Vessel

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Twelve

The three of them stand in an awkward silence – Joey and Andrew looking like they’ve been caught redhanded and Valerie looking quite calm and not as spiteful as Joey imagined she would be. Joey can’t look too long at her sister, but looking at Andrew makes her feel guilty. So, her head’s on a swivel. Valerie’s only looking at her. Andrew’s only looking at her.

Great, it’s her move.

“Uh… h-hi,” she offers.

Valerie’s eyes glance at Andrew just as he quickly looks at her. When she looks back at Joey, she still seems calm. “Can we talk?”

Joey’s inhale is loud. Louder than she would have liked it to be. Her hands start to shake a bit and she shifts her weight between legs, looking concernedly at her sister and helplessly at Andrew. She’s 18 and in a room with two 28-year-olds and they expect her to be making the big decisions here? Really?

“I’ll give you two some space,” Andrew says, thank God. “I’m gonna go for a run. Just let me know if you need me, otherwise I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Joey nods before he starts awkwardly approaching Valerie to get to the door. She steps aside when she realizes and they both go stiff when they’re within a few feet of each other. The tension and awkwardness is thick. They can barely look at each other but they do. Only for a second. It breaks Joey’s heart. She did that to them. Andrew gives her one last look before leaving the room and her sight, right before a tear falls down her cheek.

Valerie’s eyes widen when she sees it and takes a breath to call Andrew back, but Joey panics and throws her finger up to her lips to stop her. She shakes her head, begging her sister to stay quiet until they hear the front door open and close. Joey whimpers then and Valerie shuts her bedroom door.

“Why are you crying?” She says with genuine concern. She walks right up to Joey and gently wipes her cheeks for her.

“Because I did that,” Joey gestures to where the awkward tension just took place. “And I get if you hate me, but I’m sorry. I didn’t want this to happen. I ruined your life.”

Valerie tilts her head. “You kinda did.”

Joey’s shocked, but then her sister smiles softly.

“But I could never.. ever hate you. Not in a million years. Come sit.”

She turns Joey around and they lower themselves onto her bed, maneuvering so they both have their backs against the headboard and their legs outstretched in front of them.

“Joey,” Valerie starts. “I always knew there was a chance Andrew and I would have to break up. We may have waited this long to jump on getting married, but we always told each other, no matter what, no matter when, even if we were married and we were Alpha and Luna, if we met our mate we’d have to end what we had. I would lie awake at night picturing some caked up blonde coming along and taking him from me, or a rich little daddy’s girl, or a spoiled self-obsessed brat, or a–”

“Okay, Val,” Joey chuckles as she wipes her eyes.

“I never thought it would be you. My own sister. It did hurt at first. It still does. Maybe even more than if it was someone I didn’t know. Maybe less, I’m honestly not that sure. But what I do know, is that you’re nothing like the horrible people I thought he’d be too good to end up with. You’re sweet, and pure, and you’re too good for him. And I hope you never let him forget that.”

Joey takes a deep breath.

“This will sting for a really long time. I mean, unless I find my mate, like, tomorrow which would be great. But chances are, I’m gonna have a hard time. But I’m gonna come home, I’m gonna talk to you and laugh with you every day, and I’m gonna be the most supportive big sister you can imagine. Because I love you, and you’re more important to me than a relationship we both knew was never 100% certain. Okay?”

She rolls her lips in and blinks away as many tears as she can. “Okay.”

“Don’t ever think you’re a burden. I don’t want you to feel like that. You’re a beautiful young woman who deserves happiness and success. And if anything, this very unique, very weird, very awkward situation has brought me some peace knowing that you’ll have a strong, protective mate by your side. I know Andrew better than anyone… well, for the time being at least.”

Joey can’t help but laugh softly and blush.

“I can tell when he’s passionate about something. I can tell when he cares deeply about something. I can tell when he’s full of love. I see all that now when he’s with you.”

“I’m really sorry, Val,” Joey says quietly. Her sister gives her a pointed look. “Okay, not about my part, but just… that it didn’t work out with you two.”

Valerie shrugs. “Like I said, we both knew it could end at any time. I’ll find my mate one day.”

“Yeah,” Joey smiles, leaning her head on her shoulder.

“So, what’s it like?”

“Other than the guilt and fear?”

“Yeah, you can leave that part out.”

“It’s amazing,” she sighs with a smile. “You feel your love for them and their love for you. You feel, like, complete, without ever having felt otherwise before. You can feel the sincerity behind their words. You feel like you have a permanent source of strength and support and protection.”

