Hunter Garrison — “Silverbell Ranch”

The sky is a light pink with lines of orange darting through, as birds chirp out of sight. It’s still calm, though Lyon knows it won’t stay that way much longer. He stands on the front porch with his arms crossed as he gazes out at the ranch. He eases his way down the porch steps with a deep sigh.

“What are you doin’ out here so early?” Jace asks, the screen door creaking as he exits the house.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Lyon replies. “I’m going to check on Ikra and Luva before the new arrivals get here.” Jace falls into step with Lyon as he strides towards a large enclosure ten feet from the house. Most of it is taken up by dense trees except for a clearing closest to the gate. Up against the fence to their right is a building with an opening for animals to get in and out as they please. Water troughs and two metal tubs sit a few feet from the opening, but the animals are nowhere in sight. They pause at the gate as Lyon looks for them.

“They’re lazin’ about this morning,” Jace observes. Lyon doesn’t answer, opening the gate just enough to slip through.

“Stay out there,” he says. “Tell me if one of them comes up behind me.” Jace grunts, already focused. Lyon moves towards the building, moving his head constantly as he gets closer to the trees and the building. Something emerges from the structure, crouching to get through the opening. Lyon stops walking, straightening as a large wolf locks its gaze onto him. Its head is longer than modern wolves, it stands about five inches taller, and its teeth hang past its lower jaw. Its light gray fur begins to stand on end and its hackles rise to show its pink gums. Lyon crouches closer to the ground, lowering his eyes to ensure that he doesn’t look into the golden eyes sizing him up.

Jace lets out a sharp bark, drawing the wolf’s attention to him. Its ears twitch as its head cocks to the side slightly, sizing him up. Lyon responds with a low yip, drawing its attention back to him as the wolf relaxes, approaching him with careful steps.

“Easy, Luva,” Lyon says, keeping his voice soft. The wolves tend to be on edge when the men enter their enclosure, whether it’s for feedings or vet appointments. Luva stops a foot away from Lyon, lowering herself just enough to let her stomach brush the powdery dirt. She whines up at him, her nose quivering as she takes in his scent. Lyon’s lips twitch into a small smile as he reaches his hand to her slowly, waiting for her to lift her snout to him. She does so, her tail swishing once in greeting.

“You see Ikra?” Lyon asks, keeping his voice level.

“He’s comin’ out of the trees now,” Jace replies. “I’m comin’ in.” Luva’s ears swivel, listening to the gate creak as Jace opens and closes it. Ikra growls and Lyon sees Luva’s muscles tense.

“Calm,” Lyon murmurs, his heart fluttering. These creatures could snap at any moment and they’d be doomed. Luckily, Dires aren’t just known for being dangerous – they’re also fiercely loyal once they’ve bonded to a human. Luva trots towards Ikra, whining as she goes. Lyon straightens up, glancing at Jace.

“They know we’re up to somethin’,” Jace says. Lyon nods.

“They smell our emotions,” he agrees. Ikra approaches them slower than Luva, though he’s stopped growling. He stands a foot taller than the other wolf and his coat is thicker and darker, more easily blending into the shadows cast by the trees. He hovers near the feeding tubs, his yellow eyes studying them. His gaze slips down to the tubs expectantly and Lyon smirks.

“Someone’s hungry,” he says. “Get some food. I’ll make sure they haven’t been fighting before the new arrivals get here.”

“You sure?” Jace asks, a note of worry in his voice. Lyon nods, shooing Jace back towards the gate. He snaps his fingers, the crack bringing both wolves to attention. He moves his hand palm out from next to his leg, towards his shoulder. Luva studies him for a moment before sitting, but Ikra continues to stare at him. Lyon barks, drawing his lips back from his teeth to show the wolf that he’s serious. He makes the motion again and Ikra lowers his rear to the ground, licking his chops.

