love, and I see how unbent your head is, in the face of all your suffering... I love you for far more than any myth or your beautiful coat. I only wish I could tell you better."

Brandon waited for Jared to call him on it, to reject Jensen's admiration of his freaking coat, reject Jensen's pride at having 'wooed' one of his myths, because that speech was no When Harry Met Sally, no Princess Bride or even freaking Pride and Prejudice, or any of the things that Jared loved, that Brandon knew Jared loved.

Because at the end of the day, those were all the pieces of Jared that belonged to them, to their family, and would never belong to this stranger, who didn't know about the fishing trip, or the breakfasts in bed, or the basketball or the squirrels or the car. A stranger who would never know Jared like his family knew him.

But instead Jared said:

"I like how you tell it." And Brandon saw his brother move in again, the alpha's hands on his skin, and Brandon snarled, couldn't help it, getting up to pace away.

"Wuh-- Brandon!" Jared's voice rang after him, but he just kept stalking away, needing to be far away, because Jensen wasn't the only stranger in that clearing, and Brandon didn't want to turn around and see the person that was wearing Jared's face.

A wake in Jared's name.

It didn't seem so ridiculous, all of a sudden.

It felt like his brother was gone, and all the things Jared had once loved and dreamed of dead and disappeared.

-----

It couldn't hold forever.

It was a dam holding back the tide, cracked and trembling, the waves of the storm lapping against all the weak spots, and the dyke was already beginning to groan.

It gave in, as it eventually had to, the next day, four days after the plane had touched down and Brandon had looked out the window, knowing that he was the closest to his brother he'd been in two and a half years. Four days since Brandon had had any sense of peace, and almost two weeks since anything had been normal. Since his mother had called him at college and told him that his brother had called.

They were in the main house, and Brandon felt tired and hollowed out, barely having slept the night before, the alpha's words and Jared's capitulation playing over and over again in his head, and most of the conversation of his family past straight through him, like an empty wind, carrying nothing.

Until his mother said: "We go home tomorrow."

Brandon raised his head.

"We can always extend the trip," their father offered. "We didn't know-- Well, we had been assuming..."

"That you were just coming to pick me up," Jared supplied.

"Yes, exactly. But if someone can just drive me into town, I can call and change the reservations."

"No, guys... you already spent enough to come down here. Changing a flight this close to time, you're going to get so many extra charges..."

"Jared, you're our son. Money is--" Their father shook his head. "It's just money. We can always make more of that. But we can't make more of you, and we haven't seen you in so long."

"You know where I am now, and I won't be up and disappearing... I want you guys to come visit again. You'll see me again."

"Jared..." their mother's voice started, soft and hopeful, that voice she got sometimes when she wanted to get one of them to do their chores. "You could always come back with us... We still have your ticket."

Brandon's eyes darted to Jared's face.

"Mom...I can't."

"You could bring the little cub with you!" She smiled, and it broke Brandon's heart. "I've missed having a little one in the house, and I could help you..."

"Mom, Tristan has other family here. I can't take him away from that."

"That seems like a crappy reason to stay, Jare," Daniel interjected. He was rubbing his hands together, a strangely nervous motion for him. "I mean, you can't live your life for someone else. You'll just end up resenting them."

"Tristan isn't the only reason."

That got everyone's attention.

"I want to stay here," Jared said with conviction, but there was an anxiety to his face, and Brandon felt sickness stir inside of him. None of the surprises thus far had been good surprises. "I like it here, and-- I need you guys to understand that. But it's also... There's another reason."

Jared pressed his hands together, fingers folding and unfolding, lacing together and then fidgeting. He was quiet for a moment.

"Jared...? Honey?" their mother's voice was softly begging.

"There are...a lot of things you don't know about ailure. Things you need to know. About us. About me."

"About them," Brandon said, but it was so soft, so under his breath, that no one heard him.

"We're not-- It's not as simple as just guys and girls." Jared shifted again, biting at his lower lip. "There's this-- There are dominants, like Bran and Daniel. And then there are...fertiles. And dominants can be male or female. And...fertiles can be male or female."

Brandon's brow furrowed because...what? It was like everything he was expecting had taken a sudden left turn off the highway and was headed into complete gibberish.

"So," the father spoke up, and that wasn't surprising at all. Insane or not, it was biology that Jared was talking about. "You're saying you're one of these...fertiles?"

"Yes," Jared nodded, and swallowed, and Brandon could tell it was dry by how Jared's throat worked. "I'm--... I ran. Because I'm different. I'm--... I have to stay here. And I don't mean it like it's a prison, I mean...it's a good place. The best place. The only place I've ever fit in and if I left I'd be...lost."

"Honey, what're you saying?" their mother asked, looking worried as she got carefully to her feet. She looked so small, so easily crushed.

"I'm a fertile. And I'm pregnant. I'm going to have cubs in a few months and I...I can't come home. I'd die. I don't mean-- I know you guys know things. I don't mean that I wouldn't be able to deliver safely. I mean I'd die. It would kill me to raise them like humans." He held his hands together, against his chest, in two fists, body tense. "It would break me to leave this pride, and I can't. I just can't."

And then everyone was silent.

Brandon could swear he hear the tick of a clock, the switch-switch-switch of a second hand continuing on, even though there was no clock in the building. He could hear it in the woosh-woosh-woosh of his blood pumping through his veins.

"...you're not serious," Daniel said.

"I am."

"No. You're not."

"I am."

"You're no--"

"Yes I fucking am!" Jared yelled, body braced and forward, and the silence rushed back in, their mother pressing the tips of her fingers to her lips, and their father just standing there.

"Jared?" a voice interrupted, and Brandon saw a sandy haired man standing in the door, one he didn't recognize, and he wanted to scream at the man to go away, to just leave them alone. "You alright?"

"Brutus," Jared said, raw. "...yeah, I'm fine. Can you go get the stethoscope from the med kit?"

"Of course." Brutus stood there uncertainly, eyeing them like they were the threat to Jared, before finally moving away, walking over to a storage closet. Everyone stood like survivors in the wake of a blast, stood like statues as the man rummaged around, the action so shockingly mundane, like maybe he was digging around for Scrabble or The Game of Life and they were all going to sit around the table and play.