Valerie’s breath defies her and she can’t help but exhale sadly. Joey stops talking and looks up to see her sister’s red eyes.

“Hey,” she says softly. “Waiting longer means it’ll be better, I’m sure of it. And just so you know, everything Andrew said in his speech today about you, he meant it. You mean a lot to him, and it’s obvious he still wants you to be a constant in his life.”

She purses her lips. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. Plus, you and I are a package deal. It wouldn’t work out between him and I if he didn’t want you there.”

“Package deal, huh?” She smirks.

“Hell yeah.”

Valerie laughs and turns onto her side to hug her sister. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

They stay like that for a while before heading downstairs and grabbing junk food to bring back up. Joey’s Nutella is still there, but Valerie needs her peanut butter and they’re both craving chips. Joey takes a second to let Andrew know that they’re okay, and he tells her he’s going to finish his run and head to his place so they can have the night to themselves.

As Joey and Valerie catch up and Joey tells her about her recovery after her attack, their parents return from the meeting happy to find their oldest daughter has come home. They go off and do their own thing so the two sisters can continue talking.

“So what are you doing tonight? Plans with Andrew or can we have a movie marathon?”

“Actually, Dina should be here soon. But hang out with us.”

“Sure, I’m not the token cool sister for nothing. I–”

Joey waits for Valerie to finish speaking, but she doesn’t. Instead, her body goes stiff. Joey looks up from the chip bag and sees her sister’s wide eyes on the window with a serious look on her face. “What? What’s wrong?”

Immediately after she asks, she hears a piercing scream from outside that lasts for about five seconds. It’s followed by an eerie silence.

She sits up and stares out the window like her sister, breaths shallow.

Joey–!

Another scream pierces the air right after she hears Dina call to her in clear distress. She shudders in fear and throws herself off the bed, running straight for her door.

“Joey!” Valerie calls, running after her.

“It’s Dina!” She cries, hurrying down the stairs. She forgets about shoes and a jacket, just throwing the front door open and sprinting around her house and toward the forest. She hates not being able to hear anything and there hasn’t been another scream since the last one, but she heard Dina through the mindlink and she knows she’s in trouble. She’s not turning back.

She can tell Valerie’s close behind her. She wonders what she heard before Dina screamed. She can’t ask, though, because she’s only focused on finding her friend.

“Dina!” She yells. There’s no response but she keeps running. “Dina!”

Her head turns left and right, her body slowing down just a bit so she can look around her. She catches sight of a familiar dark brown wolf to her left. As soon as she sees him, he looks over his shoulder at her. It’s Andrew, standing over something. She freezes and looks down at the ground in front of him. Her distance doesn’t allow her to see much other than a shoe, but that’s enough to worry her and get her running full speed again.

Andrew turns and starts running toward her, shifting at the last second to grab her shoulders and stop her from getting any closer to where he was.

“Joey, Joey stop–”

“I heard Dina,” she says breathlessly, panicked. “That was her screaming, she mindlinked me.”

“Joey, I need you to turn around and stay with Valerie.” His face isn’t serious – it’s scared.

Valerie catches up then, and holds Joey in place like Andrew. The younger girl fights against both of them, trying to see over Andrew’s shoulder. She gets a quick glance of a body and more adrenaline kicks in. She starts shoving their hands off of her and pushing Andrew as hard as she can.

“Joey, please, please, please,” Andrew begs. “Please turn around.”

She sobs, fear stricken, and screams in frustration while she pounds down on Andrew’s arms and chest. She’s finally able to shuffle out from between him and Valerie and she stumbles away until she’s forced to freeze at the sight before her.

Tyler is lying face up on the fallen leaves, face slacken and eyes staring at the sky. Joey feels her chest constrict when she realizes he’s dead. Tyler’s dead. Their future Beta is dead. Andrew’s best friend is dead. His navy blue hoodie and black jeans are completely free of blood, and Joey helplessly observes him trying to figure out what happened. Then she looks more closely at his head.

Her hand flies to her mouth in shock at the dark black boils in the sides of his face. It looks like his dark skin has been charred. There’s no blood or pink flesh, just black bubbles on his skin – some have even popped and left thin, loose, half-connected black skin. She feels her stomach churn and she has to look away, but she ends up looking right at Dina.

“No,” she sobs, almost tripping over her feet to throw herself onto her knees beside her best friend. Dina’s also on her back, head turned toward Joey and face permanently painted in shock. She has the same black boils on the sides of her face but Joey refuses to believe she’s suffered the same fate. “No, Dina.”

