In Which I Become a Follower For a While
Bright and early the next morning, we were awake, ready to leave. As we loaded up, I got into a conversation with Francis about last night’s set. “It was great,” I assured her.
“Yeah, your friends seemed to enjoy it.”
“Mm-hmm,” she replied. “I talked to Holly for a while. She’s nice.”
“Yeah, Holly’s great. We’ve been friends for years.” I grinned internally, forcing myself to stop there. I’d never been fond of my best friend’s matchmaking, I wasn’t about to do the same to her.
The address Lana had given us, it turned out, led us straight to a backroad, an abandoned warehouse with illegible graffiti scrawled all over the walls. The huge doors were shut, but the chain around their lock was loose, hanging off one side of the handle. I glanced at Thalia. “Well, should we go for it?”
“Let’s go for it,” she replied.
I nodded, and we exited the car almost in complete unison. We walked, Jason and Vic trailing Thalia and me, to the door. I wrapped my fingers around the handle and slowly, cautiously, pushed the door open. It swung with a loud creak, and I stepped inside. It looked to have been abandoned for years, and the amount of renovation that must have been done was flooring.
It was still full of empty boxes, lined with large pipes, floors covered in dust, but the building had been turned into a group home, a shelter of sorts. The upper floor, which covered about 75% of the lower floor with a wooden staircase leading up to it, had been separated off into many small rooms, and the bottom was no different, except the rooms were larger and further-between. In the center of it all was a common area like the one back at Vicar’s Lot. I got a brief flash of homesickness thinking of the old place.
The drone of voices echoed off the walls, a few lycans mulling about through the rooms. Just by the door, a young black man was lounging on a stack of boxes, one foot up, one hand behind his head, the other holding a months-old issue of National Geographic. I coughed loudly. “Excuse me.”
He looked up abruptly, his many tiny braids tossed by the motion. “Oh, ah, hello,” he stammered, putting down the magazine. “You must be Jac. Lana told me you’d be coming.”
“Yes, that’s me, and these are the friends I talked about. Introduce yourself, friends.”
“My name’s Jason, Jason Kingsley.”
“I’m Thalia, and I’m running from the Defenders, so I prefer to keep my last name secret for the time being.”
Victoria wasn’t answering. I turned my head to look at her, and she was staring, frozen.
The boy was staring too. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but do you happen to have scars right about here, on your left shoulder?” He ran a hand across the area indicated. “I know it’s a personal question, it’s just...you look an awful lot like a girl I used to know.”
Oh no. No way. It totally wasn’t.
Vic’s hand was over her mouth, eyes widened in pure shock. “It can’t be you...can it?”
“I think so,” he answered. “Oh my God, Vic Castle!”
It totally was.
Thalia and Jason, who had no idea what was going on, both looked confusedly at me as the two embraced each other, muttering “Oh my God” and similar exclamations again and again. When she finally let go of him, Vic turned back to us. “Hailee, I think you’ve figured it out by now,” she said. “But for those of you who don’t know, this lovely young man and I are old friends. In fact, he was the one who turned me.” She shot him an affectionate smile.
“I’d like all of you to meet Riley Flanders.”
It didn’t take long for Riley and Vic -- and all of us, really -- to become inseparable. It was like the eight years they’d spent apart didn’t exist; they were thirteen and fifteen again, just two middle school and high school-aged kids, talking and laughing and walking around with arms around each other’s shoulders.
Riley asked me questions upon questions, about where we’d come from, how we knew Vic, did she still do this or that. I answered the questions as accurately as I could, dancing around the exact details of our relationship. In particular, he seemed very interested in knowing if Vic had a mate. I told her she didn’t, that she hadn’t shown an interest in anyone since her breakup with a human kid from town called Kristoff. He looked almost relieved when I told him that, and I couldn’t help grinning widely. For two people who hadn’t been involved, or even seen each other, in almost a decade, it was clear they harbored some pretty strong mutual feelings.