Instead, a couple minutes later, Brutus approached Jared, holding out a stethoscope.

"Thank you," Jared murmured, library soft. He clutched the instrument in one hand. "Please, go back outside?"

Brutus paused again, head quirked, but then nodded and obeyed, his footsteps echoing in the emptiness. The door creaked, and clicked shut. Jared thrust his hand out towards their father.

"You've done med checks on animals before. Listened for fetal heartbeats." His arms was shaking a little. Their father stared at the stethoscope like it might have been a snake, but there was also that scientific curiosity in his eyes, and Brandon wanted to rage, to yell at the wind for blowing, but he didn't make a sound.

Their father approached slowly and took the instrument, gently hooking it to his ears. The two men stood at an impasse, both too awkward about the whole affair to progress until Jared finally winced and lifted his shirt, and Brandon heard their mother gasp, and he knew why. Jared's stomach was taut and stretched -- not large, not huge at all, but nothing like any beer gut or weight gain Brandon had ever seen.

Just a few too many legs of deer, he thought anyways, like a man looking too closely at non-Euclidean geometry. Like someone who'd seen one too many David Cronenberg movies.

Their father lowered the diaphragm to Jared's stomach, touching it to bare skin, and Jared sucked in a breath.

They waited.

Their father stood there for a long minute, then lowered the diaphragm, and he didn't need to say anything. Brandon could see it on his face.

"...there are heartbeats. I can hear multiple higher heartbeats," he said, needlessly. But then their mother made a sound, and maybe it wasn't so needless.

"Holy shit," Daniel whispered.

"I'm not--" Jared started, shuffling to lower his shirt. "There's nothing wrong with me. This isn't abnormal for ailure. It's why I ran-- Uh, not cause I was pregnant. Because I was different. And I didn't know why. I didn't understand it, then. I thought I was a freak because...humans don't work like this. I didn't know why I wasn't just a normal guy."

"And your babies..." their mother asked. "They'll be alright?"

"Yeah, they'll be fine," Jared reassured with a shaky smile. "This pride... there are a bunch of male fertiles who've had litters, and there's nothing wrong with any of them. But I want to stay here. I want to be in a place where I'm not weird, where I'm not the freak, because I'm always going to be this. Even after I have the cubs, I'm still going to be this person that doesn't fit with what humans think. I'm still going to have these...parts that aren't extra for me. They're not added on. They're part of me. And I need to be here."

Brandon's fingers curled in, tight and tense.

"And the father...?" their mother asked, and Brandon felt the dam burst, a sudden torrent that he couldn't have held back if he tried. And he didn't try.

"You know who the father is," he snapped, never in his life wanting to hurt her, to hurt any of his family, but there it was, and he was too far gone to feel regret. "We all know who the father is, and I'm done. I'm so...so done with all of this. You want to stay here, Jared?" he asked, lips pressing together tight.

He waited for a response, but Jared just looked at him, waiting.

"...fine. Stay here. I'm gone." He marched to the door, body like a live wire, and he slammed the door shut hard enough that it bounced straight back out of the doorframe.

He didn't care.

He was just done.

-----

Jared was not far behind him.

Brandon saw red at the edges of his vision, but it wasn't an idiot. He wasn't oblivious. He could hear his brother chasing after him.

"What the hell was that, Brandon?!" Jared's voice rang out, but Brandon just kept walking, stomping through the wilderness and thwacking brush out of the way in frustration. He could hear his brother behind him, and hell, who knew if others had followed. That would be great. Peachy.

"Brandon!" Jared called again, sounding, if anything even more irate.

Brandon really didn't care.

He stalked out of the woods until he couldn't go any further, the earth ending abruptly in a cliff, tumbling down to the forest below and the twisting bend of the river. Brandon stood there, staring down at the landscape, then out at the heavens, the sun sinking but the sky still pale blue, only the occasional cloud marring its face.

"Brandon! Goddamnit!" Jared emerged from the forest after him, and Brandon could hear the weight of his brother's steps, angry and incensed and more than happy to let Brandon know all about it.

"What?" Brandon finally responded, whirling around. "What?"

"What the hell do you mean, 'what'? That! Back there! The fuck was that?!"

"It was exactly what it looked like, Jared!"

"You throwing a bitchfit?!" Jared threw both of his arms out to either side, letting them drop again with exasperation. "Cause that's all that I saw! You've been in a snit for days, and I'm sick of it. I'm sick of your judgmental little looks and snide little voice, so c'mon. Get it out. Get it all out."

"You are pregnant -- what the hell, Jared?"

"What do you even mean?!"

"I mean this is insane! What the hell are you even doing here?"

"This is my home."

"No. Fuck that. Do you hear me? Fuck. That. This isn't your home. Your home is back with us! Back home." He couldn't believe he had to explain that, couldn't believe he was even having this conversation. That this conversation needed to be had at all. It was immediately and abundantly obvious. Brandon had done his best to put up with all this insanity, done his best to be patient and understanding and trying to ease his parents minds while handling Daniel and handling Jared and-- No. He was done. Absolutely done. It was time to go home. It was time for Jared to admit that.

"You don't get to decide that for me!" Jared retorted, and Brandon wanted to rush over there and shake him. Shake him until Jared understood what the fuck he was saying.

"Yes, I do! I do when you're clearly not thinking straight! You can't live here, Jared. You're not an animal, you don't belong in the woods. You're-- They've got you thinking that you are, thinking it's okay for them to walk all over you."

"Oh, come on, Brandon! What the fuck? Have you seen anyone walk all over me while you were here?!"

"You're fucking pregnant!" Brandon exploded, thrusting his hands out to his sides. "Are you kidding me? You're pregnant. You never expressed any abiding desire to pop out kids before!"

"I didn't know I could, Brandon!"

"Yeah? And now? This is what you want? Is that what you're telling me? You want to sit around for that pedo and pop out his kids?"

Brandon wasn't expecting the slap, wasn't expecting it to be so fast, so sudden, when Jared had been so far away from him a second ago. He hadn't expected it from Jared, who never wanted to hit anyone, wouldn't even fight for himself until Daniel and Brandon made him, and even then hit like a pansy. But Brandon's head snapped to the side, and it wasn't hard, but it was enough to make Brandon's skin sting, and he looked back with some incredulity.