Lyon approaches Ikra, knowing that the male wolf will put up more of a fight if he watches Luva being examined first. Ikra growls low in his throat in warning as Lyon gets close, making Lyon glare at him.

“Calm,” he says, his voice stern. He offers his hands to the wolf, allowing the wolf the chance to sniff him before touching him. Ikra turns his nose away, sliding his pupils to the side of his eyes to continue watching Lyon. Shrugging, Lyon moves his hands down Ikra’s sides gently, taking a moment to admire the softness of his fur and the mass of his muscles. He backs away once he’s satisfied that the wolf is healthy and uninjured, letting out a soft whine of affection. Ikra lets his tongue loll from his jaws, the closest he’ll get to showing affection.

Luva’s tail pats the ground once as Lyon sinks his fingers into her fur and she lifts her muzzle towards his face. Lyon lets her lick him once with a smile before continuing his exam. Both wolves tense for a moment as Jace returns with the food, though they recognize him with ease.

“Wait until I’m done,” Lyon says without pausing his exam. Luva is slimmer than Ikra, though her muscles are just as strong and she fights just as hard. Lyon backs away, giving both wolves plenty of space, before raising both of his hands with palms facing out to release them. Jace slips back into the enclosure as they stand, crowding the feeding tubs.

Jace and Lyon lean against the fence as the wolves eat, nipping at each other if they get too close. The sun has finished rising, causing sweat to bead their brows though they don’t notice.

“What time are they supposed to be here, again?” Jace asks.

“Nine,” Lyon replies. “We’d better head down the drive so they don’t miss it.” They stroll down their wooded drive, the trees sheltering them from the sun. The drive twists and turns, vines creeping onto the gravel.

“Do you think we’re doin’ this too soon?” Jace asks. “Luva and Ikra have just learned the commands and begun to trust us.”

“We fail if we don’t grow. Most Dire farms start with a small pack,” Lyon replies.

“You say ‘Dire farms’ like they’re everywhere,” Jace chides. Lyon lifts his left shoulder in a shrug.

“The point remains,” he replies. Jace looks up at him, baffled by his calmness. The sound of gravel crunching under their boots and insects buzzing are the only sounds for a few moments.

“Heard from your parents?” Lyon asks at last, still not looking at the younger man.

“They’re well,” Jace says. “They wanted to know when we’d be home to visit.”

“I hope you didn’t say anytime soon,” Lyon says. Jace reaches his fingers out to brush his fingertips against the leaves of a bush as they pass, covering his nails in dew.

“No,” he replies. “I told ‘em we have a lot of work ahead of us still; that the ranch was in pretty bad shape when you inherited it.” Lyon sighs, noticing the hint of sadness in Jace’s voice. They stop at the end of the drive, looking up and down the quiet road. Lyon leans against a tree, closing his eyes, while Jace stands almost as if he’s at attention.

“Two weeks,” Lyon murmurs. “And then you can go home for a bit. Okay?” Jace raises his eyebrows, crossing his arms.

“The Dires will still be adjustin’ then,” he says. “I can’t leave you alone.”

“I’ll be fine for a week or so,” Lyon replies, opening his eyes. “We probably won’t put them in the same enclosure until you get back.” A white truck with a large silver trailer pulls into view, moving down the road with caution. They can see a woman bent over the steering wheel as if searching for her turn. She pauses next to them with her window rolled down and leans out, asking, “Are you the boys from Silverbell Ranch?”

“That’s us,” Lyon replies, motioning her down the driveway. “The drive’s a bit hard to find the first time.”

“Hop in and I’ll take you back down,” she offers. They take her up on the offer, squeezing onto the bench seat, Jace in the middle and Lyon against the window.

“Name’s Grace,” she says. “What got you boys in a business like this?”

“The ranch was left to me,” Lyon replies. “The two Dires we have now were all that was left.”

“It’s been somethin’ of a family legacy for Lyon for a long time,” Jace adds. “When he told me he was goin’ to get it up and runnin’ again I insisted that he let me help.”

