Trigger Warning - chapter contains numerous sensitive topics towards the end.
True to James’ word, he kept me three feet ahead of him as he led me to where Zacharias wanted me. I couldn’t help but think back to when Zacharias had played hero and saved me from the wolves, and forced me to walk ahead of him, with his hand on my back, as he escorted me back to his cabin. James didn’t touch me, but I was aware of his presence. I knew that like Zacharias, he would not let me run.
I kept my head up high, my eyes sore and tender from crying. There was a fraught feeling in the air, both of us uncomfortable and skittish in one another’s presence. I felt guilty because I had taken out my pent up stress on James, and all he had done was what he was told. I had a hard time swallowing that.
But he truly had ticked me off. I could understand him being strict in following Zacharias’ orders, but him defending Zacharias’ actions and behaviour...that, I could not accept. I knew I could’ve handled it better—could’ve handled James better—but after everything Zacharias had done to me, I could not let James’ backup to him leave me stranded.
I did, however, appreciate what James had done for me. He, against his better judgement to appease mine, did come in and talk to me, listen to me, take my rage, and never once rejected my feelings to justify his own. I doubted he’d do that again, though. Not after the risks I took, and the way I boiled over in a matter of minutes. But I would forever be grateful for the time he did once.
I looked at James over my shoulder, meeting his charcoal eyes, before I faced forward again and pursed my lips. Although he’d never utter it aloud, I knew he wasn’t thrilled with still having to escort my bitchy ass to Zacharias. If James trusted I was reliable enough to navigate my way to wherever the hell Zacharias was without trying to flee, I had a feeling he’d leave me to it alone.
But I had never explored the pack ground. I barely scratched the surface of the forest, and I had no clue where the gravel road led; the city of cabins had been a distant blur as I drove past them. All of them looked the same. Dark wood, windows clenched shut like a stressed jaw, and a small deck that led to the front doors. They looked like cabins that could’ve been put in a catalogue for summer retreats. Too perfect; pristine.
Zacharias’ cabin, I couldn’t help but notice, was still bigger than all of the other cabins. Not by too much, admittedly, but enough for me to notice. It was probably to flaunt his status, to prove his power; remind everyone that he was above them. The more my mind stuck to these thoughts like glue, the more my blood boiled. I was a part of this...stance.
I rubbed my arms. It wasn’t cold. It was sunny; the sun a neon orb in the cloudless sky. It was hard to believe it was raining no more than hours ago. The only thing that gave it away was the dewy grass and the leftover smell of the cloudburst. It was so overpowering in my developed senses that I tingled all over. The fragrance. I couldn’t wait until another rainfall.
“Turn right, Luna Edie.” James ordered in a low voice, quiet and monotone. I bit my lip and turned right, James still hot on my trail. As much as I wished he would walk beside me I wouldn’t goad him into it, although it took all I had to not plead and bargain with him to.
It was my first time casually interacting with someone other than Zacharias in twenty-three days, and we were playing strange with one another. I hated it. I expected us to fall into conversation with ease, like connecting the last piece to a puzzle. Our pieces weren’t meant to append, ensured by the person putting the puzzle together.
“Right here, Luna Edie,” He said, and when I looked up I was greeted with a huge cabin that at least tripled in size from Zacharias’, although it looked identical. I stared up at it in awe. It reminded me of a factory for some reason. It certainly didn’t resemble one. “This is the pack house. The Alpha is waiting for you inside.”
I turned around, giving him a faltering smile as I looked down to my shoes, the toes scuffed green by the grass. “Thank you, Ja—Beta James,” I said softly, trying to keep my verbalizations as private as possible from the walls that had ears. “And I’m sorry. For everything. I was out of line.” I apologized as I looked back up at him.
“Don’t ask questions,” he whispered low enough where even I, with my enhanced hearing, struggled to hear him. “Come closer to me.”
And so I listened to him. I didn’t think of any questions, nor did I humour the possibility of any repercussions as I closed a little over two feet of distance between James and I. I maintained eye contact with him, assuming it was safe since he hadn’t told me to look away.
“Grab my hand and shake it.”
But this elicited a question from me, my eyes bulging for a moment. “Are you trying to get yourself killed? Haven’t I already done enough to risk your life?”
“Ed—Luna Edie, I told you to not ask questions.” He hissed a little too audaciously. I flinched a little, and he gave me a look of apology; knowing he didn’t have to say it out loud.
So I listened to him. I swallowed nervously, expecting him to have a shock-buzzer on the palm of his hand that would jolt static into me like an electric fence. Of course, however, he didn’t. The only thing the palm of his hand did was give mine a tight squeeze; firm, dauntless, dangerous...reassuring.
“You can have someone respect you so much that they fear you, but you can’t have someone respect you through fear,” He told me in a voice hardly above a whisper, and I remembered saying something along the lines of that to Zacharias. “You won’t have to fear forever.”
