Twenty-Two

“Ready?” Teddy asked, coming out of the room with the electric razor in hand. Julian had a towel over his shoulders to catch wayward hair, fingers playing with his soon-to-be-gone hair. Grey sat perched on the stool next to him, reaching over and running her hand through his hair too.

“I can’t believe it’s about to be gone,” she said. “You’ve had this hairstyle for so long.”

“It went out of style weeks ago,” Julian said. “About time for a change, honestly.”

“Let’s do it, then,” Grey said, hopping down. She looked like she was about to be sick as her feet hit the ground, jarring her still-healing ribs. Teddy gave her a sympathetic look—he still felt like he had a demon sitting on his chest, except now he also felt like he’d partied all night. It wasn’t a good feeling, but today was going to be all about Julian.

It was hard to believe that tomorrow, he’d be in the hospital and Teddy wouldn’t be able to be with him. The cancer diagnosis had been such a shock and Teddy had yet to fully process it. He didn’t know how Julian was keeping it together. But he did know that the hardest part for him in particular was that his best friend was going to be miserable and he couldn’t be there by his side. It was the first time in years that they wouldn’t be together longer than a week.

“You’ll facetime me, right?” Julian said, as if picking up on Teddy’s thoughts. He did that so often that Teddy sometimes wondered if he was secretly a witch. Wouldn’t that be ironic? All of them living in the supernatural world but thinking the others couldn’t know…but no, the truth was that Julian and Teddy were just on the same wavelength. Teddy didn’t know if he believed in soulmates, but if they were real, he and Julian were it.

“Of course I will,” Teddy said. “I literally can’t live without seeing you.”

“Aww, true love,” Grey said, fluttering her eyelashes suggestively and bringing her joined hands up by her face in a classic lovey-dovey pose.

“I’m not gay,” Julian joked.

“Yeah, we’re so unbelievably straight,” Teddy joined in.

“Oh, of course,” Grey said with a laugh. “My bad.”

“Besides,” Julian added, “The love story here is apparently yours. What all did you do with Math Tutor last night? When I called you back this morning, he answered the phone.”

Grey blushed. “His name is Alex, not Math Tutor. And we just…talked.”

“Uh-huh.” Julian arched an eyebrow and enunciated the word so slowly that one could not mistake his skepticism.

“And maybe we kissed…a little,” Grey added.

“That better be all you did,” Teddy said. “Or I’ll have to hunt him down.”

“Oh, stop it.”

“I wanted to say the same thing this morning. Do the whole macho male best friend thing. But figured it’d sound better coming from you, since you’re all tall and masc looking and I’m just a skinny queen,” Julian said.

“Well, you’ll look pretty masc too once we get this hair shaved off.”

“Let’s do it—I can threaten all of Grey’s boyfriends.”

“You’re terrible,” Grey declared, but she was laughing right along with them.

Teddy turned the razor on and it buzzed to life in his hand. “I’m actually kind of really excited about this,” Teddy said.

“Just go for it.” Julian clenched his eyes shut. “I can’t look.”

The whole process was done quicker than they had time to worry about it. The hair drifted down onto the floor in a dark pool. For that time, nobody was thinking about why it was necessary to shave his head; it was just a fun way of taking charge of the situation, taking a fashion risk Jules might not have had the courage to do otherwise.

When all was said and done, Julian reached up and ran a hand over his head, looking into a hand-mirror Grey had brought. “Oh my god,” he said. “It feels so good. Feel it!”

Grey and Teddy took turns rubbing his head, enjoying the new texture. “Your head is so much whiter than the rest of you,” Teddy teased.

“Right? This girl is apparently more tanned than she thought,” Julian said. “I’m going to have to fix that…”

The words trailed off and the reality came crashing back down around them. Julian would not be able to fix that, not for a while. He’d be in the hospital, and there was no way they’d let him sunbathe while he was there.

“Well, lucky for you,” Grey said, recovering first, “I have some tanning cream you can pop on there—no sun needed for a perfect tan where you need one. And an assortment of cute beanies, too, for when your head gets chilly.”

Julian smiled at her. “You’re a life-saver,” he said.

Grey grinned back. “I try to always be prepared,” she said.

Julian ran a hand over his head again. “I can’t believe it. I feel like one of those hairless cats.”

“We should get one,” Teddy said. “Maybe that’ll be your present for when you come home.”

