As soon as the words left James’ mouth I unlocked the door, threw it open and ushered him inside. Still paranoid—or just mistrusting—I stuck my head outside and did a thorough scope of the area to make sure he wasn’t being shadowed; that Zacharias wasn’t hiding in a nook or cranny, waiting to persecute me for allowing another man inside of his cabin.
He wasn’t, thankfully. James had come here solo. I still felt wary and apprehensive, though. I tried to convince myself that with my enhanced senses it would be nearly impossible for me to miss any clues that could prove James wasn’t here alone, but it just wasn’t enough. Had I acted on impulse, I might’ve apologized before kicking him out.
But I didn’t do that, because I knew that would’ve been foolish. I forced myself to swallow my suspicion, to brush aside my insecurities, and I stepped back inside. I took a deep breath of the honeysuckle air, sweetened by dew, before I closed the door. I didn’t bother closing the latches, because the keypad lock activated as soon as the door was shut. Ever so cautious, the less locks the better in case I had to run.
I rested my hand against the door, staring at my converse-clad feet, before looking at James over my shoulder. He seemed kind enough—awkward, even, in the presence of his Alphas soulmate. He kept a respectful distance away from me, which was both a blessing and a slap in the face. The only reason he was so distant with me was because he believed Zacharias would kill him. I believed he would, too.
“I take it you can’t shake my hand?” I asked, offering him a small smile that faltered almost instantly. It was hard to smile these days. I had nothing to smile about. Every time I smiled, it only made me feel miserable because my attempts were false and weak...I was weak.
He shook his head, his coal-black eyes astray as he looked to the ground. He was a tall, strong man of aboriginal descent. He was extremely handsome, I noticed, too. But I’d never dare to speak that aloud. “No, Luna Edie. I’m under strict orders to not touch you.”
“Of course you are!” I growled as I slammed my fist against the door, exasperated as I continued climbing and climbing higher to the peak of my rage, nearing the end of my rope. But I sighed right after, knowing that none of this was James’ fault. “I’m sorry,” I apologized sincerely, my voice quiet as I blinked back tears. “This isn’t your fault. I know that; none of this is your fault. I’m just—”
“I know,” he said. “I understand. I understand how hard this must be for you, Lu—”
“I’m sorry,” I interrupted him gently. I took a step away from the door but kept my back to him, discontinuing my facing him from over my shoulder. “But do you think you can just call me Edie? I don’t know what Luna even means...”
He chuckled—a warm, deep chuckle that reverberated from deep within, and ended up pulling a chuckle from me too. It had been so long since I heard a genuine, hearty chuckle that laughed with me instead of at me. I decided that James was safe...I liked him for now. He didn’t make me feel beneath him, like I was as nettlesome as gum beneath his shoe.
“It’s the equivalent to an Alpha. To be Luna means to rule as a leader. In ancient Roman myth and religion, Luna is the divine embodiment of the moon. You, Edie, are our present moon,” he explained, both of us settling down. “You are as close to the Moon Goddess as any of us will ever get until we perish.”
I swallowed nervously, wringing my hands together like a washcloth as I, too, looked at the floor. “Is there any others like me?”
“Like you in what way?”
“You know...human? A leader? Am I the first? Am I the last? Are there other women like me that are out there?” I took a deep breath. “This is a lot to take in—I can’t absorb any of this information, James. I can believe it...I do believe it, but it’s a hard pill to swallow.”
“Come,” he said, which instantly caused me to look up at him. He extended his arm to me, but by the caution on his face I knew he didn’t want me to take it. It was a way of building trust—being open, flaunting human actions, being disjunctively, without any natural contact, intimate. “You said you wanted to sit and ask questions, so I will grant you your wish. You give me the impression you deserve it.”
I felt heat rise to my cheeks as if James was trying to flatter me. I smiled cheekily, nodding happily as I followed him to the kitchen that we had been only feet away from. He took a seat at one head of the table while I took the seat directly to his left. He seemed nervous at our proximity, as if he thought I was beguiling him.
But I wasn’t. Both of us were coming across this completely innocently, but some part of me knew that he didn’t completely know that. I wondered if Zacharias talked a lot about me to him; and if he did, I couldn’t help but wonder what he had said that made James so disinclined to be near me, even though it was clear we weren’t to touch one another. I wondered if I was the prevalent issue, or if Zacharias had threatened him before his arrival.
I scrutinized him carefully, but he wouldn’t look at me. He rested his elbows on the table instead, crossing his hands into a fist as he extended his forearms in the air, resting his chin on his knuckles. I pondered if he was just as paranoid and pulled taut with nerves as I had been for the past twenty-three days. I eased into his presence quicker than he eased into mine.
