6 months later
The trees whipped past them as they raced through the forest, the glowing, pregnant moon following them across the sky. The sound of Ian’s breathing was loud in her ear as she lay flat against his back, her arms wrapped around the thick fur of his neck and her legs gripping his muscular flanks.
The steady gallop of footsteps thudded behind them, King’s voice echoing high above the treetops. Calling her name. Hold tight, Ian instructed her, like she wasn’t already, and suddenly they were airborne, flying off the edge of the towering cliff. The brilliant moonlight gleamed over the endless stretch of water, sparkling in the waves as they lapped over the bodies lying on the shore below. Dozens of them, some draped over the rocks at the foot of the cliff, others splayed haphazardly on the sand like broken dolls.
You did that, Ian said as they sailed high above the beach. You made them jump off the cliff.
I didn’t mean to. Serafina squeezed her eyes closed against the terrible sight. I just wanted them to leave us alone. Tears streamed down her face, soaking Ian’s thick pelt and dripping down to the rocky beach below. I didn’t know that would happen. I swear. You believe me, right? I didn’t mean to kill anyone.
Sera, stop, Ian said as her tears flowed harder, collecting in pools on the sand and pockmarking the water like rain. The waves swelled, raising the lifeless forms at the water’s edge and drawing them back from the shore as they receded. Dozens of fathers, brothers, and sons, all dead because of her.
I didn’t mean to, Serafina sobbed. I didn’t mean to.
Sera. Ian’s voice sounded strange as he shook her gently off his back. Sera.
“...Wake up, sweetheart. Sarah.”
Bonnie’s worried voice penetrated Serafina’s consciousness. Her voice was soft but her grip was firm as she shook Serafina’s shoulder. Serafina squinted against the shaft of light from the hallway as she opened her eyes. She was in her room in Bonnie and Abel’s mobile home in Mountain View, Bonnie half-sitting at the edge of her bed.
“Bonnie?” Serafina’s voice was scratchy from sleep. “What’s wrong?”
“Everything’s fine, sweetie.” Bonnie reached over to grab a tissue from the nightstand. “You were having a bad dream.”
Serafina didn’t realize she’d been crying until Bonnie leaned in to wipe her tears. She stayed very still, her eyes fluttering closed under Bonnie’s gentle, maternal touch. Enjoying the still-unfamiliar feeling of being cared for.
“Sorry. Did I wake you up?” Serafina pushed herself up against the headboard, trying to shake off the lingering images of the bodies on the beach from her mind. Not an actual memory, but still real. Still true.
“No, Abel’s snoring did that.” Bonnie’s kind, wrinkled face was wreathed in concern. “You kept saying ‘I didn’t mean to’.”
“Really?” Serafina clasped her hands in her lap. “That’s weird.”
“Hm.” Bonnie made a soft skeptical sound. “You have a lot of bad dreams, don’t you honey?”
Serafina gave a hesitant nod. She could hardly deny it after six weeks living in close quarters.
Bonnie looked sad. “Want to talk about it?”
Serafina shook her head. What could she say? I’m a mass murderer, I was dreaming about the people I killed?
Bonnie watched her closely, but didn’t push. She never pushed. “Well if you ever do want to talk, I’m here. Day or night.” Her pale blue eyes searched Serafina’s. “You know that, right?”
The kindness in her voice brought new tears to Serafina’s eyes. Her voice was scratchy and quiet. “Yeah, I know that.”
The sad smile was back. Bonnie smoothed an errant curl off Serafina’s face. “Abel used to have nightmares too. It’s part of PTSD. And please don’t try to tell me you don’t have PTSD,” she said when Serafina opened her mouth to do exactly that. “I’m a soldier’s daughter and a soldier’s sister as well as a soldier’s wife. I know what PTSD looks like. You and Ian both show the signs.”
Serafina swallowed hard. “Does it go away?”
Bonnie nodded. “With time, and therapy. You need to talk about what happened.”
Serafina bit her lip and looked down at her hands. Guess they were screwed then. Ian said they could never, ever tell anyone about the Rogue King or what really happened at the Church. Same went for goddesses, healing powers, blood-bonded guardians, or anything else that made them sound like they were living in a fantasy series. If only they were. At least then it would evenutally end.
