Chapter 22 - Affirmations of Love
Now that is how a Queen should act.
My entire life, I have acted as a faithful Hunter for the Collins Royal Clan yet I have never witnessed power and conviction like Ray had just demonstrated. My father and grandfather were Hunters within the Blade Clan before me, so I knew my place in this world. I even fully embraced my high ranking and sometimes go out of my way to demand the respect that I have always been taught to expect. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t see the blatant racism and classism that plagues our Kingdom. I fully understand that our Royals are doing our Territory no favors by encouraging such beliefs and I know that the Collins Line is starting to lose the respect of their subjects.
As I stood in the wreckage at the airfield, I couldn’t help comparing Ray to Queen Florence and Princess Regina. When Ray had spent time with our clan at the park, I had found her to be down to Earth enough to be approachable yet undeniably powerful. It was a little hard to connect the powerful woman who had just beheaded the hated King of Russia with the playful teenager that played tag with our kids, but I had seen both with my own eyes.
Instead of demanding my respect, Ray earned it.
I knew it was a treasonous thought, but I couldn’t help wondering what our lives would be like if Ray rose to power.
-Noland Smith, Hunter of the Blade Clan
When I woke up, it felt like my eyelashes were glued together. I reached up and rubbed my eyes with my hands to find that they were crusty from dried tears. Once I was finally able to tear my eyelids apart, I looked around and saw that I was in my bed at the rent house and it was dark. I must have passed out after my breakdown and now it was sometime in the middle of the night. A movement against my right side caught my attention and I looked over to find Amy tucked into my front.
Seeing her sweet, innocent face relaxed in sleep made my heart squeeze. An echo of the panic I had felt when she overdosed flitted through me and I gently swept her hair away from her face. Amy was just a little girl and didn’t know how to deal with what had happened to her. I hadn’t been there for her. Right now I should be comforting her, not the other way around. I was going to do better. We were going to give her all of the support, understanding, and help that she needed to come to terms with her trauma. Amy was going to make it through this.
Jack was fast asleep on the other side of Amy with an arm slung across us both. I took a moment to study my best friend’s face. Jack had deep circles under his eyes and his skin looked pale. I thought back to everything that had changed between us since the Three Musketeers found me at school and a wave of sadness crashed over me. The bond between a Valkyrie and their chosen protected was unlike anything else that I have ever felt before. Jack and Amy were more than just my friends. I had a soul-deep need to protect them. To care for them. To love them.
If I ever had children, I assumed I would feel a similar unconditional love for them.
But we had all been through a lot in the last three weeks. Our bond was being tested. I still felt a little betrayed by Jack. I knew that he hadn’t done it maliciously, but I still found it hard to believe that he had fooled around with the guy that I was interested in. That action just didn’t fit into the unwavering support that Jack has always given me in the past. As I studied his strong features, I tried to put myself in his shoes and understand why he had done what he did.
Before I met the Oakland Clan, my world had been pretty small. I went to school, I worked at Polly’s, and I hung out with Jack and Amy. Maybe Jack was lashing out at me because I had discovered another facet of my life and I was still figuring out how to balance everything. I knew that he didn’t like that I was keeping secrets from him. Maybe the way he treated me when Amy was in the hospital was because he was giving me a dose of my own medicine by refusing to communicate with me.
I don’t think I realized how much I needed Jack and Amy in my life until I walked in the front door and truly believed that they might leave me. Yes, I was not in a good place mentally before Jack had snapped at me, but his anger had been the straw that broke the dam on my overwhelming emotions. I thought back to the overbearing amount of guilt, shame, and self-hate that had exploded within me yesterday and had to blink back another round of tears. Now that I was a little more in my right mind, I understood that I had been in a state of shock, but that didn’t diminish the feelings still crashing against my psyche.
It was time for me to look at the cold hard facts and accept that I was a lot more like my father than I cared to admit. I hadn’t really even tried to talk to Alexei before just throwing a man I didn’t know out of an airplane to his certain death. What kind of person did that? It was more of a reflex than conscious thought when I used my Shield to punish Alexei for lying about the phone. I had jumped right to torture. Only a truly evil person would do that. The two men that had been killed by the Energy Balls I pushed into the void may not have been directly my fault, but I had been the one to literally cut the head off an unarmed and fully defeated man.
That is something my father would have done. The apple didn’t fall from the tree.
