PART TWENTY-EIGHT

Death did not claim Ron as he stepped out on the street, much to his disappointment. He was back at the Inn's original location, the quiet grassy fields and courthouse replaced by a narrow cobblestone and sounds of tourists and locals celebrating the night away.

"Ron!" shouted a familiar, curly-headed voice from above. Ron ignored the sound, confident he could still hear laughter echoing behind it, and walked purposely into the city.

Once again, Ron found himself wandering the streets of Waterford at night. The multi-coloured lights and modern music contrasting with the ancient architecture. The city was alive with activity, and Ron let the sounds and smells wash over him. He didn't know if his brother would live, the alliance would survive, or even if the mission would succeed, but he didn't care. He was humiliated. They didn't want him, they didn't need him, and he didn't really blame them.

Pentose Lane led to Summer Hill Terrace, where Ron stopped to watch several street performers. There seemed to be one on every corner. There was a man on a unicycle in rainbow suspenders. A woman on stilts jungled while wearing comically oversized shoes. A snake charmer played a haunting melody as their fanged partner bobbed and weaved to the crowd's delight. There was even a red-headed, touristy leprechaun dancing a jig, complete with a green coat, buckled shoes and top hat.

Ron turned to continue his exploration and found himself directly in front of Eddie Headstones.

"Ok, Inn," Ron said aloud. "Stop playing games. I'm not going back."

Several people stared at him from the packed café patio, but his words were quickly dismissed as drunken ramblings.

Ron walked in the opposite direction. Eventually, he came to a small park which appeared like an oasis in the middle of the city. A theatre troupe was just finishing their performance as Ron arrived on a temporary stage surrounded by families sitting on blankets. From the collection of actors dressed as satyrs, centaurs, nymphs and sprites, Ron guessed they had just performed A Midsummer Night's Dream. The applause was sporadic at best, and the cast moved backstage after a single bow.

"Hey Ronnie," echoed two voices from the edge of the stage.

Ron was surprised but also pleased to see May and Kay. He had felt a confidence he'd never known when he was around them, and he could feel it returning at the sound of their voices. They were dressed more eclectically than that first night. Both wore jean jackets over grey sweaters, which ended just shy of their belly buttons. Knitted scarves and black-brimmed hats completed the look. Ron suspected they could make a trash bag look stylish if they wanted.

"Did you enjoy the performance?" they asked in unison.

"No. I just got here."

They began to slowly circle around Ron again, as they had the first time they met. It was as if they were making sure he wasn't hiding anything. He held up his empty hands in surrender.

"What are you doing here?" Ron asked.

"We enjoy theatre," replied May

"Well," added Kay, "we enjoy theatrics."

That didn't surprise Ron in the slightest.

The crowd began to thin. The weather had turned a little cooler, and most had picked up their blankets, retreating to the warmth of their homes or the various pubs and restaurants that dotted the city. Heavenly smells came from one, as Ron's nose identified slow-cooked dishes of beef, chicken, and lamb, and he was pretty sure a vegan cannellini. It reminded him how little he'd eaten in the Great Hall and how hungry he really was. Even raw squirrel sounded great about now.

Gary.

He'd been able to avoid the guilt as he moved through the city, but when it caught up, it threatened to overwhelm him.

I should have stayed, he thought. Gary was sick, maybe dying. I have to go back.

"I have to go," he said aloud.

May and Kay's eyes seem to double in size.

"What, so soon? But you just got here." They hugged him like he was a soldier returning from war. "You can't leave just yet."

Ron was about to protest, but as he stood there, enveloped in a sea of arms and sweet-smelling hair, a thought occurred to him. It would be rude to just leave. He had just arrived, after all.

"Huānhū," they cheered as if reading his mind.

They sat down on the grass in front of the stage. May held her knees to her chest while Kay was cross-legged. Ron was finding it easier to tell them apart. Even when dressed identically, they had their own sense of style. May's scarf was a slighter brighter shade of purple than Kay's, and she always pulled her hair behind both ears. On the other hand, Kay often let her hair fall in front of her face, masking her expression.

"Did you have a chance to speak with your Alpha?" asked May with a smile.

Ron hesitated. Unsure exactly how to answer.

"Well, did you?" asked Kay a little more forcefully. She was playing with her belly button piercing, which sparkled in the multi-coloured lights hanging in the park. Ron found himself staring at it.

"Zhàn!" said May, slapping Kay's hand away from her piercing. Then, looking at Ron, "Sorry about that."

