The son of Terrin and Syn was an odd little duck, that being said I expected him to have strange hobbies and maybe even have an interest in creepy things. At fourteen old he certainly didn't behave like a normal teenager, well except for the not listening to anyone part. Yet somehow I did not expect the stacks of paper in my hands to be what they were. Half were letters, written correspondence that Malik had somehow gotten a hold of. And it wasn't just one or two, but months of notes.
My pack-mates made it sound like Malik's interference in Forest Kingdom affairs was relatively recent, but the papers in my hand were proof of otherwise.
Malik must have been at this for months and had somehow kept it a secret for this long. The notes themselves were treasonous, they spoke of overthrowing the Forest King. They were obviously written by other Foresters who did not care for a higher power beyond the pack Alpha. Between the notes that spoke of uprising and assassinations there were also detailed descriptions of all the Forest Kingdom packs, the hierarchies sketched out and where their loyalties laid.
Malik had obviously been classifying the packs based off of their values and stances as Forsters, if they were for the King or against him. Malik's messy scrawl drafted out plans, step-by-step courses of action to create mass mayhem within the Forest Kingdom.
Like a puppeteer he had his act all planned out, he had his puppets, he knew which strings to pull, and he knew how the story would play out. There were still some holes, vital missing pieces he had yet to discover a solution or counter attack for but I didn't believe that would be the case for long.
The kid was meticulous, obviously working out several possibilities and discarding them based off of their predicted outcomes. His insight was scary, to know that such a young boy could accomplish all of this without anyone knowing was unnerving.
He'd only just been caught which is probably why the latest documents were from last week. It was clear he been using Hakota's name to gather his information from our spies set up in the Forest Kingdom. The notes were copies, written in different penmanship. If I had to guess, Malik and let everything pass to the intended receiver to avoid suspicion. But with all of the information he had, he could easily stage a massacre with a few false letters or words.
Dumbstruck, I replaced the papers in the cutting board. If he knew this much about the Forest Kingdom, what secrets in our own pack did he know? He had discovered mine within a day and I suddenly wondered if he knew things we didn't know about each other.
Were our secret safe or would he use them like he was preparing to use what he knew in the Forest Kingdom?
Nervousness raced through me.
Malik didn't seem like someone who would care about the side effects as long as he got the desired result which could spell danger. Despite his conniving brilliance, he was still young and his mistakes could be a disaster.
The kid obviously preferred to be a lone wolf, certainly not confiding in either of his fathers or anyone else in our pack. But he had reached out to me, giving me his secrets. What did he expect me to do? Was he simply waiting to see if I would expose him? Was this a test? Obviously if I betrayed him our blossoming friendship would come to an end and he'd probably bring a light to my own secrets if I did so with his.
The burden on my shoulders doubled.
Malik needed to be watched and kept in check and right now it looked like only I had that ability. The kid didn't seem to have bad intentions, if anything it looked as though he wanted to help me. Then again, he didn't seem like someone to give something for nothing.
I had questions for the boy, things I needed to clear up, intentions I had to find out.
Finding Malik though prove to be a difficult task. His whereabouts were unknown by the staff and even Nahta and Kieran hadn't the slightest clue.
"Why are you looking for the little mongrel anyway?" The female asked me. "If he's bothering you, ignoring him is the best way to get him to go away. He hates boring things which fortunately he thinks we all are." Nahta unthreaded her plated braid, running her fingers through her blood red hair to fluff it out.
"Or just tell Terrin," Kieran added, "he'll leave you alone if only so that he doesn't have to listen to his dad's lecture."
Their distaste for the young kid troubled me. He was obviously outcast and buy the younger members of the pack but it almost seemed intentional on Malik's part.
"He doesn't have any friends?" I asked them. Isolation for a brilliant mind was a dangerous thing.
Nahta only snorted, "Do you think anyone would want to be his friend?"
Keiran coughed under his breath, "Like you have room to talk you abusive witch." Nahta sent a solid kick to his shin, proving his point. The son of the alphas yelped, "Dammit Nahta, take a joke."
The pair was well fitted despite their discorded front. They obviously were close, as normal between an alpha-beta pair.
"And he has no secret hiding place he always goes?"
"Well of course he does," the female drawled, "but it wouldn't be a secret if anyone knew about it," she pointed out.