A huge body at my back moved to adjust their position and for the first time, I realized that I could feel the clan bond burning between me and whoever was behind me. I closed my eyes and swallowed down the lump that was forming in my throat. The guys represented everything that I yearned for. A kind, loving, and dedicated family.
I knew that my assumptions and actions last night grossly underestimated the entire Oakland Clan. Even if I deserved it, they weren’t going to disappear on me. They were too good and too loyal for that. I had no doubt that each and every one of these amazing men was going to find some way to rationalize all I had done in the last twenty-four hours. The real question was if I was hurting them by staying with them.
The Oakland Clan didn’t ask for all of the attention and drama that my mere existence was bringing them. They were supposed to have normal lives, working to secure their small territory. Now, they were living under the spotlight and forced to play these ridiculous political games just so that I could keep my freedom. Not to mention that Derik had been forced to do something despicable that he will have to live with for the rest of his life. Max and Elijah had been kidnapped right along with me and Alexei could have easily killed the twins and Derik.
It was abundantly clear that associating with me was putting each of their lives in danger.
I was torn from my self-destructive thoughts when someone cleared their throat to get my attention. I looked up and saw that Mathis was standing in the doorway. This was the first time I thought that my grandfather looked old. Not even my long-lost relatives could escape the storm of destruction that followed me.
Mathis tilted his head to the side, silently asking me to follow him out of the room. I gritted my teeth against a fresh wave of emotions and gently tucked Jack’s hand around Amy’s waist. Then I tried my best to extract myself from between Amy and the person behind me. I was unsuccessful and whoever was behind me snapped to attention. I was a little surprised to see that it was Connor. Cuddling was more of a Blake thing to do.
“Ray?” Connor asked in a sleep-laden voice as he turned to search my face. I sat up and tucked my head under his chin because I couldn’t stand to meet his eyes right now. Connor didn’t hesitate to wrap his arms around me and I felt completely surrounded by him. I took strength from both him and the clan bond. They really had been right when they told me that Valkyries needed to be around other Valkyries. Just being held by Connor was giving me courage and soothing my frayed emotions.
Then it occurred to me that I didn’t feel that way because Connor was a Valkyrie but because he was Connor. I wouldn’t feel these things if I was being hugged by a random Valkyrie. I was starting to depend on and crave my guys.
I may be bad for them, but they were good for me.
I have no idea how long we stayed like that but eventually, I found the will to push away from Connor and crawl out of the bed. I looked around and saw Derik was awake and watching me from the chair in the corner while Blake and Max were passed out on a mattress on the floor. They must have brought it in from one of the other rooms. I had totally been right about Blake being a cuddler, as he was wrapped around Max like a spider monkey. The sight warmed my heart.
I took one last long look at the sleeping duo and then walked past Mathis and out of the bedroom. I went down to the first floor to find Elijah sitting at the dining room table just staring off into space. A squeaky floorboard announced my presence and Elijah’s head snapped in my direction. When he saw it was me, he stood quickly pushing the chair out from underneath him almost violently. He searched my face and I once again wished I had Telepathy instead of Truth. I really wanted to know what my clan leader thought of me after everything I had done.
The bottom line was that I had done those things. I had killed two very important Valkyries and played a role in the death of two others. I had, once again, put Elijah’s clan in danger. I would not run from what I had done. I would face my actions like a woman and accept the consequences.
“Ray,” Elijah said in a soft whisper that showcased an immense amount of concern. These guys really were too good for me. “How are you feeling.”
“I’m okay,” I replied in a wooden voice.
“Bullshit,” Derik growled from behind me. “You are not okay, Wonder Girl. You don’t have to put on a brave face for us.” He then walked into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of Jameson that was on the counter. He also collected four glasses from a cupboard before coming back to the dining room. As Derik started pouring out the whiskey, Elijah tried to qualify Derik’s brash statement.
“What Derik means is that we completely understand how stressful the last couple of days have been for you and we want you to express whatever you are feeling. You are safe here.”
I scanned the room and itched to go look out the front window. I was actually surprised that this house wasn’t overrun with powerful Valkyries demanding something from me after what I had done. Why wasn’t Hernan or Edison here to arrest me? How had Elijah managed to hold off the Royals and Blade Clan when I know that they would want to work this situation to their advantage? To somehow manipulate this situation so that they could finally control me.