"Don't talk about my mate like that," Jared said, not yelled, but with just as much emotion. Brandon's expression darkened.

"He needs you to fight his battles for him?"

"That wasn't for him. That was because you were talking about my family."

"We're your family!"

"Then start fucking acting like it!"

"I am!" Brandon defended, angry but still hurt that Jared couldn't see it. Couldn't see how Brandon was fighting for Jared. "Don't you get it? I can't leave you here. You can't live here!"

"Why not?" Jared asked the question as if he didn't already know the answer. Brandon couldn't buy that. Couldn't understand that.

"Because...look at it." Brandon swept his hands around, gesturing to the nothing all around them, endless acres of trees and trees and more trees and not a hospital or school in sight. "It's a collections of shacks out in the middle of the woods. Jared, Jared. You can't live here. You won't go to college. You won't get a home. You'll never...have a job or go out with friends or get to see the world or get married. You'll be stuck here, pushing out freaking...kittens for some cult leader."

"He's not a cult leader, Brandon. Christ."

"He's close enough! He's certainly got you in his sway. Can't you see how he's changed you?"

"Did it ever occur to you that I changed me? That I made this decision?"

"Of course not! Why would you? You're pregnant, Jared." He didn't know how often he could say it. He supposed until it sunk in, until it became real. It wasn't real for Jared, not if he thought that staying here was still viable. "Do you not get that? You're pregnant out in the middle of nowhere, and what the hell? Where are you even going to give birth?"

"Why do you care?"

"Because I'm your brother! How could you think I don't?"

"Because you're being a grade-A jackass right now!"

"I'm fucking scared for you, man! I'm scared that I'm going to leave here and never see you again. That you're going to live your entire life like a hobo -- worse, like an animal. You had dreams, Jared. I remember you talking about teaching, or about how much you loved acting. You wanted things."

"I wanted what I thought I could have."

"And you can't have it anymore?!"

"No! Goddamnit, Brandon!"

"Why?! Why not!?"

"Because... Just because!"

"Oh, that's great. I'm supposed to leave you here just because all the things you want are out of reach for some reason and this is your fall back plan."

"It's not a fall back plan. Don't-- Don't talk about this like it's somehow less than all the things you want."

"Well isn't it?!"

"No!" Jared exploded, then immediately lifted his hands, rubbing them over his face. "Fuck. Brandon... Don't you get it? I'm not the same as you."

"Is this that 'dominant' and 'fertile' bullshit?"

"It's not bullshit." Jared dropped his hands. "For once, please, for once in your life can you recognize that I'm not the same as you two?"

"There's nothing wrong with you, Jared--"

"Exactly! There's nothing wrong with me! So stop telling me I have to change!"

Brandon drew back a bit in shock. He'd never thought about it like that before. He'd only ever been trying to protect Jared. To take care of him. To make him stand up for himself. Jared had always let others push him around. He'd always been so freaking sensitive, crying at anything, hurt by everything. Brandon had to protect him. Look after his brother and keep him away from people who'd take advantage of Jared's sensitivity.

He'd never meant to make Jared feel like there was something wrong that he had to change in himself.

"I don't-- I didn't mean--" He shook his head.

"Fuck. I know. Okay? I know. You've always been there for me. I know you love me, and I know you're just trying to look out for me... But you're also being a prick about this. You keep expecting me to want things just because you want things, and I know you were just trying to protect me, just trying to make me happy, but when we were kids? You tried to make me just like you."

"You were so freaking miserable at school. I thought--"

"I was miserable. But it was more than school, Brandon. I didn't fit in at home either, and I never got it. I never knew why. I thought there was something wrong with me, and for the first time in my life I'm starting to think... I'm starting to think that there's nothing wrong at all. It was just that the world wanted me to be something that I'm not."

"And this is what you are?" Brandon asked sadly, and it was hard not to feel pity, even though he knew Jared didn't want that.

"This is... This is a lot of things. But I'm never going to be you, or Daniel. I'm never going to have big fangs or pop a frill. I'm never going to be happy settling down with a human. You guys... You're going to go off, and you're going to graduate college, and you're going to get jobs. And you...You're going to marry some great girl." He huffed a laugh. "Daniel...well. I dunno about him on the girl front." He sobered. "But you? The only problem you'll ever have, fitting in with them, is having kids. But hell. You'll find some nice girl who doesn't mind that you're "infertile", and you guys are going to adopt like fifty kids that Mom and Dad are going to adore, and no one will ever have to know that sometimes you can turn into a giant cat."

"And why can't you have that, Jared? Why?" He wanted his brother to have it. He wanted his brother to have a happy ending, and the thought that he might not, that Jared couldn't have all of that made Brandon feel sick and sour. Jared deserved better.

"Because it's just one way of living life, Brandon. It's your way, and I'm glad for you, but it doesn't make it better than all the other millions of lives out there. And that life? I'd be miserable. I'd be like I was before, wandering around trying to fit in, trying to figure out what's wrong with me and why I'm never attracted to anyone, why I never fit anywhere. Trying to figure out why I'm sad all the time. Don't you get it? There's nothing wrong with me. I was always just trying to fit myself into the wrong mold."

"That's what we were? The wrong mold?"

Jared made a sound of frustration, carding his fingers through his hair and running them over his scalp.

"You guys are my family," he said after a second. "And you always will be. But you're all human in a way that I never can be. I'm going to go into heat for the rest of my life -- or, until I reach middle age, anyway. I'm going to want things that no human can give me. And I'm going to be looking for my pride everywhere I go, because I can't live without that anymore. What I have here... Yeah. I'm different than I was before. You're right. But did you ever once consider that the difference is that I'm doing better?"

Brandon's eyebrows went up, feeling surprise color his expression again, and he didn't know what to do with all this. He still felt angry, still felt like leaving Jared here was a bad idea, but here he was telling Jared that he needed to stand up for himself and do what Brandon was telling him to do. While Jared stood up for himself and refused.

Brandon's face was pinched, and he shook his head, feeling sad and sick but still wanting Jared to come home.