Kieran sighed, "Look Sitka, if you're trying to find him, he'll know. Malik only comes out if he wants to be found, searching for him is pointless."
"I'm not sure if you're complimenting me or insulting me," the said boy spoke, coming between Nahta and Kieran, slinging his arms around their shoulders.
"Oh get off," the female ducked out of his hold, "and stop sneaking up on people, it's rude."
Despite her standoffishness Malik didn't seem to mind her frostiness. "Always a ray of sunshine," Malik crooned at her. "And I do have friends by the way," he added, looping his arm through mine, "you're just jealous you're not one of them." The female rolled her eyes and the teenaged boy smarted, "Excuse us, but the adults have to talk now."
The boy pushed at the hot tempered female's buttons. "Look here you white-eyed cretin–"
"All right, Malik, let's go," I said, "stop antagonizing your pack mates." I jumped in before the two could get into it, grabbing hold of Malik's shoulders and steering him away from the other two. "And here I was, worried you didn't know how to be a kid," I muttered, suddenly a little grateful for how many petty fights that happened on a daily basis between the kids during their teenage years I must have missed.
"You sound like my dad," Malik muttered, "he's unhappy when I act like a kid and he's unhappy when I don't."
I looked down at the sulking boy, leading us out of the castle gates to take a walk around the fortress walls. "He's just worried about you, what you are doing is dangerous and you could hurt a lot of people if you make a mistake," I said lowly. I didn't snap at him or lecture him, he obviously got enough of that from Terrin and he was ostracized by his other pack mates so he didn't need it from me. The boy felt quite alone and he really did just need a friend.
"I know that," he replied, scuffing his feet against the ground, "but you've seen that I think everything through. I'm not going to do anything without knowing the repercussions."
"Malik," I stopped him, "why are you so invested in the Forest Kingdom?"
The young boy was silent at first and I was beginning to think he wouldn't answer when his quiet and vulnerable voice, so different from his mocking superior tone he used with Nahta and Kieran, cut through the silence, "At first I was just trying to understand what I am. I want answers, I want an explanation for why I'm so different. But after I..." He cut himself off and sniffed, his indifference slamming back into place, "whatever, it was stupid anyway." He kicked a rock in his path, his hands shoved deep into his pockets.
"Malik," I said softly, "searching for answers isn't stupid."
The boy scoffed, "I wasn't talking about that being stupid," he kicked the rock again when we came upon it, "I was talking about trying to understand my dad." He glanced at me before clicking his tongue in annoyance, "Oh don't look at me like that," he shot me a glower, "and don't you dare tell me he's proud of me either." He looked up at the blue sky, "I'm obviously the bane of his existence. All I ever do is mess up in his eyes."
The thought that Malik was trying to make his dad proud of him was not something that had ever crossed my mind. I was at a loss, never having to help play family therapist before. I didn't know if it was better for me to say something or just listen, but I felt it was necessary to tell Malik that Terrin had to care about him if he was always concerned about what he was doing but I didn't think the teenager wanted to hear something so generic. "Why did you think you will understand Terrin better by studying the Forest Kingdom?"
The boy shrugged, "Well I know it won't help now. Like I said, it was stupid. It's just that he grew up there. I thought that maybe if I followed their way of thinking and traditions he'd like me a little."
"Like you a little?" I was confused now, "Malik, do you think Terrin hates you?"
The boy bit his lip, "Hate? No," he shook his head, "if he hated me he'd have tossed me out along time ago but I'm trying to keep it from going that far."
"Do you really believe that Syn and Terrin are going to kick you out of their family?" I was incredulous, not understanding how someone so smart could be so stupid.
Malik only stared at the ground as he kicked the rock, this time breaking apart into three pieces as it skittered away. "If I'm just an annoying nuisance, why wouldn't they?"
I grabbed his shoulder then, forcing him to look at me. "You are their son."
"But I'm not actually," he snapped, brushing my hand off his shoulder, "I'm just some mutant hybrid they took pity on. They aren't obligated to keep me if I turn out to be worthless and a bigger burden than asset."
"So all of this, all of your meddling and hard work in the Forest Kingdom is to impress them? To prove your worth?" I didn't know how I had missed this before. Malik was still a kid and every kid desired to feel wanted, valued, and loved.