Riley and another, older lycan named Clark got us set up in the abandoned place. Some of the cubicle-like spaces upstairs were empty bedrooms, meant to be stayed in. I was glad we were able to find the place so quickly -- surely Nick and Brent would be relieved to have us out of their basement. Fred and Levi would be waiting about two more days before they finished their investigations and joined us. For reasons mostly to do with my paranoia, we were to keep up the facade that we didn’t know each other.
Having lived in the country my entire life, I wondered what city-dwelling lycans did when they Changed. I got something of an answer when I looked around at the different rooms: many of them, most of them in fact, had heavy locks or even bars on their makeshift doors, and patterns of long scratches on their plywood walls. I made a mental note to inquire about it, especially as the next moon was not far off.
To my surprise, wandering outside about an hour later, I found Vic leaning against the wall, crying softly. “Something wrong, Vic?” I asked, concerned.
She shook her head. “I’m okay. It’s just...it’s a lot to process, that’s all. First my dad, then him, it’s....” She paused, shrugging like she had no idea what to say. “It’s like everything in my past is coming back, and I’m not ready for it.”
“Victoria,” I said, “you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to. Are you angry at Riley?”
She answered very quickly, “No!”
“Are you angry at your father? Still?”
This time, it took her a little longer to answer, and when she did, her voice was trembling. “Maybe. I tried not to think about it much. I....” Vic clenched her fists, slammed them against the warehouse wall. “I hated him, Hailee. God, I hated him so much. What kind of man puts his own daughter’s life on the line like that? But now, I’ve started to wonder if he truly did have my best interest in mind, or at least believed he did. Maybe...maybe I shouldn’t hate him.”
I thought this over. Unfortunately, I’d never been the best at giving personal advice, especially where feelings and relationships were concerned. Usually, though, I spoke what I felt, and that was what I did then. “Vic, I can’t pretend I know what you feel right now, but I can tell you what I think, if you want me to.”
“Yes, I do,” she nodded.
“I think you can love someone without forgetting what they did to you. Maybe you can forgive them, or maybe not, depending on your definition of forgiveness. I think you can resent the ways that someone hurt you without resenting them, wholeheartedly, as a person.”
“Yeah,” she sighed, wiping her eyes. “You may be right.” Hands in her pockets, she sat down on the sidewalk. “Man, I just need some time to think.”
“Okay,” I said, turning my back. “I’ll leave you alone, then.”
So I did, and I didn’t bother her after that.
That night, the warehouse was flooded with people. I looked around, astounded at the size these big-city packs could reach. There must be dozens of lycans, of every race and age I could imagine. They gathered in a wide circle around the building’s center, buzzing to themselves. I felt a few people jostle my shoulder and mumble greetings in my ears, which I acknowledged cordially. When Dark stood up, jumping up the stairs two at a time, they erupted into cheers, and I found myself joining in. I couldn’t say why: it was a momentary reaction, as I got swept up in a kind of camaraderie I’d never been part of before.
I’d spent my entire adolescence being groomed as a leader, and I wouldn’t give that up for anything. I was beginning to realize, though, that there was a certain feeling that came from being part of a group, and I kind of liked it.
Dark turned. “Evening, all!” he shouted.
A jumble of voice answered “Evening!” back.
“I don’t know how many of you know,” he said, “but we gained some new members yesterday.” He waved to us, calling “Jac, you still here?”
“Yes sir!” I yelled.
“Come up here, will you?”
I jumped up the stairs, beckoning for my friends to follow. Facing everyone, I was suddenly nervous, unable to think of anything to say. Fortunately, Thalia jumped ahead of me. “We came from further west, a really small town,” she said, “running from the PDs.” Several people in the crowd murmured to themselves. “I’m Thalia, and this is Jason, and....”
“Jac,” I cut in. “And...uh, is Vic still out?”
Jason shrugged. “Last I saw, she was with Riley.”
“Riley Flanders?” Dark asked.
I replied yes. “They knew each other beforehand. Old friends.” More murmuring answered that.
“How about that,” Dark said. Then he turned to me, a wicked grin on his face. “Of course, if you intend to stay with us, you’ll have to prove yourself.”
“Oh yeah. You’ll need to be initiated.”
“Initiated?” I didn’t exactly like the sound of that.