But I was also certain that he had more contact to the outside world, and the people that idled around in it, than I did. I had been stuck with Zacharias—and the cop briefly—but it wasn’t nearly enough to be considered pleasant company. My wariness had lasted all of what—a minute or two with James? I was just thankful to see another person. James, on the other hand, had no choice but to come and see me.
“I make you nervous,” I said sadly as I huffed air from from my nose like a fireless dragon. “I’m not going to do anything that will get you killed, James. I won’t touch you. I know that’s what you’re afraid of.”
“But you’re sitting near enough to me where the Alpha will think you’ve touched me, or I’ve touched you. I’ve breached our professional status already, Edie. Coming in here was a risk. You know how I was supposed to escort you to his office? I was supposed to keep you exactly three feet in front of me, orally telling you where to go. We’re hardly sitting a foot apart, now. He’s going to be suspicious of us.”
“Oh, hell!” I cried, throwing my arms into the air. “What does he think of me? Does he think I’m just going to throw myself at the next person who walks in front of me? Does he think I’m so anxious to get away from him that I’ll throw myself into the arms of another man? He’s limiting everything I do!”
“Edie—” he tried to interject, but I was so furious I cut him off without leaving him a word in edgewise.
“I mean, for fuck sakes. Does he think that completely restricting and isolating me will ever get me to fall in love with him? If so, the only person he’s playing is himself. I hate him with my all. Even with the stupid bond we share I can’t stand him. I loathe him, James. I abhor him. I think of him with such repugnance. And now you—,” I pressed a finger to my chest. “You think I’ve invited you in here to get you killed? Is that what you think?”
“No,” his voice was calm as he removed his chin from his fists, before lying his palms flat on the table. “I don’t think you are. But the possibility is always prominent with the Alpha. If he were to ever find out that you told me the dirty details of what goes on behind closed doors, he’d kill me and make you watch just so you’d know to never speak about it to anyone again. He’s a dangerous man, Edie, don’t forget that.”
I laughed—a crazed laugh as I tried to laugh back the tears that sprung from my tear ducts. My questions from before, it seemed, would never be answered. “You think I could forget what he’s capable of? James, I’ve been locked in this place for twenty-three days. I’d have to be braindead in order to forget how dangerous he is. He’s killed a police officer right in front of me. When I hijacked his truck, he drove me off of the road. He broke into my house and kidnapped me. What makes you think I could just....forget all of that?”
“You’re being careless right now, Edie,” and he was right, I supposed. If Zacharias were to walk through the front door, James and I would both be in hot water. But I couldn’t bring myself to care. If I was a leader amongst this clan, too, didn’t I also have a say in what went down? “He’s probably on his way over here right now. We were supposed to be there already.”
“Well, then,” I breathed. I leant back in my chair, crossing my arms over my chest. “I suppose we should just skip on over, don’t you? I mean, fuck how I feel, right? It doesn’t matter. As long as Edie keeps her mouth shut and does what she’s told it shouldn’t matter how she feels, right? Because God forbid Edie sits near me in order to have a one-on-one conversation. God forbid Edie still has human qualities, right? God forbid she stands within a ten mile radius of me.”
And then the tears came. The dam broke and the tears overflowed from the bridges of my eyes, rushing down my cheeks in a hot stream. I was going absolutely berserk. In that moment, I realized how selfish I was—only thinking for myself in that moment. I felt like I hadn’t been able to feel for myself in so long. It was myself and Zacharias. Never just...me.
But there’s two sides to every coin, and two outcomes to every situation. I wasn’t overly terrified of what Zacharias would throw at me when I waltzed into his presence, because I was certain that it couldn’t be any worse than what he had already thrown at me. But James. As horrible as it was to think of it in this way, it was true. I wasn’t as easily replaceable as he was...he was more discardable. I wasn’t thinking it to be cruel. I was bonded to Zacharias through the pull of the moon. Without me, I remembered him saying, he was nothing. Likewise, but that was beside the point.
I hadn’t thought of James. When he said Zacharias would have his head, I took it with a grain of salt. But now I realized the severity. James could’ve actually been killed for this...for humouring me and, inadvertently, consoling me through my temper tantrum. I instantly felt remorseful, realizing that I had already gone too far.
I stood up so hastily that the chair clambered backwards onto the floor. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, slapping my hand to my forehead. More tears drained from my eyes, and I felt as evil as I imagined Zacharias. “I’m...I’m so sorry, James. I wasn’t thinking. Th-that’s no excuse, but oh my goodness. I’m so sorry.”
