The sun had been way too bright on the day of my brother's funeral.
I remembered how my eyes could not open, how my throat had been so parched I could not deliver the eulogy. I remembered my sweat-drenched suit and the fiery redness on my skin when I got home—scorching and itching—as if the world wanted to remind me how easily I would burn in the light.
And I remembered thinking that the world was right.
All my life, I had been living in Victor's shadow. As the older sibling and the heir to the pack, he had shielded me from the spotlight, absorbing all the attention from the family, the pack, and the entire wereanimal kingdom. It was only when he left that I realized just how blinding and vicious the spotlight had been.
It burned, so, so much, and he had been blocking it for me my whole life.
I sighed as I fiddled my thumbs around each other. My father's betas paced in front of me, their dark shoes clopped on the white marble floor like the hooves of frightened deer. I did not dare raise my head to look at them; I did not want to see their disapproving faces. Without Victor, I was now the potential heir of the pack, and nobody wanted that. Not even me. Especially not me.
A gentle hand landed on my slumped shoulders. "Hey, Bodie."
I forced myself to lift my head to address Victor's mate as she sat next to me. She was only a few years older than me, yet the wrinkles along her eyes seemed to have doubled over the week. The usual energy in her grey eyes had disappeared into a storm. To see my sister-in-law this grief-stricken stabbed my heart more than I expected it to.
"Celine," I managed a croak. "I'm... I'm sorry..."
"Don't be." Her voice was soft but as commanding as ever. As commanding as Victor had been. "We all lost a loved one. It's not anybody's fault."
I nodded, letting my heavy head drop again. The two of us sat silently, facing my father's home office and fidgeting with our hands. I noticed Celine caressing the insignia that was still imprinted on the back of her left hand. A three-clawed slash across a crescent moon—it was my family's symbol, and Victor's mark on her when they mated.
"You kept the mark," I said.
Celine clenched her fists and withdrew her arm as if my gaze had burned her. "Yes. It's the only thing he gave me that's fully mine." She glanced at me. "I'd like to keep it, please."
A small breath escaped from my nose. Celine had never looked at me with such... wariness. I was not sure if I was more amused or upset by this change in attitude.
"Why are you asking me for permission? The Alpha's in there." I gestured my head towards the black door in front of us.
Celine shrugged. "Well, you're the heir now. Soon, you'll be the head of this family. And... the pack."
Her words struck me in the gut. I gulped and closed my eyes. I could already imagine the sullen expressions on the pacing betas, and the look of protest they exchanged with one another.
"I don't know," I muttered. The spotlight was too bright, and it burned, so, so much. I did not want it; I had never wanted it.
Opening my eyes, I faced Celine. "What if you become the heir? I mean, you were ready to lead the pack together with Victor. You're more ready; you deserve it way more than me."
She shook her head. "I can't. I'm not part of the family. Not really."
"The mark on your hand says otherwise."
"The mark says I'm marked by your family, not that I'm truly part of it."
"That's not true, Celine."
"That's just how it is, Bodie."
My thumbs rubbed the back of my hands. Unlike Celine, and most werewolves in the pack, I would never get a mark if I ever chose to mate—an insignia would only appear on the mate from a less dominant family. Thus, I had never given this magic much thought. But I had always assumed being marked as choosing a new family to be in. Wasn't that the whole point of mating? Becoming a part of the family?
"You shouldn't think this way," I said with a sigh. "You are part of the family."
"Well, you shouldn't think this way too," Celine countered, "about the fact that you're not ready to be the heir. Victor trained hard to get to where he was, and so can you. You can become ready."
I sighed again. "You and I both know I'm not like Victor. I'm not... strong like him. I don't have his power."
"You need to have more confidence in yourself. You are your father's child, too." Her face fell at the mention of my father. "Speaking of him, how long has he been in there?"
My eyes darted back to the large, black door looming in front of us. I lowered my head. "A week. He hasn't come out since the funeral, and he's only allowing some of the betas to come in to bring him his meals. I'm... I haven't been able to see him at all."
There was a small pause before Celine said, "I'm sorry."
I shrugged. "As you said, it's not anybody's fault."
After all, my father had lost his golden child, the respected heir to the pack, the perfect next Alpha. Out of everyone here, he had the most to grieve about Victor's death.
The door creaked open, freezing the betas in their steps while jolting the two of us up from our seats. Max, my father's most trusted beta, stepped out. His eyes, as dark as his suit, bored into me as he spoke.
"Bodie. He wants to see you."
Relief washed over me—until it was flooded over with dread. This was going to be my first time talking to my father after my brother died.
"Good luck," Celine said.
I forced out a smile at her before stepping into the room.
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