“Seems that’s how most people find it,” Grace says. “So, your parents are gone then?”

“No,” Lyon murmurs. “They don’t like this work, say it’s pointless. They’d prefer me to be a teacher or a lawyer, something mainstream.” They pull into view of the house and the corral.

“Follow the gravel back to the right; we’ve got a smaller enclosure set up close to the main one while they adjust,” Lyon adds, gesturing as he gives her directions. Grace does so, slowing down as the road turns to dirt.

“That’s a shame,” Grace replies, glancing at him. “I’m assuming they haven’t seen what you’ve done to the place?” Lyon shakes his head, muttering, “No.” Grace stops near an empty corral about five feet from the bigger enclosure.

“You choose the name Silverbell?” Grace asks.

“It was named after the first Dire this ranch saw,” Lyon replies.

“The gate’s right there; you can back up to it,” Jace says, pointing as he talks. Grace does so, maneuvering carefully so that the trailer lines up even though the truck is at an angle.

They pile out of the truck and Grace leads them to the back of the trailer. She leans against the big door as they listen to the Dires moving inside. Ikra and Luva are standing at their fence, eyeing them with suspicion. Luva whimpers, her nose quivering as she scents the air.

“They tend to be pretty calm; they’re from the same litter so they’ve been together all their lives. They know basic commands as well,” Grace says. Lyon grunts, opening the gate to the corral.

“Ready?” Grace asks.

“Yup,” Jace replies, taking a few steps back. Grace unlatches the trailer and pulls the door open. A large, brown wolf darts to the door with its hackles raised and its head lowered to look under it. Grace stands at the end of the door so she’s in sight of the wolf. She snaps and points towards the gate, capturing the wolf’s attention. It cocks its head, its yellow eyes staring at her.

“Roas, go,” she commands. The wolf steps down from the trailer with caution, its eyes moving between Jace and Lyon as it pads towards the gate. A second brown wolf steps down from the trailer without hesitation, though it pauses to look up at Grace with a question in its eyes. When it sees Grace’s fingers poised to snap it trots into the enclosure, nuzzling the bigger wolf’s muzzle for reassurance. Lyon closes and latches the gate before shuffling to the left about a foot and poising himself on the third slat of wood up so he can see into the corral.

“Roas is the male, right?” He asks, glancing back at Grace. She nods, smiling at the passion that shows in Lyon’s eyes. Jace joins Lyon on the fence, climbing a slat higher to crane over the top to see.

“Paoq’s coat is the easiest way to tell them apart,” she says. “Roas is all brown, but she has a distinct ring of black circling her neck, around her shoulder blades and her paws are black.” Lyon nods, studying the new wolves. The two wolves pad around the corral, scenting the air with their hackles raised as they register the presence of other wolves. Ikra and Luva are yipping and growling in their enclosure, getting as close to the fence as they can to try and see the new Dires.

“How’d you choose their names?” He asks.

“Roas is named after his grandfather, who we lost earlier this year, because he looks just like him. Paoq is my people’s word for serenity, which my husband felt fit because she is always the calmest,” Grace explains. Roas and Paoq approach the fence, tails tucked between their legs, to gaze up at the two men. Roas lets out a low growl, his fur rising just enough to be visible.

“I can introduce you to them,” Grace offers. “It may make your lives easier if they see that I trust you before I leave them here.” Lyon hops down from the fence, nodding. Jace follows suit as Lyon begins unlatching the gate once more. Grace enters first as the men follow, keeping themselves crouched so they appear as less of a threat. Jace shuts the gate, turning just in time to see Paoq trotting towards Grace. The wolf nuzzles her affectionately, whining at the woman.