"I just--...I'm so fucking scared, Jared. I'm scared for you, and I'm scared of leaving you in this place." He reached out, putting his hands on his brother's upper arms. "I'm scared that you're with this random guy I don't know and don't trust, and that you're going to be having babies in a few months. Is he going to treat you right? Is this how it's going to be? Him getting you--... Him knocking you up? You're more than that, Jared. And...Christ, you're not even twenty yet."

"Neither are you, Brandon. You're not our older brother. You know that, right? You're the same age I am." Jared's voice was softer, more understanding, but still firm. Unwavering.

"Yeah, but--"

"No buts. I get that you don't know Jensen, and you've got to do the over-protective thing. But you need to understand that this is the guy who made me feel like I wasn't a freak, like I wasn't a freak, for the first time in my life. And no, we're not going to be popping out a million babies. This litter...wasn't exactly planned, and yeah, I'm a little freaked still. But you know who's been through my side through all of it? Who offered to step down and let me go my own way? Who told me the kids were mine, that my body was mine, unless I offered to share that with him? Jensen. Every step of the way, he's done everything he can to let me make my own choices, and he's never looked at me like there was something wrong with me. He's never thought I had to toughen up, or that I was weird or wrong, and no, this isn't where I thought I'd end up. This isn't what I planned for, and sometimes I doubt myself, but I know...I know this much. I can't live with the humans. I can't live in their world like you can, and I need you to understand that. To understand me."

"I just--...I don't know if I can."

Jared’s expression fell, full of hurt, and Brandon couldn’t stand that. He took half a step closer and continued.

"But...I don't know if I have a choice." He moved in, hoping that he wouldn’t be pushed away, wrapping his arms around his brother. "If this is what you need, what you really need... Then I gotta accept it, right? I'm just...so scared for you, man. You have to promise me you'll call, promise me, if anything goes wrong. If you ever wanna leave, for whatever reason. No questions asked, man."

"I will." Jared's arms came up after only a heartbeat's hesitation, wrapping around Brandon's middle.

"It's just so freaking hard to understand it all. There's so much, and I just don't--"

"I know."

"How can I just leave you here?"

"Because I'm asking you to, Bran."

"You're my brother. My family."

"And I always will be. Just like I'll always be Mom and Dad's son. That's not gonna change."

"Seems like everything's changing..."

"That's not always bad."

"No... But sometimes I just want something to hold on to." He shut his eyes, pulling Jared in tight, feeling his brother's hands clench in the back of his shirt.

The wind at the top of the cliff was blustery and full of itself, rustling the trees behind them, leaves crackling and moving with the beginnings of autumn, the two of them no longer talking over the sounds of the forest. Brandon shut his eyes, and it was ridiculous that it took four days. Four whole days of back and forth and getting no where, four whole days and the evening before he had to go home was the first moment where he really felt like he had his brother back.

Like the kid who ran away two and a half years ago had finally, finally, come home.

-----

They ended up sitting on the edge of the cliff, something that wigged Brandon out at first, hesitantly seating himself and letting his calves dangle, Jared watching him with a bemused expression the whole time. A brief spat of brotherly ribbing flared up, but quickly died down when it was clear that shoving and elbowing were out of the question.

Jared leaned back against his hands behind him, the two of them looking out to the south, the sun sinking down towards the horizon in the east, down to where the river flowed from. Jared was to Brandon's right and closer to the sun, its light illuminating easily the bulge in his brother's stomach, what Brandon had initially put down to a little weight gain, but now he knew was obviously not.

"...when are you due?" Brandon asked, after a long stretch of silence, an unspoken agreement to let things cool down from their argument.

"Dunno, really." Jared shrugged once, a twitch of his shoulders. "I mean...Ailure pregnancies last about five months. Next week should be the beginning of my third month, so..."

"So in like...two months." Brandon shook his head. "That's crazy."

"Yeah..." Out of the corner of his eye, Brandon could see his brother looking down at his stomach.

"You don't look that big."

"Yeah, well...they still got some growing to do."

"They. More than one baby."

"That's how cats work, Bran," Jared reminded with a cheeky grin. "We came from a litter of five, remember?"

"Yeah, but...I guess I still think of us like triplets, you know?" Brandon shrugged, and he realized again how much easier it was to look at things from a human perspective -- that he and his siblings were triplets, not a litter. Though they were functionally the same, it was still, somehow, different.

"Yeah, I know," Jared replied, his voice meaning more than just understanding where Brandon was coming from. That Jared still thought the same way, despite his new found philosophies.

They went quiet again for awhile, and Brandon could hear the call of birds out across the forest, getting ready and settling down for night, song birds quieting even as the night hunters woke up, and the whole thing reminded him of when their dad used to take them out to the park. When they'd go with him for patrols and bring a tent for the night, their dad always excitedly getting down on his knees to point out a "fascinating" caterpillar or species of plant that he thought the boys would be as interested in as him. Daniel had always been the one rolling his eyes, and Brandon smartly polite and engaged if distant, but Jared had geeked it up pretty good.

Brandon smiled to himself.

"What's that look for?" Jared asked.

"Nothing." Brandon shook his head with the same smile on his lips. "Just remembering things."

"Plenty of things to remember..."

"Plenty of good things, too, Jared."

"Yeah. I know. I didn't mean--" Jared shifted his shoulder a little and Brandon tipped his head back, feeling the warm red flare of the sun over his face.

It felt good. Like a caress, like heat sinking into his skin, and he didn't know when he'd last indulged -- just laid around out in the grass and soaking in the sun until it was part of him again.

"Not all good things, though." Jared's voice was soft, almost a murmur, and more hesitant than anything else he'd said thus far. Brandon didn't even need to wonder what Jared was thinking of. What was making him hush with embarrassment.

"The heats..." Brandon started awkwardly. "I mean...I sort of figured it out. After. I...had a bit of an idea. At least, I had assumed..."

"Yeah... I'm glad. That you knew. Thought that."

The alternative was thinking that Jared wanted to hump him, and both of them were thinking of that with the same discomfort. Brandon swallowed, uncertain if talking about the whole thing more was better or worse, if it would make things better or worse. He bit his lower lip, the event an experience he didn't like remembering. He loved Jared, no question, but not in anything other than a brotherly fashion, and the feeling of Jared pressing up against him had just been confusing and violating, but he had finally figured out, after two years of trying to make all the pieces fit in his head, that Jared was probably even more ashamed than Brandon was.