“Absolutely!” He was still grinning widely, and now Lana had joined him on the staircase. Her grin was even wider and wickeder, almost psychotic from where I was standing. “Lana, if you would introduce our new people?”
“Oh, I will,” she said. That smile was really starting to worry me now.
But it excited me at the same time, and pretty soon, I had a crazy grin of my own. “Let’s do it.” The crowd roared and I followed Lana down the stairs. When I looked back over my shoulder, Dark was gone.
Adam Dark slipped out of the warehouse, walking a few yards down the alley. He ducked behind the huge, rusty dumpster and pulled out his phone. Three missed calls, all from Sam, lit up his screen. He ran his fingers through his hair, stressed, making a mental note to call her...after he made a different call.
The girl’s identity had been obvious to him since the moment she came up to him the night before. Immediately, his mind flew back to the school photo, folded in his shirt pocket, and when she walked away, he’d checked, just to be certain. It was her, alright. Hailee Jackson, teenage Alpha of Three Brothers, Arkansas.
And he’d just welcomed her with open arms.
Adam’s stomach twisted. He leaned against the wall, feeling like he would throw up from the thought of what he was going to do. Lycan values were founded completely on loyalty, trust, relationships. The strength of the pack is the wolf, the strength of the wolf is the pack, as Kipling said. His people would forgive him, he knew that: to them, it would simply seem that she had challenged him and lost. But Jackson would know. He would betray her trust, see the bitterness and betrayal in her eyes.
It was the bitterness in her eyes, even more than the blood on his hands, that would haunt him.
Adam gritted his teeth, pulled out his phone and pushed those thoughts from his mind. It rang, and rang, and rang, until finally, finally, Tyrone picked up. “Mr Dark, hello! Good news? Bad news? News?”
“News.” He paused.
“Well? Spill the beans!”
“She’s here. Jackson. She came around yesterday, asking to join.”
“I knew it!” Adam jumped as Tyrone’s voice escalated to a shout. “I’ll be there tonight.”
“Wait, you mean you’re not here now?”
“Actually, I’m in Birmingham.” Tyrone explained that Adam was hardly the only Alpha he’d made deals with. “We didn’t know exactly where she would go.”
“What? I had to cover my ass.”
But that wasn’t why he groaned. My, how quickly one can lose faith in one’s race. Somehow, it was easier to bear his own weakness if he believed he was the only one. To think that there were others all over the Southeast who’d sold out just like him....
How was it so easy to cajole a supposedly noble being into murder?
“Anyway, I’ll be there by tomorrow morning at the latest,” Tyrone continued, without missing a beat. “You’re doing good, Dark.”
Dark swallowed, forcing down the bitter taste in his throat. “Thank you, sir,” he said through closed teeth, disgusted that he would refer to the director of the Paranormal Defenders of America as sir.
“So, when do you think you’ll...you know...have the job done?”
“Well, it won’t be that easy, Mr Tyrone,” Dark answered. “I don’t know what you had in mind, but I can’t just go in guns blazing and expect no consequences. If this is going to work, I’ll need to exercise some subtlety.”
Tyrone clucked his tongue. “Why so passive-aggressive, Mr Dark?”
“Would you prefer overt aggressiveness, Mr Tyrone?”
“Now, see, I’d prefer no aggressiveness at all, but I understand that isn’t in your nature, so please, carry on.”
If you were here now, you crazy SOB, there would be a street fight. “I’m going to need a few days. To find out what her true intentions are, that sort of thing.”
“Her true intentions, you say?” His smile was almost obvious through the phone. “You think there might be truth to my words after all?”
Adam had been trying not to think about it. Because yes, the more he thought, the more Tyrone seemed right, though he hated to admit it. He was a trusting man, but Hailee Jackson was an Alpha, after all, and quite accomplished and strong for her age -- ambitious, no one could doubt that. The logical part of his mind told him there was no other way this could end.
Adam hung up, not giving Tyrone an answer.
His hands were shaking slightly -- rage, or apprehension, or what, he didn’t know -- he opened the contacts again, and dialed Sam’s number.