I felt someone walk up to my side and looked over to see that Mathis was standing to my right. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders and the cool, calming sensation of the familial bond surged through me. “Please don’t worry. Elijah is telling you the truth. You are safe here. You personally assured that yourself when you pushed the entire house into the void before you passed out last night. They won’t be able to get to us until we are ready for them,” Mathis told me in an even voice.
I gave in to my urge and walked over to the window and looked through the curtains. Mathis was right. There were more than half a dozen different Valkyries watching over the property, but it was clear that they couldn’t see the duplex that Mathis and Sean had rented. I had never pushed something as big as a house into the void before and I don’t even remember doing it. My power was growing too strong. I was starting to lose control.
I walked back to the table and was surprised when Derik pushed a glass with a good portion of whiskey in my direction. I gave him a questioning glance and he replied, “If any one of us needs a drink, it’s you. Drink up, Wonder Girl. We have some serious things to discuss and you are going to want to take the edge off.”
I let out a deep breath and then drank down the entire contents of the glass in one go. Derik was right, I needed the liquid courage to have this conversation. Mathis, Elijah, and Derik each also took their shot, and then Derik refilled their glasses. I held a hand over my glass when Derik offered. One was more than enough for me, especially on an empty stomach. Even with how hungry I was, I didn’t know if I could stomach eating anything right now.
“First thing that you need to know,” Mathis said in a serious voice as he leaned forward and put his elbows on the table so that he was focused solely on me. My stomach dropped and the alcohol churned. This was it. This was when they told me what was going to happen because I had literally cut the King of Russia’s head off in front of dozens of witnesses. I wanted to be strong enough to take whatever punishment with a little grace, but I couldn’t even force myself to meet Mathis’ eyes. I couldn’t stand to see disappointment or revulsion in his gaze.
“You are not a monster. You are not evil. You are most certainly not a cancer. You, my darling child, are an absolute miracle and I love you,” Mathis declared without faltering once. I waited for the buzz in my head that would indicate that he was lying but it never came. Mathis was telling the truth. My grandfather did not hate me. He loved me.
A sob tore through my throat that I was unable to hold back. Not a single person had ever said those words to me apart from Jack last night. To hear it from an actual family member was so out of my realm of possibilities that I didn’t know how to process his words. Mathis surged forward and pulled me into a hug as I once again started sobbing. Apparently, I was a huge crier when I was overly emotional.
Mathis rocked me in his arms while pressing his lips to my forehead as I cried myself out. Thankfully, I didn’t lose myself to the tears as I had with Jack. When I eventually regained my composure, Elijah placed a large glass of water, a mug of tea, and a plate filled with crackers, cheese, and sliced meat on the table in front of me. He then knelt before me and used his thumbs to wipe the tears from my cheeks.
“Your grandfather isn’t the only one that loves you, Ray. Because of my Telepathy, my brothers can’t hide anything from me, so I know that each and every one of us cares deeply about you. I can’t even comprehend everything that you are feeling right now, but we fully support and agree with everything that you did. King Alexei, Prince Dimitri, and the others had already received a death sentence the moment they came into The Americas West Kingdom without permission with the express intention of kidnapping you. Alexei knew this. That is why he fought so hard to get free at the airfield. If you hadn’t stepped in, the end result of our kidnapper’s death would have still occurred but many others would have perished with them. Your actions saved lives.”
I already knew that the guys cared deeply for me. They had gone out of their way to show me that over and over again the last couple of weeks. Not to mention all of the drama that associating with me was causing them. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t have stood so steadfastly by my side. So that part didn’t surprise me. I was, however, blown away that Elijah actually thought that I had acted as some sort of hero. I didn’t understand where that was coming from. Because of my Gift, I knew he wasn’t lying but I was confused. I had cut a man’s head off. That was not a heroic action.
“I pushed a man out of an airplane, fully knowing what would happen. I tortured Alexei with my Shield without a second thought. I looked down at Alexei as he kneeled helplessly and defeated at my feet and decided to cut off his head,” I bluntly declared, trying to express exactly the violent and evil side to my soul that they were refusing to see.
“Okay, let’s look at each of those actions,” Elijah said patiently as he moved to sit in a chair to my left. “You have to know that Derik and the twins would have never allowed us to just be kidnapped and do nothing about it. Even Queen Florence and Prince Hernan were quick to organize a rescue mission the moment they heard about what happened. They were already organizing to come after us when we got that call out to Derik. The Royals would have invaded a sovereign Kingdom to get us back with an army of Valkyries and other supernatural creatures. They were fully planning on going to war over this, and the fallout over such a decision could have lasted months, years, or even decades.