"...it was my first heat," Jared explained, unasked, and Brandon was glad he didn't had to go looking for the answers, the whole situation just about as awkward as it could get already. "It had gone on for a month and I was going crazy and...it had nothing to do with you, Brandon. And I'm sorry. It was just...you and Daniel were the only ailure dominants around. If he'd been on the couch with me that night..."

"God," Brandon laughed, a little forced, a little strained but still with some hint of real amusement there. He rubbed a hand over his face. "Don't even say that. Man. If it could have been any worse than it was..."

"Yeah..." Jared huffed along as well, shaking his head. "Yeah. That would have been a clusterfuck of even worse proportions..."

Brandon fiddled absently with a loose string on the seam of his pants, trying to collect everything he'd been thinking for two years -- all the questions and worries that had built up over time. It was ridiculous that he was finally here, finally sitting down with Jared, able to talk it out and find out all the things he'd had to keep crammed in his skull, that he hadn't been able to talk to anyone about, and now he could barely think of a thing.

"...why'd you leave?" he finally got out, and it was the crux, really. The one question that mattered. "Why didn't you come back to talk to me?"

"Cause...Brandon... I'd just--" Jared's voice tightened up, not choked with emotion, but just embarrassed to talk about it. "After what I did? I had to run. I didn't get what was going on with me. I thought I was going crazy, and after all the other stuff, how I never fit in..."

Brandon wanted to argue, to point out that Jared did fit, had always fit and been a part of them, but that argument was passed, and now wasn't the time.

"And I freaked," Jared continued. "I couldn't deal and I just freaked and ran away."

"And did it make things better?"

"...no. Not at first anyways. Not until I found Tristan and came here."

"I still just... You could have talked to me." Brandon turned to look at him, gaze imploring. He hadn't been wild about talking through it with Jared back then either. In fact, he'd have done just about anything to avoid it, but if he'd known that the alternative was his brother running for the hills and never coming back, he'd have made himself pull the bandaid off. "I was pretty confused too. And then you were just...gone. And it felt like my fault."

"It wasn't."

"Yeah, but it felt like it was."

"I'm sorry." Jared sounded even quieter, and the shame weighted heavily in his tone. Brandon shook his head.

"Not your fault either. It was no one's fault. I just wish... I wish we'd known about all this from the start. I wish we'd have known what we were dealing with." He paused, then glanced sideways at Jared, unable to help himself. "Uh..." He licked his lips. "Um... So, it wasn’t me? I mean, you said it could have been Daniel just as easily, it's just...you don't have any-- Um. The way you feel is--"

"Oh god, gross." Jared gagged and let his tongue flop out. "I don't have a thing for you, if that's what you're implying. I was looking for a dominant, and you guys were the only ones around. The only ones I had ever known before now. I went crazy and hormonal. No nasty secret longings here, Bran."

Brandon let out a long breath of relief.

"Thank Christ."

"What?! Seriously? You thought I actually wanted you, this whole time?"

"No need to say it like I'm medical waste, Jared." Brandon couldn't help but be a little insulted. Only a little though.

"Look, I'm sure you're fine for Vanessa, but you're my brother, and ew."

"Well," Brandon replied with a firm nod, eager to get this awkward and hell conversation over and done with. "Good. Good. Let's move on."

"Hey," Jared said though, not letting it go, the bastard. "Really. I need you to know...that night, I wasn't there. I wasn't on the couch. I wasn't even in the room. That was like... It was like you were looking after someone completely different. Like a split personality or something. Nothing I did was anything that I wanted to do."

"Okay... Okay, Jared. I hear you." He firmed his shoulders, nodding along. He did believe his brother. He'd never been through heat, and he couldn't even imagine it, but it wasn't like Jared had ever done anything even remotely like that before. And Brandon could still remember the shocked senseless look on his brother's face after Brandon had shoved him away. At first, in those first few days, he'd actually believed that that shock came from Jared being surprised that Brandon didn't want him. It had taken him awhile to understand that what had happened had been a completely mindless, animal thing. That Jared had been shocked because he didn't even know what he'd just done or why.

It was still something weird and awkward between them, and remained unavoidably so. It wasn't something that was easily forgotten and blotted away, but Brandon hoped that it was something that could fade with time, now that the two of them were talking again. Now that he knew where Jared was and knew that it had all been a mistake. A big, stupid mistake that had nearly torn their family apart, but a big, stupid mistake nonetheless.

"So..." Jared cleared his throat. "Think we're done with that?"

"No creepy feelings from either of us. Check." Brandon went for humor with a nervous smile, and it didn't quite sail, not so soon and not while both of them were so tense, but Jared chuckled politely, and Brandon let the whole cursed topic drop. "So we're good."

"We're good."

They were silent for a good fifteen minutes after that, Brandon having absolutely nothing to say, and Jared in much the same place. It had been a giant elephant in the room for both of them for over two years, even when they weren't even in the same room. It was something that had followed Brandon through his last year of high school, and his first year of college. It was something that had sat sick and oily in his stomach when he'd kissed Vanessa for the first time, and stuck in his throat when he'd eaten his mother's carefully cooked Christmas turkey.

Brandon had always been reasonably sure that it hadn't meant anything, but he'd never been able to tell if that was just him rationalizing the whole thing or not. He had a pretty good idea now, glancing at Jared's face, not a hint of anything but the squicky awkwardness of talking with a sibling about sex there.

Knowing that, he wished that Jared had just stayed. Then again, he'd wished that for over two years. And he was pretty sure that Jared would tell him that he was glad he left anyways.

But Brandon didn't ask that. Knowing it and hearing it were two different things.

"So...Vanessa." Jared was the one who finally reopened their conversation, this time on something that Brandon was more capable of managing.

"Yeah?"

"Are you gonna tell her?"

"What? About being a werecat?"

"An ailure."

"An ailure," Brandon corrected with a roll of his eyes. He paused to actually think about it, then shrug. "I don't know... I mean, it's nice to stretch out every now and again. Go running on all fours. But...It's just not me, you know? I'm pretty sure she could deal with it, and I don't like not telling her things, so it's not that. It's just...It's not me. And she'll see it as me. She'll see me as this guy that's half animal or whatever, and I'm not. It's no more a part of me than when someone gets the flu. Temporary, fleeting, and not particularly wanted."