"Look, they took me on alright? I feel obligated to pay them back. If I take care of the Forest King for the pack, then I'll prove my usefulness. I don't want my dads to think they made a mistake bringing me in. So trust me when I say I'm not going to hurt this pack. Maybe they don't think of me as their family, but they are family to me and I just want to stop disappointing them."
"Kid, you're scaring the crap out of Terrin by getting involved. What you're doing is dangerous, no matter your intentions. Just trust me when I tell you to that your dads are never going to cast you out. As for the answers you are looking for, the Forest Kingdom doesn't have them. Have you ever thought that maybe if you just talk to Terrin you can fix all of these misunderstandings?"
"Talking doesn't fix anything," he murmured, "when secrets come out everything gets messed up."
In a low voice I warned him, "Secrets are more dangerous when kept hidden."
The teenager whirled on me, his lips curling up, "Oh yeah? Like your secret?" Malik retorted, "please."
My lips pressed into a flat line. I knew it was hypocritical of me but my secret really could do more harm than good if spilled at the wrong moment. Talking with Terrin would only fix things. "Secrets have done more harm to this pack than good."
"Do you think I don't know that?" The boy snarled, his white eyes glowing with fury. "Do you think I haven't seen my dad's scars? Or noticed the way my father looks at them so guilty?" He gestured at his neck, "Do you think I haven't seen the matching scars on our alphas and found Coda to tell me their story? And then there's you, mateless for centuries only to return home to find her mated and in misery to another." Malik gnashed his teeth, "Yeah, I know the tragedy of secrets but it's better that some things remain unsaid."
I clenched my jaw unable to refute his words.
The burning anger in his eyes dimmed and his shoulders slumped when I didn't respond, "Look Sitka, I like you, and we can both help each other. You keep my secret and I'll keep yours. We can both just keep our mouths shut until we solve the problem."
The hardheadedness in this pack must have been a genetic trait because it seemed like all of the children had inherited it from their parents. Their lack of willingness to listen to advice was becoming problematic. "Malik, we can't take on the Forest Kingdom ourselves."
The determined look on his face in response was terrifying. "You have no idea what I'm capable of."
Suddenly I could understand Terrin's frustration with this boy. "Malik–"
He stepped back from me, his eyes hardened along with his voice, "Don't betray me, Beta. Just trust me." He looked at me with such an adult expression, his chin raised and his eyes reflecting his unbending will. It wasn't defiant it was superior. He was warning me, not provoking me.
The young hybrid took his leave, done with our conversation and apparently no longer in need of someone to listen now that he had steeled himself to carry out his plans regardless of what advice I had to offer.
"Malik," I called after his retreating figure, "people are stronger together than alone."
He stopped and turned to me. "I know," there was a ghostly hollowness in his eyes, "that's why I'm trying to keep myself from ever being alone."
I was helpless to watch the boy walk away for me then, wondering how and why everything was such a mess. It was like Lune had cursed or pack forever with the sickness of loneliness. Something about a soul empty of company really messed with your priorities and pushed you to the extremes.
"He knows about us, doesn't he?" Winter's voice startled me. I had been so lost in thought I hadn't heard her approach.
I sucked in a breath, "You heard all of that?" I asked, wondering how neither I nor Malik had sensed her.
My mate stepped up beside me, our hands brushing together but neither of us having the courage to thread them together in public where someone might see. "No, I didn't hear anything," she admitted, "I just saw him walking away at the end."
I shot her a sidelong glance, "Then how did you know?"
My mate drew in a deep breath, "Malik knows everything, there isn't a secret in the world safe from him."
I turned my eyes skyward, "You don't seem worried."
"That's because I'm not," and indeed she sounded at ease with the knowledge that the young boy knew our secret, "Malik can keep a secret." The female stretched her arms over her head and let out a long sigh, "But anyway, I told Jeko today that I was moving to my own room."
She stated it so casually I almost didn't see what the problem was but when I did I felt instant panic. "Winter, I just got here and suddenly you're moving to a separate room? That looks really–"
"It makes sense actually," she interrupted me, "I told him that seeing you waiting so loyally for your mate made me realize that I shouldn't be putting up with his shit. I told him that I deserved better and if he doesn't want to be my mate then there's no reason for us to act or pretend like it."