And then he slipped his hand from mine, dropping his head in my direction as a sign of reverence. My hand, unwilling to drop itself, hovered in the air as it trembled. I watched as James retreated away from me, his long ponytail grazing his shoulder blades with each step he took. I tried to swallow but my throat had backed up.
You won’t have to fear forever.
His words oscillated inside my head, revolving dozens of times within the margins of my skull. What had he meant by those words? Had he meant that I respected Zacharias so much that I was afraid of him? Had James thought I tried to scare him into respecting me? Was he linking Zacharias and I to one another?
I hoped he wasn’t. Zacharias and I didn’t have a twisted Macbeth romance going on. Sure, we were two different types of fucked up, but I didn’t respect him, and by the way he treated me I didn’t think he respected me either. I knew I came off as hot-tempered but it wasn’t a contrivance to have people fear me. I hoped that wasn’t how I came across.
I pondered James’ words as I thawed and cracked out of my frozen state, turning around and facing the...pack house. How strange it felt, my limbs rubbery as I dropped my hand to my thigh, walking towards the front steps. My hand still felt the pressure from James’ momentary squeeze. His words sounded like they meant one thing, while his hand shake meant another.
As I walked up the steps, the puzzle piece seemed to finally connect; finishing the picture. Rotated, swapped and replaced, I realized James and I had made a connection; platonically, sentimentally. We had started off on the wrong foot, but ended on the right one.
As my hand wrapped around the doorknob, I realized James hadn’t been accusing me of anything. He had made me a promise. A promise that could’ve meant millions of different things, but a promise nonetheless. In that handshake, he brought me hope. And despite what his promise may or may not have been, I would cherish that hope.
And I would hold him true to his promise. Even in the absence of his elaboration, I knew that I would know what he meant when the time came.
I felt like Belle exploring the beasts castle upon entry, fascinated yet scared with the new environment. I stood in the middle of the main floor, observing my surroundings. It was dim like dusk inside, vague bronze lights lining the walls, stationed in between paintings of men and women with stares equally as calculating as the last.
I felt as though I should’ve been sporting a yellow ballgown as I looked around the room. This place had a musky, sour, mouldy smell to it. I was too scared to speak because I didn’t want to find out how many times my voice would echo back to me. My eyes had no issue observing, however.
I broke from my position, approaching the wall to my left. I assumed the pictures would be oldest on this wall, only because the frames were beginning to chip, the paint peeling, the motley of colours ashy instead of vibrant. I felt like a child, deciding to satisfy my imploring curiosity rather than following simple instructions. I wouldn’t go out of my way to find Zacharias. He could find me just fine. At least I wasn’t running.
The first picture dated back to the seventeen-hundreds. I found myself completely intrigued by the man in the picture. Tobias Grey, his name read. 1742 to 1760. Alpha.
Sharp grey eyes like thunderclouds, tanned skin, and shaggy dark hair. His lips were thin, pursed, not even smiling for the picture. His long nose was strong, straight, aristocratic. His shoulders, burly and broad beneath his historical attire. He was handsome—a leader. Someone of importance...of Alpha status.
Next to him was a painting of a woman. She, like him, looked incredibly strong. Evangeline Grey, her name read, taking after Tobias’ surname by default. 1742 to 1760. Luna. Long, ebony curls. Golden skin. Bright blue eyes. She, like her...soulmate, carried no smile beneath her sloped nose. She was lovely. Beautiful. The two made a stunning pair.
And they were the foundation of this...pack. They were the first Luna and the first Alpha. They started the bloodline, established this territory. They started from nothing so the following generations could build up to everything. I took a step back to look at both of their portraits, subconsciously bowing my head in respect for them and what they created. They had been the ones to pave the way.
I looked at their son, Maxwell Grey. He had his fathers grey eyes but his mothers ebony curls. His mate, Isabella Grey, was a dark skinned woman with large almond eyes and a face more kind than Evangeline’s. I was enthralled by the history of the men and women who once ran this pack.
As I got further and further down the years, and delved into the newer generations, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the women painted in the portraits went through the same thing I was going through. The paintings were ethereal—so flawless and perfect, but it was easy to hide the truth with the stroke of a brush. Were any of these women human as well?
It would’ve been useful if the artist put their classifications with their identifications, I thought bitterly.
I had skimmed through the portraits that encircled the room, completely enthralled by the magnificence of their attention to detail. It made me wish that I had pursued art in high school. But I never had an artistic hand. Although I now wished that I did.
I had reached the end of the line on the right wall. Four pictures remained, although I only honed in on two. Maximus Grey. 1988 to 2012. Alpha. His mate, Suzannah Grey. 1989 to 2012. Luna.
