Twenty-Five

Julian couldn’t believe it. He’d never intended to hurt Ulfric when he’d come—he certainly hadn’t thought that the gift Teddy had given him could hurt anyone. Well, except Teddy, but he said that was just an allergy. This…it looked like a burn.

“I’m so sorry. What happened?” Julian quickly moved to grab the necklace off the floor where it had fallen, feeling oddly shaken. How could a necklace do that?

“I’m fine,” Ulfric said. “Really intense allergy to silver. I should have thought about it before I took that.”

Julian didn’t believe him. He didn’t know what an acceptable alternative explanation was, but he had never in all his life seen an allergic reaction to anything that was quite like it. Even his mother, who had a strong peanut allergy, never reacted like that when she came into contact with her allergen. It would close her throat and give her a rash, but it never burned her. Besides that, what were the odds that both Teddy and Ulfric had the same allergy and had an odd connection to one another besides? Was it a silver-allergy support group? Did they have things like that? If so, why was that a secret? Something wasn’t adding up here, but Julian didn’t have all the components he needed to put it together properly.

But now he wasn’t sure how to proceed. He felt like he’d stumbled upon something forbidden, which was his whole reason for coming here, but he couldn’t figure out what any of it meant. He slowly put his necklace back over his head, glancing uncertainly at his friends who looked inexplicably nervous as well.

“So you want a tattoo of the crystal?” Ulfric asked, bringing the topic back around. “What is it…amethyst?”

“Yes,” Julian said, allowing himself to relax a little as the conversation made its way back to familiar areas. “But maybe a little more…uneven? Like, sort of jagged. Raw.”

Ulfric’s pencil moved across the paper as Julian spoke, making strokes and erasing bits. Julian watched curiously, forgetting for a moment that the whole thing had originally been intended to find out more about the golden-eyed man. As the bearded man put down his black pencil and grabbed one of his colored pencils off the table, shading in bits with color, the crystal seemed to come alive. “Can you really pull that off on someone’s skin?” Julian asked without thinking.

Ulfric glanced up at him. “You came to me for a reason, didn’t you?”

He certainly had, but not for the reason he had said, so he felt a bit guilty as he nodded. “What do you think?” Ulfric asked, turning the finished picture so that Julian could look it over.

“It’s perfect,” Julian said, knowing this was it, that as soon as this conversation was over, his chance at finding anything else out would vanish. He would be in the hospital in less than an hour and then how would he find anything out? His wings would be clipped.

Just then, he caught sight of it. The picture—the same one he’d seen in Teddy’s book. Without thought, he reached for it, plucking it off the mirror. “Teddy’s in here,” Julian said, feeling a moment of triumph. “I noticed you were familiar with him when I walked in, but I didn’t think anything of it. How do you know each other?”

“Um…mutual friends,” Teddy said. It was clear that things had taken another turn that he wasn’t comfortable with, which meant Jules was that much closer to getting at the secret.

“Right,” Ulfric said.

Now was the question he’d wanted the answer to most of all: the golden eyed man. He pointed to him with one delicate finger. “Who’s this guy?”

“That’s…uh…Shepherd Collins,” Ulfric stated, glancing briefly at Teddy for help.

Shepherd. The name rang a bell. He was the one that Kol mentioned, the one who was apparently missing. “And where’s he?”

“Dead,” Grey said. “Or nearly. He’s not…you don’t need to worry about him, Jules. Besides, we’re running late, don’t you think?”

Just like that, the conversation was over. He looked at the guilty faces of everyone in the room—besides the one at the front desk, who still hadn’t looked up from her magazine—and then gave them a tight-lipped smile. “Right,” Julian said in a tone that said clearly that he knew exactly what they were trying to do, but he was more determined than ever to figure it out. “Guess we should hurry along. How much is this tattoo going to cost, do you think?”

“On the house,” Ulfric said. “Any friend of Teddy’s is a friend of mine.”

“Ulf…” Teddy began, but Grey shook her head. It was too late now—the fact of Ulfric and Teddy’s relationship was out in the open and there was no disputing it. Julian didn’t know why or how they’d gotten to be so close, but it was clear that they had a bond and that Teddy had kept it hidden for a reason. It was hard not to be upset about that, but Jules had known that going in. If Teddy had been up front with him in the first place, he wouldn’t have needed to go to these lengths just to find out anything. It probably wouldn’t even be that big of a deal.

Unless, of course, it was. He couldn’t forget the way Ulfric’s face had contorted in pain when he’d touched the silver of his chain, the way Teddy had held the necklace by a cloth when he’d first come out of the room. Would his face contort like that if he touched it with his bare skin?