Jared nodded along, listening, hands pressed back against the dirt. He appeared to think over his next words, considering them.

"It's me," he said finally, and Brandon leaned forward to peer over at him.

"Hmm?" he pushed.

"It is me. That's the thing. I can't stop being this, and no, I'm not 100% comfortable with that, but I'm...I'm like 40% okay with it, and that's 40% more than I was when I came here. I don't want to go back with you guys, because it's more than just stretching for me, and fine, you're not an animal, but I am. I go into heat. I eat raw meat more often than cooked. I have a cub and I'm going to have more. And that's not bad. I'm finally beginning to see...that's not bad. You say 'animal' like it's less but it's not. It's just...different. And it's who I need to be, or I'll go insane."

Brandon wasn't sure if he could understand that. It was too separate from who he was and who he wanted to be for him to empathize, to put himself in that headspace and get where Jared was coming from. But he was beginning to see that understanding and accepting were two different things.

"You're different from how you used to be," he commented, finally, repeating his words from earlier, but in a completely different way, his tone changed.

"You really do think so?" Jared lifted his head, looking at him curiously through his bangs, his reaction appropriately altered.

"Yeah," Brandon shrugged with a small smile. "You don't...smile as much, but you mean it more, when you do."

"I meant it before too..."

"Sometimes." Brandon looked out, over at the river churning below them, and thought of Jared at eight, at fourteen. At seventeen. "It's not like you were miserable all the time or anything. It's just...I guess I never noticed that it took more work for you to not be miserable than it did me. I thought...you were just being moody."

"And what do you think now?"

"I think...that there's a lot of stuff I don't understand. You're right. Being a werecat is just a costume for me. It's something I can take off whenever I want to, but for you..." Brandon shrugged. "I don't think I get it, yet. Maybe I'll never get it. I can't hear 'animal' and not think that someone's insulting me. Insulting you, and you gotta know, kid, I love the hell out of you."

Jared huffed and smiled only slightly, that same shy brat that Brandon remembered from his childhood, always looking for people to like him. Brandon and Daniel never had that problem. If people didn't like them, they just moved on. Who cared? You were friends with people you got along with, and fuck the rest. But Jared took it all to heart, every dismissal, every instance where someone wasn't thinking the best of him. It mattered to Jared in a way that it just didn't to Brandon, and as much as he didn't understand this place, as much as he still doubted that this could be best for someone as smart and capable as Jared, he could at least recognize that he was freer here. Acted freer.

Like he was a little less afraid of being bruised.

"I just want you to be happy. Safe."

"Then..." Jared started, rubbing one hand over his opposite arm, like he so often did when he was worried about bringing something up, afraid of pushing. "Then I need you to accept that what makes me happy isn't the same as what makes you happy. I'm really glad you're doing so well, and college and Vanessa... And I appreciate that you worry about me. But I'm not being controlled or manipulated. Jensen is my mate, and my alpha, but it's--...There's things about it you'll never be able to understand. He's my alpha, but he listens to me."

Jared seemed to sit up a little straighter, and Brandon felt something strange twinge in him, like he was looking at someone he should bow his head to, and he'd always been in charge, always been the brother that his two siblings looked to. He'd never lost a fight in school, never lost a match in a game, never been anything other than the one that lead. And yet the smallest shift of Jared's form and some older animal instinct made him want to turn his head away in deference, and it struck him strange and sideways. He'd never once seen Jared as anything other than his sensitive little brother, tripping along behind him.

"I am consort here," Jared continued, a richness to his voice. "Consort to an alpha. I carry my cubs, and it's only through my word that Jensen gets to have them. It's not just that no one here would hurt me, Bran. It's that everything here is my choice. Everything. The alpha may lead our pride, but the alpha bows to me in our bed."

The moment hung, strange and surreal, and Brandon could almost get it -- wanting to live in a pride, to live with an alpha and with other werecats all around him. He knew he still didn't want it for himself, but he could see it, in the way the sun painted light over Jared, who was sitting so straight, so still, like he wasn't human at all, like he was something else entirely, not Brandon's brother but something older than that.

Something far less definable.

And then the moment passed, and the sunlight was just sunlight, and Jared was just Jared, and he smiled a little. Brandon did his best to return it, tried to assimilate too much into his worldview in a single second. And he realized just how badly he wanted to go home. He wanted to go back to where things made sense to him, where Vanessa and his drawing table and his projects were waiting for him, so simple and human. Brandon may have been able to shift his shape into a cat, but he wasn't one, not like Jared was.

Brandon needed to go home, and Jared needed to stay here, and Brandon was only just now beginning to get that.

"...I don't think I'll tell her," Brandon finally said, looking away. "Vanessa, I mean."

"Yeah."

"It's not... It's not like I want to lie to her."

"Yeah."

"It's just that it's not who I am. It's not part of me." Like it's part of you, was left known but unsaid.

"Yeah."

They went silent after that. Not because there weren't more things to be said, but because there was only so far they could go at a time. Brandon already knew he'd be thinking about this for days, weeks to come, trying to find the headspace that his brother was in. He didn’t think he’d ever really be able to understand why Jared needed this, just like Jared couldn't understand how Brandon needed concrete and rebar, needed a world of carefully structured order and humanity. Brandon would never be able to understand because he could take his skin off and walk around without it and no one would notice. Jared, though, had always just been wearing shoddy disguises.

But Jared was family. And you didn't have to understand family to still want them to be happy.

"I'm glad you called," Brandon finally said, just as the sun was sinking down below the horizon.

"Yeah," Jared replied, and Brandon didn't need to look to hear the smile in his voice. "Me too."

-----

"You have to call at least once a week," their mom said, eyes full of tears and her hands placed in Jared's. They were all lined up by the storage shed where the truck was kept, the vehicle having been moved out on to the dirty road and currently getting its tank filled by one of the other werecats. Jared and the alpha were with them, coming to say their goodbyes, a couple of the guards having volunteered to drive the Padaleckis back down to Bryson, and even over to Waynesville to catch a bus.