Zacharias was a splitting image of his father, with his mothers skin tone. His dad with his raven black hair, his emerald eyes—absent of the silver mutation. The full lips, the arched brow, the square jaw and the sharp nose. His mother was honey-blonde haired and blue eyed. Zacharias must’ve gotten the silver segment from his grandmother, whose eyes were silver.
I moved to the portrait of him, stared at it for a minute. Zacharias Grey. 2012 to 2023. Alpha. He looked lifelike in the painting, as if he was looking at me from a two-way mirror. They hadn’t missed a beat in regards to painting him. It was eerie how the painting incorporated the profundity of his eyes, the lines of his lips, the blue hue to his glossy hair.
And then there was me.
Beside him, a picture of me was hung on the wall. I felt my jaw drop as my eyes widened. I hadn’t remembered posing for this. But yet...there I was. Facing forward, from my chest up, I was painted. I wore a white shirt, like the one I was currently wearing.
And it looked...exactly like me. There were no subtle differences, no mangled strokes, nothing. But the one thing that stuck out to me the most were my eyes that weren’t painted the shade of brown they had been prior to my marking. They looked like the bronzed colour they were now. They even mastered my rosy cheeks that blushed against my dozens of centred freckles.
“What the—” I mumbled as I stepped forward, brushing my fingers over the oil paint. Edie Grey. 2018 to 2018. Luna. The paint wasn’t fresh nor cold, and it smelt aged instead of fresh. It was dried and glossy, as warm as the room it hung in. I felt myself clam up all over, feeling the uneven ridges of paint beneath my fingertips.
How on earth?
James couldn’t have miraculously painted me in the few seconds I had my back turned to him, nor could he have snuck past me to hang my portrait on the wall before I stepped inside. I didn’t think Zacharias was overly artistic. How the hell had this happened? Who had done this? I felt my blood run cold.
On cue, Zacharias approached me from behind. “These are painted by a blind woman blessed by the moon,” he said from behind me. I didn’t turn around to face him. “She’s immortal. She has lived longer than Alpha Tobias and Luna Evangeline. She gets visions of the future.”
“Has she always been blind?” I asked, focusing on our dates and memorizing them.
“Not until she stopped aging at the age of ninety-six,” he explained. “She hasn’t left her cabin in over three hundred years. She’s painted all of these portraits just from memory of her visions. The moon whispers to her what she needs to know to complete her paintings.”
“That’s incredible,” I whispered. “She’s gifted.” To be blind and to paint such masterpieces was almost as empowering as being deaf and one of the greatest composers of all time. I believed Zacharias when he told me about her. I could tell by his forwardness that he wasn’t lying to me.
“If being alive for nearly five hundred years can be considered a gift, then I agree,” he said, which doused what could’ve been a good conversation. “I don’t think she views it as a gift. Blessings aren’t always wanted.”
I turned around, looked him dead in the eye. “I agree.”
He ignored me. “You reek of my beta.” He sneered, crossing his arms over his broad chest as he looked down at me, raising a brow.
I felt sweat swell in my glands. Had he saw what had happened? I grew nervous and jittery, and tried, and failed, to hide my nerves. Zacharias was going to read right through me. “In what way?” I asked a little too defensively. I often got defensive when I lied. It was always how my friends and parents knew I was lying.
“In what way what?” He retaliated, taking a step towards me. I took a step back, smacking into my portrait. I held my arms out at my sides as if I was trying to protect painted me from living Zacharias. “I said you reek of my beta.”
“Oh, hell!” I cried. “What are you trying to suggest?”
“What are you trying to defend?” He deflected, taking another step towards me.
“Well!” I rushed out, trying to sound annoyed rather than suspicious. “You see, down in our little human towns, when you meet new people, its polite to shake their hand. Believe it or not, you haven’t drained me of all humanness. So, I shook his hand. If it makes you feel any better he instantly ripped his hand from mine as if it was swarming with maggots.”
He did seem pleased with my lie. I was just thankful he was buying it. “He was under strict orders not to touch you.”
“Yeah, I got that,” I said, then felt my cheeks burn. “But why?” I took a step away from my portrait. Zacharias seemed surprised that I wasn’t trying to retreat further into the wall like a phantom. “What’s so...blasphemous about a little contact?”
“You are mine!” He yelled, the aftershock from his explosion bending me backwards a little to escape some of the blow. “And I refuse to share you. You are not his. You are not going to be passed between the two of us like a football.”
It was ridiculous how we fought like a married couple over every little thing. I tried to convince myself to calm down so I could speak to him in a reserved way. But, like him, I was volatile and blew up.
“So me shaking his hand automatically means that I must want to...what? Sleep with him?” I took another step towards him, craning my head up in order to maintain eye contact. ”Fuck him?” I asked slowly and lowly, deliberately to anger him.