She begins to throw herself forward to grab her friend and shake her back to life but Andrew gets to her before she can, wrapping his arms around her from the back. “Don’t, don’t, she’s burning, Joey.”

She fights against him but sure enough, she notices a subtle steam rising from the sides of her face. Her cheeks, her temples, her ears – everywhere the black boils touch. She looks over at Tyler and has to focus as he’s further away, but there’s steam coming from him as well.

“Dina,” she turns back to her friend and shakes her head. “No. No, you’re not dead.”

“Joey,” Valerie whispers from above them.

She fights her way out of Andrew’s hold and can only brush her fingertips over Dina’s left arm before she’s being moved away. “NO! DINA!”

She tries to fight him again, screaming to be let go, for Dina to wake up, but Andrew has too tight a hold on her now. When she’s tried as hard as she could and her body doesn’t have any fight left, she sulks back against Andrew’s chest and just cries as loudly as she can.

She cries and screams even as Alpha Charles appears flanked by patrols and Beta Jeremy. Her cries are then no match for the man who sees both of his children lying dead before him. He falls by Dina first, reaching out to turn her head toward him but flinching back in pain as soon as he touches her skin. He looks from his hands to her face in horror.

“What is this?” He cries.

“I heard Tyler first,” Andrew says, as he holds Joey. “I heard him yell for her to run. Then she screamed. By the time I got here they were gone, and I couldn’t find anybody else.”

“How did this happen?” Beta Jeremy whispers, looking down at his daughter and then over at his son. He sobs. “My children.”

“Find Beta Jeremy’s mate,” Alpha Charles says quietly to a nearby warrior. “Bring her straight here.”

“Yes, Alpha,” the man obeys, shifts, and runs off in the direction they all came.

It’s only then that Joey notices all their faces. Beta Jeremy, of course, is nothing but heartbroken. The warriors behind him survey the scene with curious and unsure eyes. Alpha Charles, however, looks like he’s seen a ghost. He looks between Dina and Tyler’s bodies with wide and unbelieving eyes. He’s scared of something. When Joey involuntarily hiccups, he looks right at her.

“Joey,” he breathes, rounding the bodies and then crouching down beside her and Andrew. “I need you to do something.”

Andrew tightens his hold on her. “Dad, leave her alone.”

“This is serious, this is life or death.”

“Dad–”

“What do you need?” Joey croaks.

Alpha Charles turns to the warriors standing around them. “All of you, back to your posts.”

“Shouldn’t we be going after whoever did this?”

“You heard what I said. Now.”

They all nod without a second thought, shift and run off in their own directions. When they’re gone, Alpha Charles looks up and over Andrew.

“You should go, too, Valerie.”

“With all due respect, Alpha, I’m staying with my little sister.”

He sighs but nods. He holds his hand out for Joey to take and she hesitantly does. Andrew reluctantly lets go of her while his father pulls Joey to her feet. He takes her closer to Dina’s body and her breaths get heavy.

“Joey, I need you to place your hand on the burns.”

“What?” Andrew shoots to his feet.

“Just trust me,” Alpha Charles remains looking at her.

“Joey, you don’t have to do anything he says.”

“Listen to me, Josephine. I know Dina was your best friend, and I know under the initial heartache I’m sure you’re feeling, you want her killer taken down. You do this, and we may have a chance to do just that.”

She looks at him in confusion. What does this have to do with her touching Dina’s burns? She continues staring at him, waiting for him to falter or back down. He doesn’t. He’s sure about this. She looks away from him and down at her friend, locking her jaw and swallowing down the feeling of disrespecting her peace. If Alpha Charles says this can help bring Dina and Tyler’s murderer to justice, she’ll do it.

She lowers herself onto her knees, Beta Jeremy watching her closely from his spot on the other side of Dina. Joey looks down at her friend’s face and feels tears brimming her eyes. She watches the steam rise from her skin. She thinks of the pain and horror Beta Jeremy experienced when he touched his daughter. With that, she takes a deep breath and reaches her left hand out and softly places it down over her cheek.

She stares with wide eyes at her hand over her friend’s face – over the black burns. She feels nothing. No shock, no pain, no heat. Absolutely nothing. Alpha Charles exhales above her.

“Charles,” Beta Jeremy breathes. “What is this?”

All four of them look at their Alpha from where they are, but he has his eyes glued to Joey’s hand. “I thought it was a myth.”

“What?” Andrew presses.

“They’re here.”

“Who?” Valerie asks.

Alpha Charles takes his eyes off of Joey’s hand and turns to look his son dead in the eye, suddenly, appearing fearful. “The Argenti.”

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xx

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