"Mom," Jared chastised with a smile. "It's over a two hour drive down into town. I can't go down there once a week. Especially... you know. Not now."

"Well," their dad spoke up, standing just behind his wife. "Take care of yourself first. Call when you can. Don't stress yourself out over it."

"You should get some cell towers up here or something," Daniel commented, and Jared gave him a dirty look.

"Just..." Their mother's voice forestalled any argument. "Just call when you can. And make sure to have someone phone us when you...When you..."

"When I have the cubs?"

"...yes," she finally said, with a tight smile, her love unquestionable but her understanding not. Brandon couldn't blame her. It would take some time, for all of them.

"I will," Jared promised, and leaned in to kiss her cheek. It didn't matter that their mother was a petite little thing -- she pulled Jared in tightly, hugging him, and she didn't let go until at least a minute had passed. She wiped at her eyes as she drew back, smiling up at him.

"Like I said," their father commented as Jared turned to him. "Look after yourself. We're...so glad you're safe. That you're okay."

"Thanks, Dad." Jared paused. "I...the money you gave me. God. The money you gave me on my birthday, for the car. I spent it all when I ran away. I'm sorry. I just--" He shook his head.

"Jared." Their father stepped forward. "I meant what I said before... It's just money. I gave that to you because I love you, and if it helped you, then I'm glad. That's all I ever wanted."

Their father reached out, putting both arms around Jared and pulling him into a firm embrace, shorter than the one with their mother, but no less passionate. He rubbed Jared's back a couple of times, murmuring something to him that Brandon couldn't hear besides 'proud of you,' before letting him go, giving his son one last squeeze with a hand on his shoulder. Jared smiled at him, gaze a little watery.

He then turned to Brandon, preparing to say their goodbyes, when Daniel interrupted, walking over from where he'd been leaned against the truck. Brandon had assumed that Daniel had been ignoring everything, per usual, and hadn't expected his other brother to want to make a big goodbye. But then Daniel strode straight up to them, glancing Jared over once before opening his mouth.

"Can I touch it?" he asked brazenly, and Brandon held back from smacking his own hand to his forehead.

"Touch--...Wait, what?" Jared asked, brow furrowed.

"Your baby bump." Daniel made a dismissive gesture towards his brother's stomach, to the small, taut bump that Brandon now recognized housed his little nieces and nephews to be. Jared looked like he was choking on his tongue.

"I--You--...What? I mean... fine. Fine, I guess," Jared finally managed to get out, shrugging his shoulders but looking a bit stiff. Brandon saw that Jensen looked a little stiff as well, standing behind Jared. Brandon half expected the alpha to get all...alpha about the whole thing, to tell Daniel to back off, but Jared hadn't been wrong. The alpha controlled the pride, but he seemed to give deference to Jared.

Daniel missed the whole thing, predictably, just staring at Jared's stomach as he stepped forward, holding a hand out. He paused, hesitated, though, before touching. Jared huffed a laugh.

"It's not Alien. Nothing's going to burst out and eat you."

"Shut up," Daniel defended, flushing a little at being called out. "You don't know that."

"Dumbass."

"Hooker."

"Boys," their mother's voice stressed, and both Jared and Daniel glanced up, expressions turning sheepish. There were some mumbles that might have been apologies.

Daniel finally seemed to man up, taking that last step forward to press his hand against Jared's stomach, over the stretch of his t-shirt. Jared looked like a statue, held rigid and tense, and Brandon could see Jensen watching carefully from behind, doing nothing, but there. Always there.

For a moment, everyone was quiet.

Then Daniel chuckled.

"Holy crap," he said, looking kind of incredulous and almost a little awed, even as that familiar shit-eating grin spread over his face. "I can actually feel the damned things."

Brandon could hear Jensen growl a little at having his cubs called 'damned things,' but Jared was just smiling.

"Yeah, a little... Not much now. They're not big enough. But...soon, I think."

"Shit..." Daniel muttered, shaking his head in disbelief, but he was still smiling. "I'm going to be a terrible uncle. You get that right?"

"Daniel, no one had to inform me of that." Jared rolled his eyes. "For starters, you're going to have to clean up your language some."

"Right, yeah, that..." Still, Daniel stood there for a moment, his hand still on Jared's stomach, the whole thing strange and intimate, but Jared didn't seem to begrudge Daniel the moment with his nieces or nephews. Eventually, Daniel pulled his hand back, tucking both of them into his pockets, and tried to shake the whole thing off with a shrug. "Guess I'll see you around."

"Yeah," Jared replied. "Guess so."

Brandon realized it was his turn, now.

They'd said most of what needed to be said the day before, sitting out on the cliff and talking through all their long buried issues. Brandon had really said all the goodbyes he'd needed to. Or at least all the goodbyes he could. He and Jared and Daniel weren't just siblings -- they were littermates. It was hard to imagine leaving Jared here, leaving him to live a completely different life from them. Somehow Brandon had always imagined them getting their first apartment together, living around Daniel's messes and even messier flings. Living with Jared's stupid jokes and propensity to sob like a girl over a sad movie. The three of them living together had never been a maybe in Brandon's mind. They were family, littermates, and for all his desire to grow up and leave all the werecat business behind, he couldn't leave that part.

The part where he'd always assumed that the three of them would always be together.

And the part that had assumed that if anyone was going to step out first it would be him or Daniel. Not Jared. Not Jared, who'd never been the troublemaker or the overachiever, who'd never done much at all to make himself stand out besides being personable, besides being the one who'd never leave. Jared, who’d always been so dependant on them in a way that Brandon and Daniel had never been.

Jared was standing there, one hand protectively over his slightly swollen stomach, having found and chosen and defended a life all by himself. No overprotective brothers needed.

No Brandons required.

And that was when Brandon realized he hadn't said goodbye, not really. Because he hadn't admitted that Jared didn't need him anymore. Jared was grown up, as much as Brandon and Daniel if not more, and Brandon was saying goodbye to more than just this visit, more than just this brother. He was saying goodbye to the way he thought their life would be, because he'd never allowed for the possibility that Daniel and Jared wouldn't follow his lead, as they always had before.

"We'll see each other again," Jared said, his farewell simple.