She could feel Bonnie’s eyes and heard her sigh when Serafina didn’t respond.
“Tell you what.” Bonnie stood and smoothed her flowered nightgown over her hips automatically. “Since we’re both up, how about I make us some hot chocolate? We can sit and drink it outside.”
Serafina’s eyes rose to meet Bonnie’s patient gaze. “Okay.” That did sound good. Better than lying here in the dark remembering how the broken bodies had bobbed and shifted with the waves as they drew up, then receded from the shore.
Not for the first time, she wished Ian had never told her what happened. There’d been so much going on that night, Serafina hadn’t really thought about the men on the front lawn after they’d walked away. If Ian hadn’t shown her that newspaper the next morning, she’d never have known she was a mass murderer. The stark arial photos splashed over the page wouldn’t be permanently embedded in her brain.
Logically Serafina understood why he had to tell her. She needed to know what she was capable of if she was going to learn to control it. Ian never let her forget that escaping the Church din’t mean escaping who she was. What she was. She could argue with him all she wanted about being the White Goddess, but there was no denying Serafina could do things that other people couldn’t. Things that included what Ian called ‘compelling’ people to jump off of cliffs.
It took a few days for Serafina and Ian to realize it hadn’t been a one-shot thing born from a freak display of skyrocketing emotion. That she could charm people now the same way she did animals, mostly for food, shelter, and rides to the next town. She didn’t so much make people do what she wanted, as make them decide to do what she wanted all on their own. It still made her feel guilty though. No one valued freedom of choice more than she did.
A loud clanging followed by a soft curse came from the kitchen, bringing Serafina back to the present. A very nice present that included a real home with people who cared enough to dry her tears and make hot chocolate in the middle of the night from scratch.
Serafina heard her rainbow unicorn thud softly against the fibreglass wall as she threw off her blanket and swung her feet to the floor. She’d pick it up later and return it to its place of honour on the pile of pillows Bonnie had bought her. Serafina’s childhood may have been fucked up but it hadn’t been all bad. Other than her old sketchbook, the unicorn was the only thing she had left. Even her old yellow backpack had been replaced.
A loud snore erupted from behind the master bedroom door, making Serafina giggle as she stepped into the short hall. The double-wide was roomier than it looked from outside, with a full kitchen and an open-concept living area with a pair of comfortable couches arranged around the TV. There were only two bedrooms, so Ian slept in a tent on the campgrounds at the end of the park. This was the first place since they left the Church that he felt comfortable leaving her alone.
It was weird at first having Ian so far away at night after months of sleeping right next to him. Serafina snuck out to his campsite once when she couldn’t sleep, but there was a second silhouette inside Ian’s tent and it was embarrassingly obvious what they were doing.
She never mentioned it to him, and she never did it again. After that Serafina stuck to mindlinking Ian if she needed him in the middle of the night, but she tried not to do that either. Ian deserved some time off to hang out with his new friends, have sex with girls, and whatever else normal guys his age did for fun when they weren’t busy taking care of twelve year-old kids.
The porch swing creaked and swayed as Bonnie settled beside Serafina with a soft grunt. The hot chocolate was sweet and aromatic and not too hot, miniature marshmallows bobbing in the froth sprinkled with flakes of chocolate.
Serafina hummed her approval as she sipped the sweet, creamy brew. Bonnie flashed her a smile. She’d pulled a light robe on over her nightgown but she hadn’t tied it and her feet were bare like Serafina’s.
They’d left the outside light off over the door and the yard was dark and quiet with only the sound of the cicadas and occasional rustling of animals beyond the garden. All but one of the other mobile homes along the narrow road were plunged in darkness, barely visible between the outlines of the trees.
Bonnie raised her mug with a sigh of pleasure. “I’ll never get tired of this view.”
“It’s beautiful,” Serafina agreed. What seemed like a million stars carpeted the bright indigo sky, winking and glittering over the silhouettes of the treetops and the mountains looming beyond. A brilliant half-moon hung high above them like a jewel.
