Joe sang along to the radio as he drove to Hilltop. It would be his first time staying there for longer than a night or two, but since they had a litter due in a matter of weeks, they needed someone on hand and Joe was it. He kind of wished he wasn’t though. They weren’t the friendliest of people. At least, that had been his experience the last time he’d visited with Jensen. If only Axel was free to come with him, but the alpha was stuck at the Weir, trying to smooth things over so that they could be reunited.
Thinking about Axel made him happy. The alpha had done what he’d promised, returning to the Weir, and laying down an ultimatum; if they wanted Axel to stay, to be the next alpha, then they’d have to accept that Joe was his mate. If not, Axel would be leaving, permanently.
Joe would have liked to have been there to see Shane’s face when Axel laid down the law. He’d seen the alpha angry before but could only imagine he had been near apoplectic with rage, face purple as he struggled to contain his anger.
As he turned off onto the winding road that led up to Hilltop, he slowed down. Jensen had advised he take the hill carefully since it wasn’t unusual for the shifters who lived there to be in animal form in the surrounding forest. They, and the children especially, didn’t have the best road sense. As he took a particularly sharp turn, he caught a glimpse of something moving and slowed. It wasn’t someone in shifter form like he’d expected. Whoever they were, they looked human. It was their blond hair that had caught his attention and, as he watched, it reappeared then disappeared. Were they walking back and forth? Curiosity got the better of Joe, and he stopped the car and got out.
“Hi, I’m Kai, I’m an omega, and I—” He stopped, shaking his head in frustration. “As if they couldn’t tell what I was. Hello, my name is Kai and I’m looking for a …ugh.”
Pacing across the forest floor, he tried to pull himself together. He knew what he wanted to say, he just wasn’t sure how they were going to take it.
Taking a deep breath, he started again, pacing forward. “Hi, I’m an omega and—” His foot slipped from under him and he fell backward, landing flat on his back.
The voice startled him, and he raised his head, looking up to see a man standing on the road above.
“Are you okay?” the stranger called down.
“Um, yeah,” he managed to stammer out, clambering to his feet. “I’m fine.”
The other man, a shifter, watched him for a moment before climbing down the bank to the forest floor where Kai was standing.
“I’m Joe, I’m from River Den, here to help deliver Heath and Nate’s litter.” He spoke as if his words should mean something to Kai.
“I’m Kai,” he offered cautiously, wondering how to explain why he was there.
“I thought I’d met all the omegas in Hilltop on my last visit,” Joe said to him.
“Uh… I’m not… I mean, I just got here.” That only seemed to pique the other man’s curiosity.
“Oh, Julian didn’t mention anything about a new arrival. How are you settling in?”
Kai stumbled awkwardly over his words. “Well, I… just got here. I haven’t even gotten as far as the gate.”
Joe did a double take. “Oh, you meant that literally. What are you doing down here?”
He shrugged, feeling his face heat. “I was just trying to work out how… how to…”
“How to what?” Joe seemed genuinely mystified which didn’t bode well for Kai.
“I heard that Hilltop takes omega in when they don’t have any place else to go.”
Joe broke into a smile. “That’s right. They do.” His smile faded. “But they can be a bit… funny about it. Why don’t you come with me? I’ll get you through the gate and we can talk to Julian, he’s in charge. How does that sound?”
Kai grinned. “That sounds great. I wasn’t sure they’d let me in or if they even took in omega anymore. It’s taken me days to get here, and I’ve run out of food and…”
Joe chuckled, and Kai slowed his babbling and swallowed. “Sorry, I talk when I’m nervous.”
“Me, too. Come on, you’ll stop feeling nervous once you’ve got a foot in the door. They’re nice people, and Hilltop is a good place, a safe place.”
Kai wasn’t sure why the emphasis on safe, but he was just happy he had someone to show him what to do and didn’t have to rely on fumbling his way through it and probably not getting past the front gate.
They climbed up the embankment and onto the road where a car was idling.
“Hop in,” Joe said, climbing into the driver’s seat. Kai quickly wiped a few stray leaves from his clothes and got in the passenger side. They drove slowly up the hill, giving Kai plenty of time to appreciate the view. Hilltop looked imposing from this angle, tall wooden fences surrounding it with no buildings in sight.
Something of his apprehension must have shown on his face.
“Don’t look so worried,” Joe said. “It’s not as scary as it looks once you’re inside.”
“Will they let me back out again?”
The beta snorted. “Of course. People come and go all the time.”
They slowed to a stop in front of the gate, and Joe wound down his window, sticking his head out and waving at the man standing guard.
“Hi Damian, how’s it going?”
Joe’s casual attitude was met by a curt response. “Julian said you were coming alone.”
His curtness didn’t faze the beta who merely shrugged. “Plans change. Do you want a midwife here or not?”
Damian grumbled something under his breath, but a few seconds later the gates opened, and Joe drove in.
“That was the hardest part. Damian doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s not a people person. So, of course, the den likes to make sure he’s the first person you meet when you get here.”
“Will he be mad when he realizes I’m not with you?”
“It’s not up to him, it’s up to the den’s leader and that’s Julian.”
“Will Julian be mad?”
“You’re the reason places like this exist. To give you a home. He can’t be mad about that.”
Somewhat reassured, Kai followed Joe from the car and around a set of buildings. The door of one of them opened, a man stepping quickly across the courtyard.
“Julian!” Joe called, waving. Kai paused in confusion. He’d assumed Julian was an alpha, but he didn’t feel like an alpha. Kai’s experience was limited though, so he wasn’t sure if he was just reading the man wrong.
Julian turned. He didn’t look pleased to see them but crossed the courtyard toward them.
“One, Jensen said. Not two. Where am I going to put two of you?”
Joe spoke as if Julian hadn’t.
“This is Kai, I met him on his way up the road. An omega looking for a new home.”
So saying, Joe put a hand on the small of Kai’s back and pushed him forward a foot.
Julian looked him up and down.
“I wasn’t informed of a new arrival.”
“He came in with me, in the car. I met him halfway up the path.”
Kai was glad Joe didn’t mention that he’d found him pacing in the forest, talking to himself. He wasn’t sure it would give the right impression.
“Then perhaps he’s River Den’s responsibility and not ours.”
Julian’s reply was testy, and Kai watched with wide eyes as Joe stepped forward, his shoulders squared. “How is that, exactly? He’s an omega, arrived at your doorstep.”
“He arrived in your car, and it could be argued that a vehicle is an extension of the den. Therefore, he was on your den land before he set foot in ours.”
Kai struggled to follow Julian’s logic. Joe’s next words proved he clearly agreed that it didn’t add up. “That’s ridiculous. And not the agreement you and River Den have.”
Julian held up his hands. “We don’t have room and that’s a fact. I’ll discuss this with Jensen.”
He glanced at Kai, finally. “You’ll stay here for now. I’ll have to find you somewhere to sleep. Even the guest house is full.”
“Where am I staying?” Joe asked.
“The room in the clinic, of course.”
“Then Kai can bunk in with me.”
Julian didn’t seem impressed by that, either.
“He’ll have to sleep on the floor.”
“I don’t mind,” Kai threw in quickly. “I’ve been sleeping on the forest floor for five nights straight. A regular floor sounds like heaven in comparison.”
Julian’s eyes found him again, and the man sighed like Kai was a terrible disappointment. Not for the first time, Kai wondered if he’d made a mistake in coming there.
Joe threw an arm around his shoulders.
“There, that’s settled. Come on, I’ll show you around. See you later, Julian.”