“Yes, you killed a man by throwing him out of an airplane. But by doing so, you were able to take control of the situation and get Alexei to turn the plane around thus making an invasion unnecessary. Not to mention that you were acting in self-defense. Those men drugged us and then dragged our unconscious bodies onto an airplane. For all you knew at the time, they had already killed Derik and the twins. What you did was completely justified, and Max and I are safe because you acted in the way you did.”
“One life versus the dozens that would have perished if we had been forced to chase after you. As a leader, you have to make impossible decisions like that on the fly. You did beautifully, my child,” Mathis reemphasized and I tried to see it from their point of view. I remember thinking that I couldn’t let Alexei call my bluff because Max and Elijah were depending on me. It had made my decision to push Leonid into the void that much easier. I hadn’t even considered that people would come after us. That the Royals would start a war to get me back.
As I was still considering everything that Elijah had said, Derik decided to continue. “You didn’t force the Russians to start fighting. I distinctly remember you trying to convince Hernan to allow them to go home so that they wouldn’t be sentenced to death. The fight at the airfield was not your fault - it was King Alexei’s and many more of my friends would have died if you hadn’t put a stop to the fighting. When you pushed the Russians into the void and maintained your Shields, you were protecting your fellow Valkyries. That is who you truly are Ray. You are a protector.
“When I first met you, you didn’t hesitate to agree to apologize to Connor for Compelling you even though he was in the wrong just because I told you that he needed your forgiveness. Then you risked your life to save a little human girl that you didn’t even know. You stopped the stupid wolves from shifting at the school and outed your Tracking Gift to help find Ransom. You pressed your hands to Max’s Shield, selflessly handing over your own lifeforce to save Connor. You have come to our defense countless times when you felt that we were being mistreated by the elite Valkyries. You, Wonder Girl, forgave me after I did my best to hurt and humiliate you,” Derik said and his voice cracked with emotion on the last bit.
“You tried multiple times to reason with Alexei and get him to return home, even doing everything in your power to protect your enemy. So you need to stop calling yourself a monster because that shit just isn’t true. You are kind, passionate, capable, and a fierce protector.”
I stared into Derik’s vibrant green eyes feeling completely dumbfounded. I had no idea he felt that way about me. He was taking all of those things slightly out of context. I hadn’t been trying to act like some sort of superhero or protector of the weak when I had done those things. I had just reacted.
“These are incredibly hard life lessons to learn, and I am so sorry that you are having to learn them at such a young age - but it is important for you to know that sometimes you have to be strong for the sake of others,” Mathis said into the descending silence but I couldn’t seem to tear my gaze from Derik’s eyes. It was like he was holding me captive with the amount of emotion and devotion swirling within his eyes.
“I know that you want to live some semblance of a normal life, but my dear child, that just isn’t in the cards for you. You are too powerful and capable to remain in the shadows. Your people need you. And despite what you may think, what you did at the airfield will only make them love you more. We are a warrior species and you are the epitome of strength. They will be more drawn to you than ever before.”
I finally looked away from Derik to see that Mathis didn’t look excited or hopeful about his declaration like I thought he would have. He looked resigned. Like if he didn’t want that type of future for me either. So much had changed between me and him in the last week, and I could feel myself starting to trust in my grandfather. That thought reminded me of something else.
“Where is Sean?” I asked because I really wanted to know and I also needed a break from this intense conversation
“When we left the airfield, he stayed behind to get information and to coordinate with Hernan. By the time he arrived here, you had already pushed the entire house into the void. Last I saw, he was outside waiting for us to reappear,” Mathis told me. I let out a breath that I hadn’t known I was holding and allowed my thoughts to center on my newly discovered Uncle.
At first, Sean seemed a lot like Elijah to me. A kind, patient leader that only wanted to get to know me as a person. But over the last week, there have been a couple of times that have caused me to pull away from him. I didn’t love how he had informed the Queen of the Americas Northeast about me or how buddy-buddy he seemed with them since. Ethan had told me that they hadn’t known Sean before this week, and his constant interactions with them felt like a power move to me.
