Ollie loved his nieces and nephews so, when Cade and Hunter asked him to watch their litter while they went up north to visit Oscar and Max, he jumped at the chance to spend time with them. Of course, caring for five toddlers with only one pair of hands was near impossible so he roped a grumbling Davyn in to help.
They managed to get them all into their beds and asleep by nine pm, and Ollie was taking a well-earned rest on the couch, reading a romance novel. He was just getting to the good part when he heard a cry from the nursery. Putting the book down, he sprinted into the other room, hoping to quiet the fussy toddler before they woke the others up.
It was Brody, his little alpha nephew. His face was red and scrunched into a deep frown, and his back was arched.
“Shh, Brody. It’s okay. I’m here,” he soothed, reaching down to rub the toddler’s tummy. Wow, Brody was warm. Really warm. Concerned, he lifted him into his arms, finding his little body soaked with sweat. That wasn’t right.
He carried him out into the living room, setting him down on the couch and removing the damp clothing. There was an odd rash across Brody’s body, patches of raised, discolored skin.
“Let’s see if we can’t get you cooled down,” Ollie murmured, brushing a hand across Brody’s forehead as he tried to hide his worry from the little one. When he’d put him down to sleep, a few hours previously, the little bear had seemed fine. A little out of sorts, maybe, but so were all the kids when their parents were away.
Brody’s eyes opened, and he let out a soft sob. Ollie lifted him into his arms, resting his head against his shoulder.
“That’s it, I’m here. You’ll be okay.”
Fumbling for his cell phone, he called Jensen, the den’s doctor. Liam answered the phone instead, his voice a whisper.
“Hey, Ollie. Sorry, we just got the last of the babies to sleep.”
Ollie winced, hoping he hadn’t woken them.
“I’m sorry to call so late… something’s wrong with Brody. He has a fever, he’s drenched in sweat, and there’s this weird rash. I know we get sick sometimes, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
There was a murmur of voices on the other end of the line, then Liam came back on. “Jensen’s on his way to you. He’ll be there in a minute or two.”
The worry Ollie felt was reflected in Liam’s voice. Something wasn’t right here.
“Thanks, Liam. Goodnight.”
There was a knock on the door not three minutes later, and it opened to reveal Jensen. The alpha hurried in, setting his bag down on the table.
“Thanks for coming, Jensen. I didn’t know what to think when I saw him.”
Ollie laid Brody back down on the couch and moved out of the way to let Jensen examine the toddler.
“I see what you mean about the fever. He’s radiating heat.”
“And the rash?”
Jensen looked it over, a frown on his face.
“I’m not entirely sure. I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s almost a pattern to it. Was Brody outside today?”
“Yeah, Davyn and I had all of them out in the garden.”
Letting them roam about, shift, and play was the best way to tire them out.
“Anywhere else? Was he exposed to any plants?”
“He was playing in the grass and among the flower beds, but so were all of the kids. He’s the only sick one, so far anyway.”
Jensen took Brody’s temperature, his frown deepening as he looked at the thermometer.
“One-oh-three. That’s high for a shifter kid. I’ll give him some medication to bring it down.”
Jensen reached for his bag, pulling out a bottle of liquid.
“What do you think it is?”
“I can’t be certain just yet. With the rash and the fever, maybe some kind of viral illness or something he was exposed to. I’ll go in and check the other kids, just in case. See if you can get him to take two spoonfuls of this.”
Jensen stepped into the nursery while Ollie readied for the battle he knew would come with trying to get Brody to swallow the medicine.
By the time Jensen returned, the medicine had been taken, and a grumpy, tearful Brody was sitting on Ollie’s lap as he rocked him gently.
“The others seem fine,” Jensen said, “which makes this even stranger.”
He crouched next to the couch, watching Brody with worried eyes. “I don’t like this.”
Ollie sensed there was something the alpha was holding back.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
Jensen shook his head. “It’s probably nothing.”
“But…” Ollie prompted.
“The rash… I’m not sure that’s what it is. It reminds me of Liam’s mating mark when he first got it.”
“But it can’t be a mating mark. Brody’s just a toddler and an alpha at that.”
“I know. I’m not saying it is a mating mark, I’m saying that it shares the characteristics of one. It’s slightly raised, tender to touch, has defined edges, and a pattern. I don’t think this is some human illness he’s picked up. I think it’s something from the shifter world.”
Ollie was silent for a long moment, contemplating what Jensen was saying.
“Are there… shifter illnesses? Stuff we get that humans don’t?”
“This would be the first I’ve heard of one, aside from isolation sickness in omegas.”
“So, if it’s not an illness, what is it?”
The alpha looked lost. “I have no idea.”
“I should call Cade and Hunter. We need them to come home.”
Jensen agreed. “It would be for the best. Until we know what this is, we have to assume the others will catch it. We’ll need to quarantine them, prevent it spreading.”
“I’ll put Brody to sleep in the spare room and call Davyn over to look after the others.”
Half an hour later, a restless Brody was lying in a fold-out cot in the spare room, Ollie perched on the bed next to him, watching him trying to sleep. He could hear Davyn outside, keeping an ear out on the nursery. He’d called Cade, and he and Hunter were on their way home. They’d be there by morning.
As he watched his nephew, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was really wrong. Brody was the strongest of Cade and Hunter’s litter. A bear. An alpha. For him to be so sick while the others were fine just didn’t make sense. And if it was some kind of shifter illness, how did they treat it? How did they make Brody better?
It was dark as Cade and Hunter drove across the bridge, leaving the northern den behind. In the rearview mirror, Cade could see Max and Oscar watching them leave. The darkness and gloom matched his mood. The call from Ollie had been so unexpected, his news even more so.
“Brody will be okay,” Hunter said suddenly, breaking the silence. “He’s strong. He’s a survivor.”
“I just don’t understand what could be making him sick. We’re shifters. This isn’t supposed to happen. And that rash Ollie sent us a photo of…”
He trailed off, not knowing what to say.
“I think Jensen’s right. It looks a lot like your mating mark did when you first got it.”
“We know it’s not a mating mark,” Cade replied, strumming his fingers against the car door.
“But it does suggest a shifter origin for Brody’s illness.”
“I’ve never heard of a shifter illness. Have you?”
Hunter gave him a sideways glance before answering quietly.
“Actually, we both have. You were sick when we first met, remember?”
Cade closed his eyes with a sigh. How could he have forgotten?
“The isolation sickness, yeah. Do you think that’s what Brody has? He’s not an omega. He hasn’t been alone, not for a minute. And I never had a rash.”
“No, I think this is something different. I’m just saying that we’ve dealt with shifter illness before. And maybe we don’t know what this is, but someone out there does. We’ll get answers.”
Cade swallowed his next questions. What if they were too late? What if Brody got worse? What if they couldn’t find help in time?
Hunter’s hand found his, squeezing gently for a moment before letting go.
“It’s going to be okay. We aren’t alone in this. But we have to be strong, for Brody and the others. This could be a long road.”
They were already on a long road, trying to reunite packs, remake alliances, and bring the shifter world together. There were forces out there that threatened that. This was different. This was their son, their family. A threat from within. And Cade wasn’t sure he was strong enough to weather what was coming.