“When we first moved here from Oceanside—” The California town where Bonnie and Abel lived before he retired from the Marines. “—I’d spend hours out here every night. Even in winter.”
Serafina smiled. “It must be pretty when it snows.”
“It is, over there.” Bonnie gestured to the forest that surrounded the park. “Not so much that way,” she said wryly, tossing a thumb in the direction of the road. “You grew up near Monterey, right? Have you ever seen snow?”
Serafina shook her head. “Ian has, though.” Conrad took him to Frazier Mountain every January for a week of training in winter conditions. Ian loved those trips, which he felt as guilty about as Serafina did for hating when he went away.
“You’ll love it. And if you don’t, you’ll get used to it,” Bonnie joked. Her smile faded as she took in Serafina’s stricken expression. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t really get that cold. And you’ll both have boots and coats and anything else you need by then.”
Serafina’s heart contracted at Bonnie’s casual reference to the future. Like it was a given that she and Ian would still be here, living in Mountain View with Bonnie and Abel come the winter. That they’d be cared and provided for. It still seemed too good to be true sometimes. Most of the time, to be honest. Swept off the streets by a pair of quirky boomers to start a new life in a trailer park in the Rockies. It was like something off the Family Channel.
Serafina managed a wobbly smile. “I’m not worried.”
Bonnie’s eyes sparkled in the dim light. “Good,” she said softly, reaching out to pat Serafina’s leg. Her tone became nostalgic. “Do you remember the first time we met?”
Serafina’s eyes widened over the rim of her mug. A chocolate-soaked marshmallow slid down her throat as she gulped. Of course she remembered. It was one of the best and worst days of her life.
Best, because they’d met Bonnie and Abel. Worst because she’d killed three more people, this time right in front of her eyes. Three scary, mean-looking bikers, and according to Ian, rogue wolf shifters, who’d been trailing them since Prescott.
By sheer bad luck one of the bikers caught up to them at a diner outside Camp Verde where Serafina had charmed a couple of college girls into giving them a lift to Colorado. Ian hovering behind her shirtless didn’t exactly hurt.
When they hit the road the bikers followed, surrounding the convertible Beetle on the highway, grinning threateningly as they tried to manoeuvre them onto the shoulder and absolutely terrifying the girls. Serafina was scared too but her anger and guilt over getting the girls involved were way stronger. Way, way stronger.
Serafina hadn’t really registered the tractor-trailer lumbering behind them, or any of the surrounding traffic until she stopped screaming, exploding with fury at the bikers to stop following them.
Which they did.
The bikers stopped. Right there, in the middle of the lane, their feet braced on the ground and leather vests flapping with the passing cars, unmoving as the truck hurtled towards them with a blast of its horn and a high-pitched screech of tires as it attempted to brake.
But it was too late. Two of the bikers were crushed and one of them went flying under Serafina’s and the girls’ shocked and horrified backward gazes. Serafina had dreams about that, too, sometimes.
Of course Ian had stood up and shouted ′Whoo hoo! That’s right, assholes!′ before he realized no one else was excited by how ‘fucking cool’ that was. He apologized, but Serafina knew he didn’t really understand why she was bothered. Ian’s kill count had risen to double digits by then, all of them defensive but who was kidding who: he loved it. Ian was a warrior through and through and while she’d never say as much to his face, his moral code had more in common with King’s than it did with her own.
The driver and her friend were traumatized and who could blame them? Ian had wanted her to make the girls drive them to the next town, but it was hours away and Serafina felt too guilty. They compromised by waiting until they were at the foot of the mountain range, about twenty miles from the accident before Ian and Serafina took off, leaving the girls tucked safely at the side of the highway on the phone with police.
It took Ian and Serafina twelve hours to get to the outskirts of Flagstaff on foot, exhausted and dehydrated and looking like...well, like they’d just crawled out of the desert. Especially Ian, who had insisted on walking through the night, since his wolf could see in the dark. Serafina at least had managed a fitful doze for an hour on his back.
Just after daybreak they staggered into a roadside park, distinguishable from the surrounding area mainly by a parking lot and bathroom facilities where they washed up and changed into their only other clothes.