Lyon kneels on the ground, stretching his left hand out to let the wolf sniff him. She does so, keeping her eyes locked on his face as she does so. She touches the tip of her nose to his palm after a moment of hesitation, making Lyon smile. Paoq slinks towards Jace, cocking her head to the side. Roas approaches slower, going straight to Lyon. He sniffs his outstretched hand but pulls back.

“Calm, Roas,” Lyon says, his voice low. Grace raises an eyebrow at the uncommon command. Roas touches his nose to Lyon’s palm after another moment of hesitation, swishing his tail once. He follows Paoq to Jace, who’s grinning from ear to ear. Lyon stands after a few more moments, his face serious.

“I should check on Ikra and Luva,” he says. He exits the corral ahead of Grace and Jace, entering the main enclosure without hesitation. Jace watches him go, latching the gate to the corral as he does so.

“Sorry, he gets spacey sometimes,” Jace says, scratching the back of his head.

“He cares for them deeply,” Grace observes. “How long have you had your Dires?”

“A few months,” Jace admits. Grace nods, watching Lyon interact with Ikra and Luva.

“Most Dire ranchers get attached to their first wolves,” she says. “Especially in the first months they have them, because they often become their only or biggest companions.” Jace nods, remembering the first few weeks they’d gotten the Dires. Lyon had slept outside, no matter the weather, to be sure that the wolves were adapting.

“What are you planning to use the ranch for?” Grace asks. “Hunters, war, breeding?” Jace shrugs.

“We aren’t sure yet,” he admits. “Lyon refuses to use them for war or breedin’, but he isn’t sold on huntin’ either. I think he wants to start a new branch, but I don’t know what.”

“He keeps you out of the decision making?” Grace asks. Jace answers with another shrug.

“Other branches do exist, but they tend to be less successful,” Grace adds.

“I know,” Jace says. “I’ve been lookin’ into them, callin’ some of the ranches that exist, but I think Lyon wants to change the way Dire farms are seen.”

“He’s got quite the task ahead of him if that’s what he truly wants,” Grace replies.

“And that’s why he can’t do it alone,” Jace agrees. “But we’re just startin’ so we’ve got time to figure it out.” Lyon keeps Jace at a distance with decisions so that the younger man doesn’t get attached, doesn’t feel obligated to stay.

“You can pull up to the house and I’ll get your check,” Jace offers.

“I’ll meet you up there,” Grace agrees, strolling back to her truck. Jace watches Lyon for a moment longer, watching as Ikra nuzzles him – a rare show of affection from the male wolf.

Jace jogs back up to the house, the uneven gravel crunching under his feet. Sweat begins to break out on his forehead due to the sun’s glaring heat. He pauses on the porch to catch his breath and wipe the sweat away before entering the house. He rummages through piles of paper on their kitchen table, shaking his head.

How many times do I have to ask him to clean this up? He thinks to himself. The kitchen faucet drips, the water making a small splashing noise every few seconds, almost keeping in time with the ticking of the grandfather clock in their living room. He finally uncovers the check and grabs it, hurrying back outside. The floorboards creak and groan under his feet and the AC starts up with a metallic whirring. Jace takes a moment to enjoy the cold air, almost dreading the heat he’s about to step back into.

“Sorry,” he says as he steps onto the porch with the door creaking. “It was buried under a bunch of papers.” Grace smiles, waving away his apology.

“Not a problem,” she says, taking the offered check. She glances at the amount, nodding as she places it in her pants pocket.

“Breeding isn’t all bad, you know,” she says. “Not everyone treats the Dires like they’re worthless in that branch.”

“We know,” Jace replies. “Lyon’s been taught that most breeders do though.”

“He’s in for quite an awakening,” Grace says. “This world has a lot of curveballs.” Jace nods.

“We’ll figure it out,” he says.

“Never forget that Dires are fiercely loyal once they bond with you,” she says. “They will always be dangerous – they’re wild animals – but there have been very few Dire attacks since humankind has begun using them.” Grace gets in her truck without saying goodbye and makes her way down the driveway, moving faster now that the wolves are out of her trailer. Jace wipes more sweat from his brow, growing impatient.

