The rest of the week passed in agonizing slow-motion. Not only was Kai in my Psychology class, but he was also in Math, English, and History. Oh, and the best part? The rest of Kai and the Three Musketeers were going to school here now, too. Great. Kayla was in English and Anatomy, and Finn was in Math and French with me. Bas wasn’t in any of my classes, but he joined the other Guardians at my lunch table.
Did I forget to mention that?
Drew, Eddie, and Nadia couldn’t stop staring on Wednesday when Kai and the other Guardians just sat down with us at our table, as if they had always been there. Eddie always sat on my left, Nadia in front of me, and Drew on Nadia’s right. Now, Kayla sat on Nadia’s left, Bas on Drew’s right, and Finn right next to Kayla. Oh, and Kai? Yeah, he sat on my right side. I was now squished between two teenage boy werewolves during lunch.
The first time they joined us, I snarled at Kai and said, “What are you doing here?”
He just smirked. “We’re blending,” he said. “And part of blending involves going to school. Bas is a senior, Finn and I are juniors, and Kayla’s a sophomore.”
I threw my fork down in disgust. “I didn’t even know you guys were in high school. How old are all of you, anyway?”
Kai had taken a bite of an apple while I spoke. He swallowed and said, “Well, Bas is turning eighteen in a couple of months. Finn’s seventeen in May, Kayla turned sixteen back in December, and I turned seventeen in January.”
I narrowed my eyes. “And how is it you guys are Guardians again?” I asked.
He shrugged. “We were born into it,” he said. That was it. He left it at that, and proceeded to ask us what teens in this town did “for fun.”
I don’t know why I was so furious. I truly believed that these wolves wanted to help, and I did like them. But being around Kai… I don’t know why, but he set me on edge. It wasn’t in a bad way, necessarily. Just… I don’t know. He was annoying, with his smirky attitude and everything. There were times, though, when I saw a different side of him. It didn’t happen often, and the times I saw it, I thought it was a figment of my imagination. But I couldn’t ignore the dark look in his eyes whenever Dominic or his pack was mentioned, or the way he rubbed his left shoulder every once in a while, as if he was in pain.
On the bright side, the Guardians’ presence put a brief stop to the constant fighting between us and the Wolf Valley Pack. For the first time in seven months, I got at least five hours of sleep for three nights in a row.
Jack and Jadyn returned sometime Friday evening. Deciding to be the first outside of their family to welcome them home, Nadia and I drove over in the Beast, along with her puppy, Delta.
I finally had the chance to meet him on Wednesday after school. I had gone over to Nadia’s house, said hello to her grandmother, and then she introduced me to Delta.
The first time he saw me, Delta barked and lowered his front end, his butt sticking up in the air as he wagged his tail furiously. He whimpered and growled, snarling at me for a moment. I blinked, surprised. Nadia could only stare. Nadia’s grandmother laughed and said, “Are you going to let a puppy challenge you, alpha?”
That’s what he was doing? I laughed, completely stumped, before I smiled at him, showing my sharp, wolf fangs. Instantly, Delta’s entire demeanor changed. He whimpered and crawled over to me on his belly. Once he reached my feet, he rolled over onto his back, exposing his belly to me with his tail tucked between his legs. I crouched and rubbed his belly, assuring him that everything was all right.
Now, we were turning onto the Bryan family’s street. Delta was sitting in my lap, panting happily as the wind from the open window brushed against his face. Nadia parked in front of their house and cut the engine. We climbed out and, after placing Delta on the ground and handing the leash over to Nadia, we made our way up the path leading to the front door.
The Bryans were a family of hunters. They followed the supernatural all across the country, hunting down and killing anything that killed humans. When Dominic came to town, they received a call, and now here they were. They used to have lines of wolfsbane, a flower deadly to werewolves, planted right out front, but after I killed him, they saw no need for it anymore. My wolves and I were friends with Jack, and we were friendly with the rest of the family. And the Wolf Valley Pack? While the Bryans and I were allies, they’d never dream of attacking a family of hunters.
