Chapter 28 - Crystal (Part 2)
The darkness lifted and the blurry shapes before her became clear. The forest came into focus with towering trunks and sparse green foliage and shrubbery.
She looked around at the trees around her. The forest wasn’t too dense and looked a little familiar. Her eyes widened when she saw the shack that once offered her and Tiberius shelter.
This was where her entire life changed.
Dashing forward, she ran through the brush and up to the dilapidated wooden structure. Her pounding heart sank when she looked inside to find it empty.
Where was Tiberius?
Heaving a sigh, she turned around and scanned the forest in hopes of finding him stalking toward her. Through the various shades of green leaves and brown bark, there was no dark brown fur with caramel swirls around gray eyes.
Disappointed, she trekked forward to the creek.
Everything was exactly as she remembered it without feeling any of it. She moved silently through the forest. Not a single branch snapped or leaf rustled under her feet. No breeze blew through the trees. No birds sang or chirped.
But the creek bubbled as she remembered it did over the rocks along the shallows.
She paused at the edge of the water and looked upstream and then downstream. Still no sign of Tiberius.
What if he didn’t show this time?
He will, she told herself.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed the anxiety of not seeing him from her mind as she exhaled and began to walk along the bank of the creek.
Fifty yards ahead, a fallen tree stretched across the creek.
She remembered climbing up on fallen trees as a kid to cross rivers and creeks. Testing her balance and jumping off with pride on the other side.
She wasn’t a kid anymore but smiled to herself as she stepped up to the tree and climbed up onto its trunk.
The absence of gravity and consequences made her feel braver as she spread her arms out at her sides and watched her bare feet take one step in front of the other.
The trunk sagged a little in the middle and she carefully sat down there to dip her toes in the water.
Staring down at her unclear, rippling reflection beneath her toes, she remembered the story of Narcissus in The Alchemist.
It seemed like ages ago when she cracked open that book at the library and read the prologue out loud to Tiberius. He’d known all along what it was about. She suspected he knew that the words within it would change her. That they would open her mind to the possibility of becoming more than she was, even if it was a little hokey in some parts. Regardless, some sentences and paragraphs truly resonated with her.
The lake wept when Narcissus drowned.
If you died, she told herself, many would cry.
She understood that now. She wasn’t alone anymore. She had so many people behind her that she had never conceived of reaching out to if she had only opened her eyes and looked around her.
“So much has changed,” she murmured to herself as her gaze drifted up from her toes to the stream of water before her.
A shadow rippled on the current twenty yards ahead and she looked up to see Tiberius standing there in human form. A look of uncertainty on his face turned her smile into a frown.
“Why are we here, Cris?”
She looked around them for a second before her eyes fell upon him again. “Why not? This is where we met.”
“This is where I hurt you,” he answered, lowering his head.
She tilted her head. “This is where my world changed. For the better.”
He closed his eyes and exhaled, his shoulders slumping. “Thank the Goddess,” he mumbled.
“I forgot all about that,” she confessed as he walked toward her. “I was scared at that time, but I was scared a lot before that too.”
“And now?” he asked as he paused a foot away from her.
Reaching up, she opened her arms for him to step into. When he did, and he pressed his body to hers, she wrapped her arms around him and leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Now, not so much,” she whispered. “I’m stronger. Braver. Because I have my mate by my side.”
“Can you hear your heart speaking to you now?”
She smiled. He was referencing that book that she was just thinking about. “Uh-huh,” she hummed. “I’ve faced some of my fears that have buried my heart. Now that I’ve removed some of them, I can hear it shouting at me.”
And it’s calling for you.
She closed her eyes, wishing this was real so she could feel him.
“Good,” he replied and exhaled loudly next to her ear. “Because my heart is shouting so loud now, Cris, that I’m scared.”
He pulled away only so he could lean his forehead against hers. “Because now I have to tell you everything. And you’ve been crying so much… I know this has been hard on you. I don’t know what you’re thinking. I don’t know how you will take it.”
He took a deep breath before exhaling slowly. “Everything is my fault. What makes it worse is how this affected you. If I had known you would suffer so much, I would have never gotten involved with Catherine—or at least went looking for you before shifting became a problem. But I…”
He whined like a sad puppy. “I didn’t believe her. I thought she was joking and I laughed in her face. She was fuming when she cursed me and that tipped her over the edge even more.”
He swallowed. “I never saw her again after that. I thought, finally, she’s gone. I couldn’t shake her off before that, so her disappearing was a relief because I had figured out what she had done and it made me sick.”
Pulling away, he cupped her cheek in his palm and gazed down at her with a world of regret shining in his eyes. “Goddess, Cris, I’m so sorry you were affected as well. I want to beat the shit out of me for letting things go on for so long. For letting you suffer for so many years because of my fuck up. You didn’t deserve any of it.”
“Will you tell me what happened?” she asked.
He swallowed and nodded. “It’s time I came clean.”
The old her would have been nervous. The old her would have started freaking out and maybe have a seizure.
But the agony on his face tore through her. Even if he had done something horribly wrong, he was racked with guilt.