"Yeah," Brandon replied, and of that he had no doubt. He didn't hug Jared. He just lifted a hand, holding it out to him. Jared stared at it for a heartbeat, then moved his hand away from his belly, pressing it into Brandon's palm, and they shook.

Jared's hand was warm and broad, and it was the best that Brandon could do to say that he saw Jared as an adult. That he was trying to see Jared as an adult. He glanced back behind his brother to see Jensen still waiting. The alpha's eyes were fixed on Jared and nothing else, seeing nothing else, and maybe Brandon wasn't ready to jump on the pro-Jensen bandwagon, but he could at least admit that the guy wasn't quite the evil manipulator Brandon had originally thought.

He dropped Jared's hand after a moment, and he turned to the truck, packing the last of their bags into the back before climbing in with Daniel, their parents still waving and saying goodbye as they got into the cab.

"Be careful, and have a good trip," Jared said to them all. The truck started up, engine rumbling away, Daniel giving one little half wave before letting his arms slump over his knees. Brandon felt the steady bump of the road as the truck pulled away from the shed, back out onto the dirt road and through the long corridor of trees.

Two and a half years.

Two and a half years since Jared had run out of the room, leaving Brandon confused and sick and needing some answers, and Brandon didn't feel like he'd gotten them all. He didn't feel like he thought he would, like everything was resolved and ready to move forward. Somehow, he thought it would be that simple. Like he could magically unremember it all and put it behind him. The truth was, those two years were a part of him now, and a part of their family, for better or worse.

He could see Jared in the center of the road behind them, waving as they drove off, and he could see Jensen wander over to him. Jared turned in Jensen's hands, the alpha's fingers against Jared's jaw, and Brandon watched as their foreheads come to rest together. He watched as they stood there, like they were part of the forest, meant to be here in a way that Brandon never would be with his Nike sneakers and his $15 Hair Cuttery hair cut. They looked completely human, as human as Vanessa, as human as all of Brandon's professors, but in the forest, surrounded by it, and leaned in together like two trees wavering in the wind, they looked wild.

And they looked free.

Then the truck shifted around the first bend in the mountain, shocks squeaking and gears shifting, and Jared and Jensen disappeared from view, swept behind the trees like a veil, and Brandon let his head fall back against the metal of the cab.

It was well past time he went home.

-----

The flight took off out of Raleigh at seven, just before sunset, and their plane was headed westward, valiantly chasing the sun down, nightfall always nipping at their heels but never quite catching up.

He was dead tired, and while he was glad to be headed home, back to normalcy, he also wasn't looking forward to all the travel and work that awaited him. They'd get in late, and he and Daniel would have to take an overnight Greyhound down to Laramie, getting as much sleep as they could while curled up in cramped chairs passing over the flat Wyoming highways. They'd get back to college on a Tuesday, and, sleep-deprived and exhausted as they'd be, they'd have to just throw themselves back into classes and work.

Well, Brandon would, anyways. He couldn't speak for Daniel.

He huffed a little, glancing over at his brother, who'd pushed his seat back all four inches that it would go, and was trying to get a head start on that sleep now, though given how much he tossed and turned, grumbling with every motion, he wasn't getting much in the way of rest.

Brandon was just looking forward to being able to call Vanessa, which he would do immediately after they landed. He'd warned her that he might not get cell reception out where he was going, so she knew he wouldn't call while he was gone. There wasn't a lot he could tell her, not about what really happened: not why Jared ran, not why Jared was living in the wilderness, and certainly not why Jared was staying. But he wanted to talk anyways.

He knew that Jared thought he was lying to Vanessa, wondered how Brandon could value a relationship where he hid everything from his lover. But the truth was that Vanessa got all the real parts of Brandon, just like Jensen assumably got all the real parts of Jared. At least, Brandon hoped the man did.

All the things that Brandon had to keep secrets were the things he didn't really want in his life. The shapechanging, the fraught past, the unfortunate and unwanted incestuous humping... Yeah. Those were all things that Brandon would rather forget about. And Vanessa and college helped him with that. They were the parts of his life that he chose, not the parts he had to just accept.

Across the aisle from him and Daniel, Brandon could hear the quiet murmur of their parents voices. Their mother had gotten all her crying out on the bus ride back to Raleigh, accepting that Jared had to stay here, but still determined to miss him. Their mom could be a little crazy, and a little over attached and desperately suffering from empty-nest syndrome, but she loved the three of them without reserve, there was no doubt of that. She'd stopped to get the pictures they'd taken developed at the one hour photo in the airport, while they were waiting on their plane, and now she and their dad were flipping through them, pointing out little things and smiling to each other.

Their dad was both emotionally and academically interested in his upcoming grandchildren. Their mom was going to need a little longer. Brandon could tell she was still worried about her little boy having babies with a man who was sixteen years older than him.

Hell, Brandon was still kind of worried about that himself.

Jared had been right: he wasn't Brandon's little brother, but he still felt like it. Even if they were the same age, it was hard for Brandon to turn off the instinct to protect Jared. To turn off the rose tinted glasses that still showed him some scraggly little kid instead of the grown man that Jared was.

A grown man who was about to become a father.

Around them, the plane soared on, the rush of cold wind invisible and intangible to them, only the sound of the engines roaring reaching Brandon's ears as he leaned his head against the window. Out below him were the clouds, an unending blanket that rolled from one edge of the Earth to the other, painted in oranges and pinks towards the west, and blues and greys behind them in the east.

It felt strange to be leaving Jared behind, like he didn't belong to them anymore.

Brandon closed his eyes, the clink of the stewardess's trolley making its rounds hushed beneath the heavy sound of the plane in flight. On the backs of his eyelids, he could see the three of them at eleven, pressed to the glass and looking out at the clouds, at the world below. Two years before everything changed, and maybe Jared had never belonged to them at all.

Brandon could still see himself and his brothers, the three of them together and inseparable, even in their fights and their arguments. The three of them curled up watching TV together or walking to the bus stop for school, three little boys that had no idea where they'd come from, and just how complicated life would one day become.

Brandon felt light moving over his eyelids, flickering between dreams and memories of the three of them running through the tall grass surrounding their home, racing each other to the pond while their mother called to them from the back porch, and it was always him and Daniel and Jared.

It was always family.

Never perfect, but somehow, still always there.