Before either of us had a chance to knock, the door was thrown open. Just like the first time we came here for lessons in martial arts, Jadyn was the one to open the door. Back then, her hair had been dyed black, but now it was a beautiful, dark brown color like her brother’s. She had intense, steel gray eyes, and she constantly wore a smug expression on her face. Unlike before, she had a series of scars and scratches across her neck, chest, and upper arms. An unfortunate run-in with Dominic had nearly cost her life, but she had pulled through.
“Riley Black,” Jadyn drawled. She grinned at me, then Nadia. “And little Nadia, here to welcome me home? How sweet!”
I laughed. “It’s good to see you, Jadyn,” I said. “How was the hunt?”
She shrugged as she stepped aside, letting us in. “We came, we saw, we conquered!” She threw a fist into the air at the statement, her smile growing wider. When she saw Delta, she gasped and crouched to scoop him up. “And who’s this little angel?”
Nadia laughed as well. “That’s Delta,” she said.
“Oh, he’s adorable!” Jadyn gasped, laughing when Delta licked her chin and cheeks. She rubbed his ears roughly before setting him down and standing again.
“The parents are out of town,” she said. “Helping some other hunters track down members of Dominic’s pack, I believe. Little bro is down in the studio.”
“Thanks,” I said. Before I turned away, I added, “I’m glad you got to go out and hunt something.”
She grinned. “You’re only saying that because now I’m not a crab.”
I shrugged. “Only a little.”
She laughed. “See you guys, later.”
We said goodbye, then we made our way down to the basement.
“Basement” was a loose term. Actually, it was the Bryans’ gym and martial arts studio. There were weight lifting and cardio machines, with a series of weapons, both modern and ancient, displayed on the walls. In the center of the room was a dense mat for practicing martial arts, complete with heavy bags for hitting and kicking.
Jack was out on that mat now, barefoot, and wearing sweats and a tank top. He was blasting out multiple series of combos of different techniques, set with kicks, punches, spear hands, palm heels… He was moving so quickly, I could barely keep up with him as I watched and absorbed every technique, filing it away for the future.
“Hail, the conquering hero!” Nadia exclaimed as we approached the mat. Jack stopped mid-kick, holding the extension out as he glanced over at us. He smiled and waved, rechambered his kick, then jogged his way over, picking up his water bottle as he approached.
“Hey, guys,” he said, taking a large sip of water before he continued. “What are you doing here?”
“Just here to welcome you home,” I said, smiling. Shortly after meeting Jack, he had drugged and kidnapped me so that his family could question me. At the time, I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just approach me and be upfront with their questioning. Now, I understood.
After that, mine and Jack’s relationship had started off a little rocky. I didn’t trust him after that, and it wasn’t until I had no choice but to turn for him to help that I started to trust him a little. After he had saved mine and my friend’s lives multiple times, I had no problem with calling him my friend.
He smiled. “Thanks,” he said. “Sorry the parentals couldn’t be here to say ‘hi’.”
I waved a hand dismissively. “No problem,”I said. “Now, why don’t you tell us about the hunt?”
After introducing him to Delta who, unsurprisingly, became instant friends with the hunter, we sat off in a corner of the gym, talking about the last couple of weeks. He described the hunt to us, how citizens in the French Quarter were seemingly possessed and were forced to attack loved ones before killing themselves.
“It wasn’t demons. We ruled that out quickly,” he said with confidence. I shared a look with Nadia. Of course, I thought. Werewolves and mages and the like were real, so why not demons, too?
He continued with how they tracked the behaviors of the victims before their deaths, and what connected them, following all of the leads until they found the witch doctor performing the voodoo spells. After he finished, he gave us a look and said, “So? What about you guys? What else happened while I was gone?”
I finished giving him details about the Guardians, and how their presence seemed to stop the skirmishes between the two packs. Jack nodded and said, “That’s good. It won’t last, but at least we have some breathing room.”
I nodded in agreement. Even though Donovan’s pack wouldn’t openly attack the Bryan family, they still gave the hunters trouble and anguish. After I had finished telling him everything, Nadia proceeded to tell her tale about finding out she was a mage, and the brief magic lessons she had with her grandmother that week.