I’m never going to get used to this heat, he thinks.

“Thanks for paying,” Lyon says, lingering at the bottom of the porch steps. Jace jerks out of his thoughts, grunting.

“Of course,” Jace replies. “I want in on figurin’ out what we’re doin’ with this place.” Lyon opens his mouth to protest, but Jace motions for him to be quiet.

“If I wasn’t serious about stayin’ here long-term then I wouldn’t have insisted on comin’,” Jace continues. “And I’m already attached to the place, even with the heat, so save your breath.” Lyon smirks at him.

“Fine,” he replies. “You can start by telling me what you’ve found out from the other ranches.” Jace’s eyes widen.

“Just like that?” He asks. Lyon nods.

“We’ll know soon enough if you mean it,” he points out. “Let’s start building the meeting corral so we can introduce the Dires.”

Lyon and Jace spend the next four days constructing a new corral spanning the space between Ikra and Luva’s enclosure and Roas and Paoq’s corral. Jace fashions the gates while Lyon cuts the boards and digs holes for the posts, taking frequent breaks to escape the dust that the dirt kicks up. They spend the evenings and early mornings researching other Dire ranches and drawing diagrams of their own ranch to determine the best way to grow and incorporate the thick trees around the land. They visit both pairs of wolves daily, reassuring Luva and Ikra that they are still secure and working to earn the trust of Roas and Paoq. They spend the fourth night sitting in old lawn chairs on the porch to stargaze.

“Training them to be like service dogs could work,” Lyon suggests. Jace laughs, shaking his head.

“People would be terrified,” he says, still laughing. Lyon glares at him.

“They’d be good at it,” he retorts. Jace’s eyes widen.

“We don’t have to create an entirely new branch, Lyon,” he says. “Think about it. You don’t want to send ‘em to wars because it’s a death sentence, but police animals are looked after. Domesticated dogs have limitations that Dires don’t. They’d attack anyone they were directed to and they’d never abandon their handlers. They’re faster, stronger, smarter, and more loyal than modern dogs too.”

“They could work in similar lines too,” Lyon continues, chewing his lip. “Like bomb dogs and stuff. They wouldn’t be mistaken as average dogs either.”

“This generation probably couldn’t,” Jace comments. “Especially not Ikra.” Lyon sighs.

“I know,” he admits. “Maybe Roas and Paoq since they’ve been with humans their whole lives.” A small breeze stirs up and Jace closes his eyes, enjoying the chill that settles over his skin.

“Missing the mountain air?” Lyon asks. Jace nods.

“I don’t know how you stand the heat,” he admits. Lyon lifts his left shoulder in a small shrug. He watches a shooting star plummet through the sky, its tail fading from view faster than it appeared.

“I used to spend the summers out here,” he replies. “Before my parents stopped talking to Mam and Pops. And the mountain air has always been too cold for me – I prefer the drier weather. Winters will be more like home.” Jace reopens his eyes, glancing at Lyon. His Mam had died three years ago, and his Pops died three months before Lyon made the move to the ranch. He had thought about changing the ranch’s name but chose not to in order to honor the memory of his grandparents.

“You miss ‘em?” Jace asks. Lyon’s eyes slide to him, his eyebrows rising.

“Your grandparents,” Jace adds. Lyon nods, his eyes moving back to the darkness.

“I feel them here sometimes. When I’m with Ikra and Luva or when I get out into the woods surrounding the ranch,” he admits. He stands slowly, arching his back as he stretches.

“We should get some rest,” he says. “I want this done tomorrow.” Jace follows him inside.

“Goodnight,” Lyon murmurs, disappearing into his room.

“G’night,” Jace replies.