He was seething. He was too angry to even respond to me. I drove him up the wall as much as he drove me up the wall. I had never been a hostile, inconsiderate person until I was brought here...Zacharias unsheathed a side to me I hadn’t even known existed. And his imprint on me only caused my anger to heighten to indescribable levels.
But when I felt tender towards him...I did dumber things. I felt like my tenderness towards him romanticized and absolved the things he had done to me. My anger, arguably, was far more detrimental. But I would’ve rather died than ever lead him to believe there could be something between us.
There’s no romance in violence.
“You make me feel like a whore!” I hissed at him. “I’m not even yours.”
He reached out to touch me; perhaps to caress my cheek to call a truce. But I was too livid. I swatted his hand away, took a step away from him as I narrowed my eyes. How I would’ve loved to wring his neck...
“You don’t get that right. You know who you remind me of? You remind me of my father. Do you know what I think of my father? I fucking hate him. God, I can’t stand him. But I think I hate him even more now because when I think of him, I think of you. And you—” I raised my finger up at him. “Are not the lesser of two evils.”
He dropped his head but didn’t seem offended. His hands were balled into fists at his sides, but he was...listening. I was more than willing to draw the comparisons between the two evils. I hadn’t spoken about my father in so long. I hated humouring thoughts about him. I tried my hardest to forget him, but Zacharias was a constant reminder of what I had run away from.
“My father was such a terrible person, Zacharias. I didn’t know any better when I was younger,” I swallowed nervously, my voice lowering. “He was everything I romanticized. I thought he was a good man. I mean, he never hit my mother or I. But he committed adultery, and he psychologically fucked and belittled her. He didn’t start with me until I got older. You know, I wish he would’ve hit me so I could’ve seen the evidence of his abuse. It’s different when it’s in the form of words. I couldn’t see the evidence of my fathers violence, but I could feel it. How do you convince yourself it’s real...how do you convince other people it’s real?
“My friends never understood. My mom always tried to justify my fathers actions. I swallowed it down because he had never laid his hands on me. There were kids at school who had it worse than I did. I thought I was selfish for resenting my father. I could never do anything right, so it was my fault I was imperfect. My mom was every name in the book...we were always under his microscope.
“My home life influenced my school life. I dated boys who treated me like shit. Used me, took advantage of me, and tossed me away like I was nothing. But you know what? I thought it was normal because that was what happened at home. My mom tried everything to make it work between my father and her, and it never did because he was this controlling, miserable person.
“He always accused her of cheating on him because she was beautiful. When, in actuality, he was the one committing adultery, putting his guilt on her shoulders. When my father was out late at night at the bar and I’d be laying in bed, I would hear my mother sobbing in the bath because she was so fed up. I didn’t know what to do. I was so desensitized to it. There was no grey zone in our household. What was I supposed to do?
“When he started treating me the way he treated her, things became so ugly. I was only the shell of the person I aspired to be. I became my mom. Sedate, numb, insecure. I was sixteen when I left home. Would you like to know why I left? Because my mom, during one of her baths, sobbed, then suddenly stopped. I didn’t know why. It was so late...”
I choked up, feeling tears gather behind my eyes. I tried to blink them back, but they were brimming too dangerously.
“I fell asleep, and when I woke up again it was three o’clock in the morning. I woke up to my father screaming obscenities. Instantly, I ran to investigate. This was...different. It was of anguish instead of rage. It was the first time I had ever seen him care for her. And there...my mom laid in the bathtub, her bath water red from her blood. She had slit her wrists. She couldn’t take it anymore. She killed herself.”
My eyes were wide, and the tears hadn’t yet fallen. I was thankful, because I would’ve broken my promise to myself.
“And as he held her naked, bloody body to him, he looked at me with bloodshot eyes, breath a concoction of too many different types of liquor, and said these exact words: she killed herself because you aren’t good enough. You’ve never been good enough, and you will never be good enough.”
I took a deep breath.
“I left a week later with only the clothes on my back and a twenty dollar bill in my pocket, and spare money in my bank account. I snook out through my bedroom window and I’ve never looked back. It’s been three years. I finished my schooling through outreach programs and I was saving up for college. I lived in a shitty, decrepit house that’s falling apart because I was starting from the bottom and working my way up. But I must confess...I think this is truly my rock bottom. Being with you is my rock bottom.”
He looked at me as I dabbed my unshed tears with the collar of the shirt he bought me. “Violence breeds strength, Zacharias. I must admit, my father has turned me into a strong woman and I will forever thank him for that. It was the only good thing he has ever done for me.”
“You are strong.” He agreed softly, unsure of where I was going with my life story, and of what else he could say. I gave him a small smile.
“But I also have you to thank,” I said. ”Your violence gives me strength.”
And his head dropped, ashamed.