I stepped away from the table and picked up the fallen chair, pushing it back into place. I walked numbly to the other side of the table, sitting at the other end; two heads, facing each other down. Now that we were a safe distance apart, James seemed more relaxed. Now if Zacharias were to surprise us, we weren’t at such a risk of being suspected of an affair.
Not that it could’ve been considered an affair to begin with. Zacharias and I weren’t together. To be considered unified there needed to approbation on both sides. There was not.
“You don’t need to apologize,” his voice didn’t seem so tight. “Edie, I understand. I can’t imagine how you must feel.”
“And I can’t imagine what you must feel,” I reiterated, offering him a tremulous smile as more tears rolled down my cheeks. I didn’t bother to wipe them away. “You must live in constant fear of being killed over trivial things. I do not live with that fear. The only fear I live in is never being able to leave this place. I’m sorry.”
“I’ve known the Alpha—” he looked at me pointedly. “Do you promise this conversation will be treated as top secret? Do you swear an oath to confidentiality?” He pressed.
“Yes, yes of course,” I promised him. I placed my right elbow on the table, holding my pinky in the air. “You can trust me, James. I promise. We’re gossiping,” I joked. “If you get in trouble, then I get in trouble with you.”
He still seemed wary, knowing that he had already crossed a certain line. “You are just as dangerous as he is. The way we speak to each other is informal. We must address each other with the common formalities outside of this place. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” I nodded.
“And this conversation must never be uttered, or even as much as thought of outside of this room.” He said firmly.
“Yes, yes,” I agreed, check-marking each box to his terms and conditions. “Wait, why? Can you guys read minds?”
“Not quite,” he responded. “But we can read faces; well, nearly everyone can. And you, Edie, are an open book. Zacharias—the Alpha—informed me that when you’re in deep thought you zone out. Avoid that, okay? He’ll know something that was not in place was in place.”
“I promise, James. Please, trust me. I won’t divulge anything to him.”
He gauged me for a second, considering my genuineness, before feeling content with it. He, too, stuck his elbow onto the table and raised his pinky in the air. We both curled our pinkies, as if we were using the force to make our oath to each other. There was something symbolic about this, but I couldn’t think of what it was. Maybe I’d find out later.
Exchanging small smiles, we dropped our arms onto the table at the same time. “I’m taking a chance with you, Edie. You can have my head just for our informal talk. But I feel as though you’re trustworthy. Maybe I’m taking advantage of your humanness. You weren’t born and raised in this pack. You don’t know the customs,” he swallowed, rubbing the base of his throat with his other hand. “I think I’m exploiting your unawareness.”
I offered him a shrug to tell him I didn’t mind. He didn’t seem convinced, but it was enough for him to continue to tell me what he was going to tell me before.
“I’ve known Zacharias since we were kids. He wasn’t always like this. As a kid, he was...a kid. There are some kids that are like adults the moment they learn to speak, but Zacharias wasn’t one of those kids. He didn’t have a serious bone in his body. That was beat out of him after a while.
“As the alphas son, he was teased for his lack of strength. The other kids took advantage of him, and his weakness. I, too, was one of those kids. We all flocked to him and terrorized him like a murder of crows. He was small—skinny, short, vulnerable. He didn’t look like the son of an Alpha. But there was potential. He was resilient, which is one of the most necessary things to have when you’re in a position of power.
“As the years passed, his resiliency deteriorated and became worn thin. He sulked, moped, became the shell of the happy kid he used to be. When he hit his preteens, he was lanky. He had no muscle, but he had height. We were little assholes. We took advantage of him, still. And he, instead of hoping that one day we’d stop, he’d just take the beatings in silence, knowing that if he fought back like he used to, the beatings would last longer. We disturbed him. Our elders did nothing. We were kids.
“Until one day he disappeared. His father, our previous alpha, sent him away. He was gone for years, and came back when he was eighteen. We could hardly recognize him. He left a defeated kid, kicked down and useless, and came back powerful with a taste for revenge. Needless to say, we had grown out of our little-Asshole ways, but Zacharias wasn’t over it,” he paused, pursed his lips. “The rest, I cannot divulge to you. Well, I can. But you should ask him yourself.”
I frowned at him, completely engrossed in his tale. But he left me hanging at the climax, and I found myself bristling with both irritation and anticipation. “What? You’re just...you’re going to end it there?” I asked, my voice small.
“I don’t want to be the one who taints him anymore to you. Allow him to taint himself in your eyes,” he said. “That’s part of the backstory as to why he acts the way he acts. He had no control as a kid. He utilizes control now. And he’s allowed, because he’s in control of our wellbeing.”