She knew that kind of torture. That kind of Darkness nearly destroyed her.
“I’m sure whatever you did isn’t as bad as what Catherine did,” she said.
He nodded, his gaze lowered as he took her hands in his. The water shimmered in the perforated light shining down through the treetops.
“I’m not the same male that I was before all this, Cris. I admit it, I was a cocky, arrogant asshole. I was jealous of my brothers. Domo for being the apple of my parents’ eyes and our future alpha when the time comes, and Lance for being the baby my mother doted on. I challenged my older brother’s authority and bullied my little brother for the sole purpose of wanting to feel superior. The age difference between me and Lance is small in lycan biology and ever since he was born, I felt like I didn’t get the attention I deserved compared to my older siblings.”
He shook his head lightly. “It’s no excuse, I know that now. I had plenty of time to think about everything since I left home a year ago. I took off in a fit of rage when Lance—my little brother, of all males—found his mate and Domo then left in search of his. I get that Domo felt his position as future alpha was threatened by our younger brother finding his mate first. A pack needs a mated alpha and luna to lead and Lance finding his mate threw everyone off. The position will go to him and his mate once he finishes training. Domo spent his entire life training to take on the pack and our little brother, who only just matured a few years ago, found his first? Domo was devastated. I don’t blame him. But I needed my mate too. I knew time was running out and I needed to find you before it was too late.”
Brushing his thumbs over her hand, he heaved a sigh. “So, I took off and that journey changed me. Challenged me in ways I’d never been challenged before. Attacked multiple times by packs who deemed me a threat and I was just trying to pass by. I hurt others, but it was always in self-defense. I learned what it meant to be truly alone in the world. I thought I knew what loneliness felt like before, but I was wrong. I always had my parents, my brothers and sister, and pack there if I needed them. I was too blind to it before.”
Crystal nodded, knowing how much loneliness played a role in her life before Tiberius as well. Tiberius stayed strong, while she gave into the Darkness.
“I thought about you all the time,” he continued. “Wondering who you were and how strong your heart was. I thought you would be the one to heal me because I was lost and broken.”
“And I was the lost and broken one instead,” she murmured.
He looked into her eyes then. A crooked smile played across his face. “No more than I, but I think that helped us. We both saw our weaknesses through each other and in wanting to see each other grow and become stronger, we did as well. We reflected each other at our best and we were strong when the other was weak. That made us stronger.”
Agreeing, Crystal nodded her head, though she still saw herself as the weaker mate.
He caught her chin as she lowered her gaze and forced her to look back into his gray eyes. “You’re stronger than you think, Beautiful. Believe me.”
“You always believed in me, didn’t you?” she whispered.
He smiled, making her heart swell. “And I always will.”
She swallowed as she reached up to touch his cheek. “It’s hard for me to picture you as an asshole.”
“Oh, I was. No doubt about that. I got what I had coming for me, though. I got burned in the worst way imaginable.”
“Yes, but discovering how my curse affected you? I’m not going to lie, Cris, I’m still hurting over that. Catherine, I could deal with. But seeing what I did to you? Nothing compares.”
Crystal frowned at him. “Catherine did this, not you.”
“It’s still my fault,” he grumbled.
“So then, what happened with Catherine? Why did she curse you?”
He lowered his gaze, his shoulders slumping. “You ready to hear this?”
“Remember, I was a jerk before all this,” he reiterated.
“So, you pissed her off? She still had no right to curse you. You’re a lycan and she’s a human and not your mate. I know you guys have strict rules about interacting with humans.”
He hooked his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans and stepped out from between her legs. She pulled her legs together as he stepped around her and leaned his back against the trunk of the tree next to her.
“I did more than piss her off. I brushed her off when she first laid eyes on me. She stepped out of a crowd of tourists gawking at the canyon and walked up to me to say hi and initiate a conversation. I was on horseback and tipped my hat to her before turning away.”
He sighed as he looked up at the sky. “I don’t remember how much time passed before I saw her again—maybe a few days.” He lowered his head and looked straight ahead. Unhooked a thumb and rubbed his chin. “It was a scorcher. Hotter than most days and I ran out of water quickly. I was waiting for someone else to come and relieve me. I stood under the shade of a tree, watching over the tourists coming and going. Fewer people than usual because it was high noon and hotter than blue blazes.”
He crossed his arms. “Catherine came up to me and said something about the weather. I didn’t remember her at first because we see so many tourists every day. I tipped my hat and that action got me thinking she seemed familiar. My first clue to get up and take my horse somewhere else should have been the long gypsy patchwork skirt, but when she pulled a bottle from her cloth bag slung around her shoulder and offered me a drink, I was too thirsty and stupid to decline.”
He huffed and looked down at the shimmering water. “It was some kind of love potion she gave me.”
A tightness constricted around Crystal’s chest and she could hear herself breathing heavily and her heart pounding in her ears. Her vision wavered and blurred as Tiberius glanced up at her with a look of guilt that quickly changed to alarm.
His plea sounded far away as she was thrown into the realm of consciousness, violently convulsing and wheezing in a sea of blood-red.