Julian laughed. “They’re so ugly though,” he said.

“Hey, cats are always cute! Well, not as cute as dogs, but still—adorable,” Grey protested.

“Hm…maybe you’re right,” Julian said. “If we get one, though, we need to get one of those dark ones. The pink ones creep me out.”

“Agreed,” Teddy said. “I’ll make arrangements. When you get home, you’ll have a new buddy to keep you company while you recover.”

“Can’t wait…but speaking of presents and recovery, I have a request,” Julian said.

“Name it.”

“I need a new tattoo. Something profound, so I can look at it and remember what I conquered. And there’s this relatively new place in town that I wanted to visit for a consultation tomorrow—Full Moon Tattoo Shoppe. I’ve heard a lot of great things about the shop’s proprietor. They say he’s an amazing artist.”

Teddy felt his smile become a little strained. “Yeah?” he said, his eyes slipping over to Grey, who shrugged.

“Yeah,” Julian said. He seemed to be waiting for something, some tell. Where had this come from all of a sudden? It wasn’t rare for Julian to want tattoos—he probably had twenty of them by now—but it was strange that he wanted to go to this place in particular. Ulfric’s shop wasn’t that well-known; he’d only had it a few years and while it was true that he as an amazing artist, it seemed too convenient that everything had been happening and now Julian wanted to go to his packmate’s tattoo shop. But how had he found out about it? Kol didn’t know anything about Ulfric or his shop; Teddy had never mentioned it, and he doubted Grey had ever said anything about it, either, knowing how important it was to keep Julian separate from their dangerous world.

“Then we’ll go,” Teddy said. Saying no would only make Julian suspicious, and really, there wasn’t anything to hide. The tattoo parlor was a legitimate one, and if there was even the slightest chance that Julian had found out about it honestly, it was a safe enough venture. He knew Ulfric would do an incredible job on the tattoo, and that he wouldn’t do anything to risk the safety of his clients—especially if he knew the client was a friend of Teddy’s.

“Great!” Julian said. “Then it’s settled.”

“I wanna come too,” Grey said. “I’ve been thinking of getting another one myself.”

“Ohh, what of?” Julian asked.

Teddy just smiled; he had a couple of tattoos, too—just small ones he’d gotten to match Jules—but he had never been obsessed the way Grey and Julian were. He thought maybe he’d get a sleeve of flowers one day, but that day had not yet come.

“I want an owl,” Grey said. “They’re so pretty.”

Suddenly, her phone chirped and she reached into her bag and pulled it out. The smile she’d been wearing slowly drifted off of her face as she read the message and Teddy just knew it was bad news. Worse, it probably had something to do with their supernatural extracurriculars.

“What’s the matter?” Julian asked, sounding almost resigned. As if he knew that whatever it was meant that his friends would be disappearing in a moment.

“My parents,” she said. “They’re calling a summi—I mean, a meeting. Teddy, can I talk to you real quick?”

Teddy wanted to say no.  He wanted to tell her that whatever it was, he didn’t want to know about it. Not today, and not tomorrow. He promised Julian he’d spend time with him and that was all he wanted to do short of going to sleep for the next century and a half.

“Go ahead,” Julian said, giving them both a small smile. “I’ll just clean up this hair and head on to bed. I’ve had a long day—getting up early is exhausting.”

“You sure?”

“Positive. Go on—I’ll be fine.” Julian hopped off the stool and grabbed the broom, signaling that their conversation was over.

Teddy felt his stomach turn over inside of him. It felt wrong—everything. Julian should not have to clean up his own hair; he shouldn’t have to spend his last night in his own bed for the next month or so alone. He definitely shouldn’t be giving Teddy permission to leave when it was so obvious that he needed him; they’d even planned a proper send off for the hair that they hadn’t gotten around to.

But Teddy couldn’t ignore this. If the Council was calling a meeting when it was nowhere near a full moon, it was serious. With a sigh, he followed Grey out to the porch. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“It’s Shepherd,” Grey said. “He’s not doing so well, and Dad wants the packs to meet so we can decide how we’re going to replace him…you know, in case he dies.”

“Then we’d better go, huh?”

“Yes. It could change…everything.”

They locked eyes for a moment, exchanging a silent understanding that this was the last normal moment they were going to have. Whatever happened, good or bad, it was going to be a big change. And they had to know if they were ready.

“Let’s go,” Teddy said.

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