Lyon gets up early on the fifth day to finish the corral and examine their work, ensuring that it’s of top quality. The sun is hidden by clouds, rain threatening with a steady wind keeping the day cool. Dust swirls around the ranch, though Lyon doesn’t seem to notice, and the wolves spin around and snap their jaws at it playfully.

“It can’t get any better,” Jace says, joining Lyon in the empty corral.

“Something can always be better,” Lyon replies. Jace rolls his eyes.

“You know what I mean,” he retorts. “Are we starting the process today?” Lyon nods.

“When?” Jace asks, noticing that Lyon hasn’t stopped inspecting their work yet. Lyon straightens, gazing up at the sky.

“This afternoon,” he decides. “The rain will have passed by then, hopefully.”

“How do you know it’ll rain?” Jace asks.

“You can smell it,” Lyon replies. Jace sniffs the air, raising his eyebrows.

“All I smell is dirt and wolf,” he says, making Lyon chuckle. “I’m gonna call some places, see if our idea from last night is even plausible.” Lyon nods, already walking away.

Lyon joins Jace inside when the downpour begins. Paoq is the only wolf still outside, prancing around in the rain while the other three wolves seek the dryness of their shelters. The pattering of the rain on the roof seems to calm Lyon as he sits still longer than two minutes for the first time in five days.

“Any luck?” He asks, picking at the sandwich Jace had set in front of him for lunch.

“Bigger stations and organizations expressed interest,” Jace replies. “They’d want a trial first, understandably. Smaller stations weren’t so sure. I think they’d have to see it first.” Lyon nods.

“Understandable,” he says. “It could be a big transition.”

“What do you say?” Jace asks. “Different enough from war, but still purposeful enough?” Lyon grins.

“Definitely,” he says. “Once we get them integrated then we’ll start training.” The rain subsides after a few hours and the men waste no time getting back to work. The previously dusty ground is now muddy. Lyon avoids the puddles as they trudge towards the enclosures, but Jace marches through them without hesitation. Lyon inspects the center corral one last time before deciding it’s ready.

“Ikra and Luva should be put in this corral first,” he says. “It shows that they’re the alphas, so to speak.” Jace nods, following Lyon to the gate attaching to the main enclosure. Lyon unlatches it and opens it wide, motioning for Jace to stand back. Ikra darts into the corral, heading straight towards the other gate. Luva enters slower, pausing to greet the two men before following her brother. Roas and Paoq stand at their gate, whining at the other two wolves. Ikra growls, his tail tucked. Lyon strides over, snapping his fingers.

“Calm, Ikra,” he says, drawing the wolf’s attention to him momentarily. Lyon crouches, reaching his fingertips through the gate to Roas, who licks them. Ikra watches the exchange, his hackles lowering.

“Maybe we should introduce Luva and Paoq first,” Jace says, gesturing to the two female wolves checking each other out from between the fences. “They’re calmer and will be less likely to fight.” Lyon nods, biting his lower lip.

“The boys could get defensive of their sisters,” he thinks out loud. “Or they could see that they get along and follow suit.”

“Exactly,” Jace agrees. “It could speed up the process.”

“Let’s do it,” Lyon decides. He snaps again, directing Ikra back to the main enclosure. He closes the gate firmly before returning to Roas and Paoq’s gate.

“Climb into the corral so that Roas doesn’t force his way in,” Lyon says. “I’ll distract him while you get Paoq in.” Jace nods, following Lyon up and over the fence. They jump to the ground, landing in a small plum of smoke. Paoq trots over to them, her tail wagging and her head cocked to the side. Roas gazes at them, but doesn’t leave the gate, his tail still tucked between his hind legs. Lyon directs him away from the fence before moving his hand with his palm facing out up from his leg to his shoulder. Roas sits and Lyon stretches his hand out, palm facing him directly to instruct him to stay.