They climbed into the car and Teddy turned it towards the hospital. The weight of the whole situation seemed to have settled on all of their shoulders and nobody was sure what they should address first: what happened in the tattoo parlor, or what was going to happen over the next few weeks. It was a painfully silent ride, but Julian couldn’t think of the right way to broach any of the topics he wanted to talk about. He didn’t even know what those topics really were.

They pulled into the parking lot of the hospital and Teddy pulled to a stop in front of the doors. Julian made no move to get out of the car, making it clear that there was still some words that needed to be said before he disappeared into those doors; doors he wasn’t even sure he’d get to walk out of.

“Jules…”

“Teddy…”

“Guys…”

They all began speaking at once, then halted before each descending into a fit of awkward laughter. “We’ve known each other too long,” Grey said. “Eldest first. Teddy, you’re up.”

“Jules, the relationship between Ulf and I…it’s not what you think.”

“Oh?” Julian asked, not sure what he thought it was but interested in hearing what Teddy was going to say.

“Yeah, we dated in the past. It wasn’t anything serious, but, you know, some feelings were involved.”

Grey made a complicated face and Julian sat back in the seat, folding his arms across his chest. He supposed that would explain why he hadn’t mentioned him. Anyone with eyes could tell there was some complex and potentially romantic feelings between him and Teddy. But at the same time, it had never stopped them from being best friends and best friends usually told each other everything. Julian had told Teddy about every one of his romantic encounters over the years and he had thought Teddy was doing the same.

More than that, though, it didn’t feel truthful. “He’s not your type,” Julian said. “In fact, he’s more my type. You like the clean-cut boys with nice haircuts and clean clothes; I’m more into the bearded lumberjack boys. What are you trying to keep from me?”

“That’s what I’m trying to say. I know you would have liked him, so I thought it would be a problem if I admitted that I’d dated him,” Teddy said, looking guilty. “It was a mistake, but we’re still friends and I just…I dunno.”

“Uh-huh,” Julian said. “What about you, Grey? What were you trying to say?”

“I wanted to say,” Grey began, “That I love you both very much. And I don’t want whatever this is to keep us apart. Things are going to be rough—for all of us—over the next few weeks. We have to be here for each other because it’s always been us against the world, and I can tell you’re not trusting each other and it just…it hurts me to see. Can’t we just…I don’t know, forget whatever it is that’s put this wedge of mistrust in our little group?”

“That depends,” Julian said, not unkindly. “Can the two of you actually tell me something that’s true? I keep hearing and seeing things that don’t make sense anymore. I was able to ignore it before, but now? It’s everywhere. And I don’t know that I have the time or the patience to wait for the two people I trust most in the world to stop hiding things from me.”

Julian watched as Grey and Teddy exchanged a look—the same look they always did when they were planning some kind of lie to tell him. At any other time, it would have annoyed him. But at this time, when everything in his life was so uncertain and he was about to resign himself to weeks of misery and pain on the off-chance that it would make him live just a little big longer, the look was especially hurtful.

“You know what?” Julian said. “Forget it. I’ll see you guys in a few weeks.” If I’m lucky.

Before either of them could say another word—another lie—Julian climbed out of the car and made for the hospital’s doors. He felt a lump in his throat, not wanting to leave things like this, wishing they would stop him, hoping they wouldn’t…but then the door to the passenger side, where Grey had sat this go around, opened and he turned just in time for her to wrap her arms around him.

“Don’t leave like that,” she said into his chest. “Don’t ever…I’ll tell you everything, okay? When you’re better, when we deal with what we have going on, I’ll tell you whatever you want to know, I promise. But don’t you leave angry. Never leave angry.”

Julian hesitated only a second before closing his eyes and returning the hug, holding her to him. “Promise?”

“I promise. And…don’t hold it against Teddy, okay? His hands are tied about this…and he’s worried about you. He wants to protect you. That’s all he’s trying to do.”

“Well, I wish he’d do less of that and more being honest with me. If he did…” Julian couldn’t say what would be different if he did. He took one lasts look at Teddy, who was staring at his hands on the steering wheel and refusing to look up, as if he were paralyzed. Julian shook his head. “I’ll see you soon.”

He pulled down his mask and pressed a brief kiss to Grey’s forehead—chaste, simple, like the ones they’d shared when they were a couple—then brushed some of her tears away.

He spared Teddy one last look, catching his tear-filled blue gaze, before the blonde looked steadfastly in the other direction. Julian shook his head and with that, turned back around to head into the hospital.

 

 

 

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