The water in the bathroom wasn’t potable, which was fine for Ian’s iron wolf stomach but not for Serafina. They found Bonnie and Abel having breakfast outside their camper van just off an unpaved interior road, where the older couple had stopped for the night on their way home from a wedding in Phoenix.
All Ian asked for was water but they soon found themselves sitting at the picnic table with Abel and Bonnie, fielding questions as they gratefully stuffed their faces.
“Your brother walked out of the trees like a soldier coming back from the war,” Bonnie was saying sentimentally, her gaze fixed on the sky. “We thought he was a lost hiker or something.” She turned to look at Serafina. “Then you stepped out from behind him.”
Serafina flushed under Bonnie’s affectionate gaze. “We must have looked super sketchy.”
“You looked hungry and tired. We didn’t know the half of it,” Bonnie added with a chuckle. She’d fed them everything they had in the camper and when it was obvious they were still hungry, Bonnie and Abel took them to a diner outside Flagstaff and fed them again. Back in the camper, Ian and Serafina immediately passed out and slept all the way to Utah.
But Bonnie and Abel didn’t stop there. Literally or figuratively. They didn’t just buy them a meal and offer them a lift to Colorado. They gave them a home. Their home. They treated them like grandchildren, buying them clothes, nagging them about sun protection, even arranging a job for Ian at the local pool.
They refused to take rent or money for anything. They just wanted kids around, someone Abel could take fishing and teach how to fix an engine and Bonnie could watch home reno shows and garden with. Someone they could spoil and fuss over.
The most amazing part—Serafina hadn’t done a thing. Everything Bonnie and Abel had given them, they’d offered before Serafina could ask. No charm or compelling or whatever you wanted to call it required. It was all them, Bonnie and Abel. From their own hearts.
A wolf howled in the distance. Serafina shifted in her seat to look at Bonnie’s shadowed face directly. “Why did you do it?”
Bonnie tilted her head, her silver hair catching the moonlight. “Why did we do what?”
“Give us your breakfast that day. Let us in your car. Take us home with you. Act like you care about us. Everything.”
Bonnie frowned. “We do care about you.”
Serafina didn’t argue that: They proved it all the time. But that didn’t answer her question. ”Now, but you didn’t know us then. We were strangers, two random homeless kids.”
“You were more than that,” Bonnie protested, but didn’t argue. She took a sip from her mug and lowered it, looking down. “We had a daughter, Abel and I. Back in California.” She paused, swallowing hard like she had to prepare herself to say the words. “She disappeared twenty-three years ago. She was twelve years old.”
Serafina’s heart contracted painfully at the grief in her voice. “That’s horrible. I’m sorry.”
Bonnie nodded sadly. “When you appeared like that, looking starved and half-wild, around the same age, with red hair like hers—I know you told me it’s not real, but in that moment—in that moment it was like Jessie had come back. Of course she’d be an adult by now.” The lines of grief on her face grew deeper. “Seeing you, needing help, needing a home, needing love...” Bonnie’s voice grew thick. “It was like a second chance.”
Serafina trapped a sob in her throat but couldn’t have held back her tears if she’d tried. Bonnie smiled damply and lifted her arm. “C’mere.”
Serafina didn’t need to be asked twice. The swing swayed as she scooted across the bench, careful to keep her mostly-empty mug upright between them as Bonnie’s arm curled around her shoulders, bringing Serafina close.
“Thank you.” Her tear-soaked voice was muffled against Bonnie’s chest. She heard the clink of the mug against the metal table as Bonnie put her hot chocolate down and wrapped her other arm around her. The round arms and plump curves Bonnie was always complaining about surrounded Serafina like a warm blanket. How grandmas, even pretend ones, were supposed to feel.
“No, sweetheart, thank you.” Bonnie’s arms tightened around her as her words triggered a fresh flow of tears. She stroked a gentle hand up and down Serafina’s back. “I truly believe some things are just meant to be.”
Her words stayed with Serafina as they went inside and she climbed back into her bed. Maybe the universe had done them a favour for once. Maybe the Family Channel was where they were meant to be.
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