“Now, Jace” he says, keeping his voice even. Roas’s ears swivel as Jace opens the gate and Lyon sees him begin to stand, but he steps into the Dire’s main point of view. Lyon growls, forcing Jace’s full attention to him as he coaxes Paoq into the meeting corral. He hears the gate latch and relaxes, stroking Roas and raising both palms at shoulder height to release him. Roas bounds back to the gate, peering at his sister and whining at her.

Lyon climbs the fence and lands a few feet from Luva and Paoq, who stand on either side of Jace. The two females scent the air with unease, their tails tucked. Lyon approaches with caution, staying in a crouch to seem less intimidating. Once he’s close enough, he offers each wolf a palm and strokes each of them when they accept it. Luva takes the first step closer, sniffing Paoq’s neck. Paoq returns the gesture, barking gently. Jace grins, folding his arms.

“Told ya they’d get along,” he says. Lyon rolls his eyes.

“I didn’t doubt you,” he replies. “The boys could still be harder.”

“I’d introduce Luva and Roas first,” Jace says. “If Ikra sees that he doesn’t pose a threat to her then he’ll be less defensive when we bring him in. But I’d introduce him to Paoq before Roas because he’ll still assert his dominance. When she submits to him I think Roas will be more willin’ to recognize Ikra as the leader since this is his territory.” Lyon nods.

“We’ll start that tomorrow,” he agrees. “The girls meeting is probably enough excitement for one day.” Luva and Paoq relax after about five minutes, returning to their normal habits. They interact with each other, the two men, and the male wolves through the fences. Luva approaches Roas through the fence, backing away quickly with a growl as he lunges at the gate. Paoq trots over and barks at him, brushing against Luva’s side reassuringly. Roas stops growling, whining at her for a moment.

When Paoq approaches Ikra he doesn’t growl, but studies her closely. He stays low to the ground, his tail held straight up in the air. He takes in her scent and raises his hackles but goes no further. Paoq whimpers, wagging her tail at him playfully but Ikra turns and trots away. He disappears into the trees, clearly over the new female.

“Maybe we should change our plan,” Lyon observes.

“Maybe,” Jace agrees. They return the females to their enclosures after about twenty minutes and return to the house, sitting down with identical sighs.

“Thank God that went well,” Lyon murmurs.

“I thought it’d be rougher,” Jace admits. “Even with Luva and Paoq.” Lyon nods in agreement, closing his eyes.

“Go home next week, see your family,” he says.

“You sure?” Jace asks, his eyes widening. He thought Lyon had forgotten about that conversation.

“Yes,” Lyon replies. “We’ll be okay here, assuming the boys get along in the next few days.”

“Thank you,” Jace says. Lyon grunts.

“But tell your ‘rents to come to the ranch next time,” he adds with a smirk. Jace rolls his eyes, laughing.

Jace and Lyon introduce Ikra and Roas to each other two days later. Both men wear protective gear, fully aware that the male wolves could get rough and that they’d be in danger if they did. The meetings between Ikra and Paoq and Roas and Luva had gone well so they’re confident that the males will integrate well – hopefully. Ikra begins circling Roas as soon as the gates are closed, his hackles raised. Roas stays close to the ground, his head lowered just slightly. Ikra inches closer, sniffing Roas and bumping him as a small show of dominance.

After a few tense minutes the males calm down, rough housing and chasing each other. Lyon and Jace break up a few minor fights, but it becomes clear that there shouldn’t be any lasting problems. They introduce Roas and Paoq into the main enclosure, smiling as they race around the huge space, sniffing the air as if in a completely new place and urinating on the trees. Paoq and Luva bound around together, yipping and taunting the males once they settle next to the shelter, lounging in the sun. Lyon joins the Dires in their celebrations, stripping off his protective gear as he goes. Roas pins him playfully, though Lyon gets up quickly, knowing that a playful attack can easily become deadly.