“They’re just breathing exercises,” she said, “and I want to do more, but it’s still so amazing!”
Jack nodded. “They may seem pointless now,” he said, “but they’ll help you so much later on.”
Nadia nodded, smiling widely. “I know,” she chirped.
After spending more time with Jack, Nadia and I decided to go. She had her magic lessons to attend to, and I needed to catch up on some homework. So, after bidding Jack goodnight, we got up and left.
As I stepped into my house, I was instantly on high alert. Kate was working at the hospital tonight, so there shouldn’t be anyone else here. I inhaled deeply, taking in the scents of my home. Old wood, leather, food from the fridge, wine and whiskey… and campfire smoke with pine and mountain air.
I sighed in exasperation as I climbed the stairs to my room. When I stepped inside, I saw Kai lounging lazily in my circular chair I had set up in the corner of my room.
I crossed my arms and leaned against the door after I had closed it, narrowing my eyes at him. “What are you doing here?” I demanded.
He shrugged. “I wanted to stop by and see how everything’s going,” he said. “How’s your hunter friend?”
“He’s fine,” I said. I started making my way over to my desk, but to do so I had to pass him. As I walked by, he reached out and took hold of my wrist gently.
“That’s good,” he said. “He’s a good ally to have.”
I stared down at his hand, surprised at how he didn’t feel cold to me. Werewolves ran at a higher temperature than humans did, and ever since turning, I usually tried to avoid touching other people because they felt too cold. Then I realized that he didn’t feel cold because his temperature was closer to mine.
His touch sent a tingle up my arm, through my shoulder, and into the rest of my body. I shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold.
“Why else are you here?” I asked. With surprisingly great effort, I pulled my hand away from him. I hurried over to my desk, lowering myself into my chair. I pulled one knee up to my chest, hugging it close to me as I stared at him. He wore jeans, boots, and the same dark gray hoodie from before.
He smirked. “You’re intriguing,” he said. “And, because I’m a glutton for punishment.”
I had to laugh at that. “I’m kind of the same way,” I said.
His smirk changed to a happy, relaxed smile. After a moment of staring at each other, he cleared his throat and said, “So, you live with your aunt? Where are your parents?”
At the mention of my parents, my heart sank. I frowned, trying to figure out how to word my answer. Living in a small town like Wolf Valley, when something major happens like a car crash killing both people in one of the cars… well, everyone knew about it, and they all knew about poor little orphan Riley. I’ve never had to explain my situation to someone before.
“My parents are, uh… they’re dead.” I shut my eyes and said, “They died last summer in a car crash. My aunt moved in with me so that I didn’t have to leave Wolf Valley.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. I opened my eyes to see that he was now leaning forward, resting his forearms on his knees. He stared at the floor as he said, “My parents are both dead, too. Some hunters, the ‘kills for thrills’ kind, tracked them down when I was a pup. Guardians are hard to kill, and these guys… they were merciless.”
His chest was heaving as he spoke, and instantly, I could feel his pain as my own. I instantly felt a connection to him then, one shared in the loss of parents. I cleared my throat and said, “How old were you?”
He exhaled sharply, halfway between a chuckle and a sigh. Finally, he lowered his head as he whispered, “Seven. I was only seven…”
I felt a strange pull in my chest, and before I had made any conscious decision, I had risen to my feet and slowly made my way over to him. I crouched in front of him, and he looked up at me. His eyes glowed, chest heaving as he struggled to hold back the tears I knew lay just below the surface. I knew that kind of pain. I lost count of the number of nights I had forced myself to not cry, to try and keep it together after my parents died.
His hands were clasped before him, shaking with the force of his grip. I placed my hands on top of his, and something in him seemed to break. He released a single, choking sob, then the next thing I knew, we had our arms wrapped around each other in a tight embrace. I have no idea who hugged who first, or if we both did it at the same time. All I knew was that we were holding each other together, faces buried in each other’s necks. Something wet hit my skin, and I realized he was crying.
For the first time since my parents died, I allowed myself to break apart. I sobbed into him, and while I held him together, he held me together, too.