“That doesn’t excuse his behaviour,” I found myself arguing with him. “Okay, yes. You guys were a bunch of little shitheads, but now I, and I do mean just myself, am paying the consequences for your actions. I can understand if there was a bit of hostility to the ones who made him the way he is, but I’m the one who faces the most backlash.”
He couldn’t argue. “I did my time, Edie.”
“And?” I asked, finding my anger raising. “Yes, James, I’m thankful for what you’ve told me, but I’m also pissed off that you’re trying to excuse his behaviour. What you’re telling me is so unhealthy. You can’t expect me to just sit here and swallow everything you’re telling me like it’s a cup of tea. I don’t deserve what I’m getting. No one ever deserves this kind of treatment.”
He said nothing, but nodded almost unnoticeably.
So I asked him the golden question. “How did he get his revenge on you and all of your friends? You’re still his beta. Clearly you haven’t been terribly demoted.”
“When he became Alpha, Edie, he was unjust. He used his authority to his advantage—he still proceeds to use it to his advantage. He’s not a good man. He made us do hard labour in order to get to where we are today.”
I furrowed my brows. “Did he not have to do hard labour in order to get to where he is today? Okay, you know what. Don’t answer that yet. How old is he?”
I swallowed. I was nineteen, set to turn twenty in mid-September. I had known that Zacharias was older than me, but to realize that he was nearly ten years older than me was a bit of a surprise. It seemed so illegal, even though I was an adult as well. I never liked the idea of being with someone quite a few years older than me; it gave me the impression I was dating a father figure. Three years was my maximum.
But it wasn’t as if I had a choice when it came to Zacharias. I had to suppress a cringe.
“Okay, how old was he when he left for this...whatever you call it? Training, yeah? Bootcamp?” I asked, still trying to take my mind off of Zacharias’ age.
“He had just turned thirteen.” He answered hesitantly.
“Okay, and when he got back he was how old?”
“Eighteen.” He gritted out.
“Eighteen. Okay. How old was he when he became the Alpha?”
“Twenty-two,” I reiterated. “So that means that when all of you shitheads were being put through hard labour, you were all well into adulthood, correct?”
He nodded stiffly. “You can say that.”
“James, was the reason Zacharias was sent off to bootcamp because he couldn’t defend himself against you kids? Did you guys make him look weak, like a defenceless puppy? Did his father, the previous Alpha, send him away because you made his son look pathetic? You guys made him look like an embarrassment? Someone who couldn’t handle his own?”
“What are you getting at?” He snapped. Apparently I loved to argue.
“Nothing. I’m trying to form a picture. Can I take that question as a yes?” He didn’t respond, so I assumed so. “Okay. So he was sent away because you guys picked on him, made him look weak, and his father viewed him as an embarrassment. Because of that, his father sent him away. What do you think happened at that...camp, hmm? Zacharias came back strong, tough, untouchable, did he not? Do you think he achieved that by just sitting around and watching movies all day, munching on popcorn?”
“Are you defending him?” James asked.
“No. I’m just thinking...he was sent away as a boy and came back as a man. What turns a boy into a man? Strenuous effort. In order for him to do a complete one-eighty in five years, James, he had to go through some tough shit. You say he was unjust to you, but do you think they were just to him? He was still practically a kid, for Gods sake. I think he made you guys do the labour he had to do. The difference between him and you, however, is that he doesn’t look at himself as a victim.”
James clenched his jaw and inhaled deeply, before exhaling. He looked as if he wanted to get up and storm out of the room, but if he went back to Zacharias without me he would face the consequences. Regretfully, he had to sit there until I was done saying what I had to say.
“And I don’t look at myself as a victim, either. Maybe a victim of circumstance, but not a victim. What pisses me off the most about what you’ve been saying to me is that you’re so expeditious to say what he did to you was unjust, but what he’s doing to me is okay because you ”did your time”. What the fuck did I do to him that justifies this? You didn’t pay the consequences for your actions. He trained you the way he was trained because it was the only way he knew how.
“And he’s treating me the only way he knows how to treat me, but I did nothing that warranted that treatment to begin with. You may live in constant fear, but so do I. But I shouldn’t have a reason to live in fear. I didn’t fuck him over at any point until after he kidnapped me. And I refuse to sit here and listen to your self-pity, because you paid no prices. I’m paying double.”
And after all of that, all he could muster up the courage to say was a hollow, “I’m sorry.”
I sighed, before spitting out a feeble “me too.”