I also hated how quickly he turned to his Compulsion Gift. Connor had the same Gift and other than that one time that he forced me to tell him who had given me a black eye, I hadn’t seen him use it once. It might not be fair of me, but I hated that Sean had the same Gift that had made my childhood a living hell. Because he was my father’s brother, it made it that much harder to trust him. The entire Oakland Clan and Mathis had followed me home because I was their priority. What did it say about Sean that he had considered coordinating with the Royals to be more important?
Maybe I was being too harsh. It wasn’t like I had left the airfield alone yesterday. I had more than enough support from my clan. Maybe Sean knew that I would prefer their company and decided to try to help in another way. I stood and walked over to the window to search the faces of the Valkyries keeping watch. It would be good to know what I was going to be walking into once I pulled the house from the void. Because like it or not, that was something I was going to have to do sooner rather than later. Jack and Amy were in this house. If they stepped foot out of the house and ghosted through something, they would finally discover the supernatural world.
That couldn’t happen. Jack already knew too much.
On my way over to the front window, I saw that the Three Musketeers were sitting on the stairs, clearly eavesdropping on our conversation. When I spotted them, Blake refused to look repentant and instead stood to give me a hug. I willingly walked into his arms and it felt like coming home.
“My sweet Ray-Ray,” Blake murmured into my hair. “Don’t you ever pull that shit again. Seeing you in that much pain yet being held away by your Shield damn near ripped my heart out. I don’t care what is going on or what you are feeling. You can always come to us. Please, please never shut me out like that again.”
The sheer force of the emotion that Blake conveyed to me at that moment rocked me to my core. I was the forgotten foster kid that had always felt more comfortable literally becoming invisible than interacting with the people around me. Yet here I was in the arms of an amazing guy who was incredibly upset because I was going through something. Or rather that I had refused to let him in when I finally reached my breaking point.
I was about to say something, I am not sure exactly what but I knew that I needed to reciprocate in some way when another equally huge body wrapped around my back. I was now in the middle of a very intense Berg twin sandwich. My head only reached the top of their chest so I was completely surrounded by them.
“As long as we are on the topic of shit that you are no longer allowed to do,” Connor said without releasing either Blake or me from his hold. “Let’s also talk about how you can’t use your Shield to purposefully remove us from a fight. Locking us away and only letting us watch as you single-handedly take on the most ruthless Royal in the world was not okay. We are a team. More than that - we are a clan. No more of this lone ranger shit. When one of us is in trouble, we all are in trouble. You have to let us help. That was our fight just as much as it was yours.”
Tears started to once again drip down my face as Blake’s concern for me was mirrored in his twin. Connor had always kept himself back from me, making sure that he didn’t get too close. I was pretty sure because of everything Regina had done to shred his heart, and I never blamed him for it. But right now, Connor was letting me in. He was trying to tell me how much I had hurt him by not letting him back me up against Alexei. Considering that I had been using him and Blake as giant safety blankets since Derik attacked me, I fully understood his anger.
“I didn’t Shield you because I thought that you weren’t good enough for that fight. I did it because just the thought of losing you, of losing any of you, cripples me with fear. Tobias was already dead because he came to my rescue. I couldn’t let anything happen to you,” I said as my cheek was still pressed up against Blake’s chest.
“We feel the same way about you,” I heard Max say in his clear soft voice. “We were completely crippled with fear and unable to do anything to help you. And I am talking about the fight and then again back here at the house with Jack. Both of the twins are right, Ray. Please don’t ever make us go through that again. We love you far too much to just stand by and watch when you are in so much pain.”
Oh no. I hadn’t thought of it like that. I pushed away from Blake’s chest, needing to see Max. He looked exhausted and yet another stone of guilt latched onto my soul. “I’m sorry,” I said through my continuing tears.
Max stepped forward and cupped my jawline with his palm. “You don’t have to apologize. We aren’t mad. We just want to make sure that you know how much we care about you, and we need you to know without a shadow of a doubt that we want to be there for you in the future. We may even need it. So whatever huge life event happens next, make sure to take us with you. Okay?”
I searched his piercing green eyes and didn’t see any anger or resentment. Just worry and love.
All of them really were too good for me.
I nodded my head and Blake pulled me in for another hug. “You are one of us now Ray. You are never truly alone and we are never going to leave you. No matter how many insane Kings you kill,” Blake said, startling a wet laugh out of me.