"It's ok." Ron wasn't sure what she was apologizing for. It was understandable they'd want to know. He had planned to tell his brother...

Gary!

May put her hand on Ron's knee. "Ron, what do you think of the park? Pretty cool, isn't it."

Ron felt a chill run through him. It is getting cold, he thought.

"What? Oh. Yes, it's pretty cool."

Ron noticed Kay giving her sister a wrap-it-up gesture with her hand before returning to the eternal scroll of her phone. May shook her head and moved to sit next to Ron. She unwrapped her scarf and rewrapped it around both of them, sharing its warmth in the increasingly chilly night air. He'd never been this close to May, even dancing at the club. He enjoyed the closeness and was finding it difficult to think of anything else.

"Tell me what you told your brother." She asked.

Ron could see his reflection in May's eyes. He didn't like what he saw. Cowardice. Failure. By the time Gary was his age, he thought, his brother was Alpha of their whole clan. But Ron was no Alpha; he wasn't even a gamma. He was a cub in a wolf's world, fooling himself into believing he was making a difference instead of just struggling with a new chew toy, trying to get at the squeaker. He wasn't smart like his Gary, strong like Carl, wise like his Brian or cunning like his Kira. He was just Ron. No. Ronnie. Dumb, awkward Ronnie, who only ran from problems. He didn't want to be the person he saw in May's eyes.

So he wasn't.

Ron dropped his voice to a whisper. "I told him everything. Your Council's concerns and desire to set aside past grievances and tackle this problem together."

May smiled, and Kay looked up from her phone, her mouth slightly open.

"That's unbelievable, Ronnie!" May said, giving Ron a big hug that didn't last as long as he would have liked.

"Yes. Unbelievable." Said Kay.

"Ānjìng diăn!" May said sharply, waving her sister away.

"I'm so proud of you, Ronnie. What did he say?"

Ron liked May being proud of him. He liked it a lot. He wasn't proud of himself at that moment. But his opinion of himself was never that high to begin with.

"He was skeptical at first. But eventually, he came around."

Ron spun a fantastical tale very loosely based on the truth. He told them it took hours to convince his Alpha of the Council's sincerity. He described the epic battle that followed and how he fought alongside his brother against the legendary warrior Lycanon, who had no interest in an alliance and had labelled Ron a traitor.

"You really said, "On my life, dear brother. They speak the truth"? Asked May, enthralled.

"And your claws really sliced open Lycanon's stomach?" added Kay?

"Oh, Yes." Replied Ron. The smell of deceit grew thicker and richer as he spoke, but his two listeners' noses didn't so much as wrinkle. Perhaps there was something I'm good at, he thought bitterly. My father and brother certainly were.

He left out any mention of Gary and other Alphas being poisoned. There was no need to reveal that secret. He didn't need to see the outcome at the Inn to know what impact it would have. Even if the Alphas didn't die, their weakness made them vulnerable to ambition, and there was a lot of ambition in that Hall. His brother was right to get Gary out of there as quickly as possible before someone got any ideas. Without a leader, a pack is vulnerable. The thirteen were vulnerable. No one could know.

Ron ended his story with Gary's decree, standing on a high branch of the Treeble no less, that Ron would be his representative to speak with the Council.

"I don't believe it," Kay said without hesitation.

Ron felt a trickle of sweat run down his lower back.

Mary looked at Ron, studying his face. "Are you making this up, Ronnie? Why would your brother not come himself?"

Ron thought quickly, "Uh... Because of the danger. Maybe this is all a trap. He's not going to come himself for the first meeting."

Kay leaned in, unconvinced. "But why you? Why not your brother or your uncle? Or another Alpha?"

May nodded. "Yeah, Ronnie. I know you said you killed Lycanon, but aren't there more experienced members of your clan? Someone with more authority?

Seconds passed as Ron tried to think of an argument, but nothing came.

"You didn't say anything. Did you?" Kay asked rhetorically. She exhaled dismissively and went back to her phone.

May looked at Ron and frowned. Not an angry frown, but something Ron found far worse. A frown of disappointment. His heart sank.

"That's ok, Ronnie. It was a good story." She unwrapped her scarf from Ron's neck and stood up. Kay followed, not taking her eyes off her phone.

Mary waved at Ron. "We gotta go, Ronnie. See you later."

The park was nearly deserted, but the city was coming alive and ringing with sounds fueled by youth and bad choices. May and Kay began walking towards them.

"They were poisoned!" Ron shouted.

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