Roas begins getting rough with Luva after about twenty minutes, drawing Ikra’s attention. The male beelines towards his sister, already baring his teeth. Luva yips in pain as Roas bites her neck and Ikra lunges, knocking the other male wolf off her. Jace begins to get to his feet, but Lyon is much closer. Luva runs from the skirmish, her tail tucked between her legs, but Lyon doesn’t hesitate to get closer. Roas shoulders Ikra, but the bigger wolf barely budges as he tries to snap at Roas’ throat. The younger wolf scrambles away, his sides heaving. Lyon yells and barks, clapping his hands loudly to draw their attention. Ikra growls at him as he gets too close, but Roas doesn’t acknowledge him.

Jace rushes towards them, noticing that Paoq is also approaching rapidly, her own hackles raised. She snarls at Ikra, but plants herself a few feet away as if to show that she doesn’t intend to attack him. Dust spirals in the air, causing the scene to look almost hazy as Jace rushes forward. He freezes in shock as Lyon places himself between the two males with no protective gear, keeping low to the ground and forcing his body language to stay calm. Ikra eyes him, his long teeth still bared as Roas finally backs off, seeming unwilling to attack the man. Luva bounds between Lyon and Ikra as the wolf takes a step forward, growling at her brother. He stops mid-step, cocking his head to the side. He whines at her, his eyes shifting to Lyon once again. Luva growls again, backing up until her tail is touching Lyon.

Jace shakes himself out of his daze and approaches the fight with caution, his heart beating wildly. Lyon motions for him to stop, standing up slowly. The man’s eyes never leave Ikra as he places a hand on Luva’s back. He approaches Ikra with an outstretched hand, the only sign of his fear the shaking in his fingers. Ikra accepts his scent after a few more tense moments before nuzzling his sister, assuring himself that she isn’t injured. He turns and trots away, brushing past Jace as he goes.

The wolves separate as Lyon checks Roas over silently, his hands still shaking as Jace feels along Luva’s neck. She slinks towards Paoq once he’s done, her fear lingering behind her. Roas disappears into the trees when Lyon finishes, the tension still palpable. Lyon glances at Jace, muttering, “Could have been worse.” Jace scoffs.

“You coulda been ripped to shreds,” he retorts. “What were you thinkin’?”

“I wasn’t,” Lyon admits. “Thank God Ikra didn’t just attack blindly.” Jace and Lyon watch the wolves intently, determined to see signs of more fights before they can happen, but the incident isn’t repeated. Roas, Paoq, and Luva begin playing once more though they’re more careful than before. Lyon joins them once more, laughing and jumping around the wolves. Ikra continues lying near their shelter, watching the others with half-closed eyelids.

Jace eventually settles near Ikra, observing the others as they expend energy. The air cools as the afternoon wears on and flies buzz around them. Lyon plops down beside him, covered in dirt. He lies backwards, staring up at the sky as his breathing calms.

“Think we should leave them together tonight?” He asks, his eyes sliding up to Jace.

“They could start fighting again,” Jace says.

“I don’t think they will,” Lyon replies. “I think Roas realized he was too rough.” Jace hesitates, watching the other man.

“Are you gonna sleep outside if we do?” Jace replies. Lyon shrugs.

“Seems like it’ll be a nice night,” he says. “Might be good to get some fresh air.”

“Like we don’t do that every day,” Jace retorts. “Leave ‘em together.” Lyon makes a makeshift bed near the enclosure, hovering like a worried mother as Jace watches from the porch. He makes a bed of his own next to Lyon’s silently.

“You don’t have to sleep out here,” Lyon says.

“You’ll need help if they fight,” Jace replies, lowering himself onto the hard ground. “Assumin’ I can get off the ground to help.” Lyon laughs, lowering himself onto his own bed.

“Quit whining,” he teases. The night goes by smoothly, the men falling asleep as the wolves howl at the moon and pace their enclosure, the familiarity of their panting soothing.

Hunter Garrison is an alumni from Ball State University. She has work published in Blackberry Winter. When she isn’t writing she’s reading, working, or binge watching Netflix.