"And he didn't bat an eye," she replied, gathering up her hair into a ponytail to make it more manageable in the humidity. "He thinks I'll be back when I get tired of being alone." Her hands smoothed over her blonde hair before dropping to her sides. "He told me to come find him when I stop being sentimental."
I huffed, "In moments like these I'm glad he's an asshole, it makes all of this easier."
Winter sucked on her lower lip, "While it's nice for things like this, it's a pain in the ass when it comes to actually getting rid of him."
I grimaced, "I know. And because his loyalties lie in the Forest Kingdom it makes all of this more difficult. He's a lycan now thanks to your bite, which means we can't let him leave the pack." Simply kicking him out wasn't an option. "We have to kill him."
My female turned to me, her feet crunching on the gravel as she swiveled to the side. "But I already told you that we can't," she hissed.
"I know we can't," I stressed and luckily she caught my hidden meaning.
Winter crossed her arms, "So what? Do you want us to frame someone else? Indirectly murder him?" She was already shaking her head, her ponytail waving back in forth because of the motion. "Eventually someone would find out the truth. Besides, it would be too suspicious if Jeko died and we came out as mates."
That alone would be enough to indict us. The Forest Kingdom would take that as proof of foul play and launch war. "So we do nothing," I growled my hands clenching into tight balls, "We sneak around forever?"
No matter what solution I came up with it would never work in the end. Trying to find Jeko a new mate would be pointless because he had mated Winter to give the Forest Kingdom an advantage. He would never leave her if it meant going against his father or betraying the Forest Kingdom. Besides that fact, we wouldn't be able to let him leave the pack now that he was a lycan. They would probably use him to try and create another version of the Spiders. They had made a breakthrough with Malik as he was still alive and in good health but who knew what else they could do if they had years to experiment.
"The I somehow have to get Jeko to break our mating. Maybe I can push him to the point he'd rather face his father than stay here."
Winter shrugged, "Well there's no way he's going to get sex from me anymore. On top of that if the pack segregates him the isolation will drive him away."
"That still leaves him alive," I countered. Letting out a stressed and frustrated breath I rubbed at my temples, "Maybe we should just tell the truth, Winter," I confessed, my talk with Malik about the destructiveness of secrets seeming like a foreboding premonition. "Perhaps we can come to an agreement."
My mate however was not in accordance with me. "An agreement?" She laughed bitterly, "Like what? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday I'm your mate and Friday through Sunday I'm his?"
"You're being ridiculous," I reprimanded her and then gave her a more realistic example. "He can be your mate in name while I'm your mate in everything else. You would moved in with me, our relationship would get to be public and he gets to keep his mark on you."
Winter tugged at the end of her blonde ponytail, "And you'd be okay with that?" she demanded, flipping her hair back over her shoulder, "Never getting to mark me?"
"Of course I'm not okay with it!" I whispered fiercely, my rising temper not enough to make me forget about where I was and who could be listening. "I'm not okay with any of this," I hissed, flinging my arm out, "but I don't really have a choice do I?"
We were nearing the front entrance of the castle again so I stopped before he reached the gate. I quickly scanned our surroundings, a lone sentry standing atop the castle walls. Dropping my voice to a low whisper so he wouldn't be able to hear I turned to my mate. "I wish everything was normal," I told her, "I wish the first time I saw you I could've claimed you and marked to you. I wish I could've kissed you and shown you how happy I was to finally find you, but that's just not the way it worked out. I wish I didn't have to settle but if that's the best I can get then fine."
The female crossed her arms and looked away, "And children?" She asked in a raspy voice, "what happens when he demands a child?"
"He doesn't. Your children are mine and mine alone."
Her blue eyes fell on me dully, glassy from the tears of sorrow she was holding back. "He's not going to accept that and he'll use the Forest Kingdom to threaten us. A compromise is never going to work, Sitka. He needs to die or disappear."
And yet it couldn't be that simple. We were at an impasse, his death that wasn't an option was our only real choice. Keeping our mating a secret forever would be impossible and I wasn't willing to do that. I had waited too long to hide in secret. If it came down to it, I would risk war and march into the Forest Kingdom to kill the King myself. "So I'll challenge him," I said to my mate, seeing no other option.
Aggrieved Winter clasped her forehead, "We've been over this Sitka. We can't."
"Then what if I get him to challenge me?"