Rise: Chapter Thirty-Seven

Thirty-Seven

The storm outside was still raging. It seemed that ever since her father had been killed and Teddy had almost followed, the sky couldn’t stop crying and neither could Grey. She’d had had to explain to Teddy’s family what was happening because he wasn’t in any shape to do so, and the guilt she’d felt during the entire conversation had nearly suffocated her. She knew she’d have to talk to Julian about it again, too. That was going to be a difficult conversation to have, no doubt. He’d been so understanding and quick to act when she’d first told him about it, sending them an angel in the form of his very own nurse, but now that things weren’t so dire, she knew she was in for an interrogation. He’d want to know everything; soon, he’d know it was Grey’s fault that Teddy was in the shape he was in because she’d been stupid, leaving him alone with Shepherd even knowing what he was capable of.

Teddy was sleeping again, his breaths evened out. Grey didn’t think she could ever leave his side again, not after what had happened. It had been terrifying, seeing the normally strong and vibrant man limp and lifeless for days on end. And then, when he wasn’t so lifeless, full of agony—calling out Julian’s name, her name, his body twisting and making the injuries even worse as they struggled to calm him down. She let out a shaky breath.

The door behind her crept open, and she glanced behind her to see that it was Alex. He looked as exhausted as she felt, dark circles beneath his eyes and a careful expression on his face. They hadn’t really had a chance to talk about their relationship but she knew that was going to have to come up sooner or later, too.

“Hey,” Alex said. “We need to talk.”

Grey nodded, although she didn’t know if she had the strength to deal with all of this. She’d lost her father, almost lost Teddy (and Julian, though under different circumstances) and she didn’t know where her mother was or if she was okay. She’d been in care-giver mode since Teddy had gone down, which helped to distract her from the other stuff. Now that he was fine, everything was coming down on her at once.

Still, she couldn’t allow herself to give in, to think of any of that just yet. She still had so much that needed doing; they had talked a lot about what Shepherd’s true plan must have been; she’d explained to them how he had tried to kill Teddy in an attempt to get stronger, which prompted Alex to explain an old myth about how a beta’s strength could be taken back into the Lycan who changed him if he killed him.

But they had also found out something important: that Teddy was quite a special case, considering he had rose to alpha status while his Lycan alpha was still alive, and if Shepherd truly wanted to be invincible, he would have to have Teddy willingly sacrifice his life to his alpha. It had been a relief; there was no way that Teddy would ever give himself up like that, not to Shepherd. Not with Grey still here; not with Julian waiting for him. It also meant that Shepherd likely wouldn’t come back for Teddy just yet. He’d have to find some leverage, which meant they had time to plan their own counter attack.

“Grey?”

It took her a moment to realize that she’d zoned out after Alex had asked her to talk. Her mind seemed to be working itself in circles lately. “Sorry,” she began, then rose shakily to her feet.

The world tilted wildly in her vision and she felt the moment her legs started to buckle, but she could do nothing to stop it. Alex was there in a flash, catching her in his arms. When Grey’s vision cleared finally, she found herself looking into his concerned face. “Are you okay?” he asked, voice laced with more care than she had any right to expect after their last encounter.

“I’m fine,” she said, shaking her head and trying to disentangle herself from Alex’s arms, but he held onto her.

“You’re not fine,” he said with conviction, gazing at her with an inscrutable look in his eyes. “You’ve been trying so hard to keep it together for all of us, and nobody has been looking after you. I’m sorry, Grey. You’ve had it worse than all of us.”

Grey would have argued. She was not fragile; she didn’t need anyone to look after her. But she had no strength to do any of that and she couldn’t help it, curling herself up into his arms like a small child and burying her face in his shirt. “I’m sorry,” she got out. “About before. I should have…I should have talked to you about what you wanted out of the relationship before making assumptions…I never…”

“Shh,” Alex said, running his hands through her hair. “None of that matters now. I shouldn’t have made assumptions, either, and anyway, the future is the future. Why don’t we just worry about the present?”

Grey nodded into his chest, squeezing her eyes shut. She didn’t cry. Honestly, she was all cried out. So much had happened; so much was still happening.

Alex reached down and tipped her face up so that he was gazing into her eyes. There was tenderness there, and acceptance, and…

“I love you,” he said finally, and Grey’s heart skipped a beat. “I don’t care that you’re technically married to Teddy; I don’t care that we might not ever have kids, or that you likely will have kids with Teddy in some way or other. I just…I want to be part of your life, no matter what. And I know that I’m going to have a hard time sometimes, because fuck, I am a jealous lover, but if that’s what I have to endure to remain by your side, I’ll do it.”

There weren’t words for the gift Alex had just given her. So instead of trying, she reached up and pulled his face down to hers so that they were kissing. She tried to convey every emotion, good and bad and in between, in the kiss; she filled herself with the sensation of him. She didn’t know how this was all going to work out either, but she didn’t want to let go of Alex; she couldn’t. In a lot of ways, her love for him was the only thing that made sense in her life right now.

“Gross, why don’t you two get a room?” came a voice from the door and the two broke apart to see Kol standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame with his arms folded.

“Technically, this is my room,” Alex said after their kiss had been broken, his lips red and swollen.

He stood, pulling Grey gently up with him and holding her against his chest so that she could lean her weight into him.

“Well…” Kol began, then decided it wasn’t worth it. “Anyway, we should probably talk about things. Any chance that Teddy will be up again soon?”

“Yeah,” Teddy said gruffly from his place in the bed. “I woke up from the sound of these two sucking face, but didn’t want to announce my presence. Figured they needed a minute.”

Grey felt her cheeks heat up at that, but she heard Alex chuckle and he pressed a light kiss to her hair. “So let’s talk,” he said, pulling a chair up to Teddy’s bedside. Grey took her seat on the bed next to Teddy, her hand finding his with ease. Rather than find a chair himself, Kol flopped down on the bed on Teddy’s other side, stretching out and making himself comfortable.

Teddy rolled his eyes, but made no move to push him off and allowed Kol instead to drape an arm around his side casually. It was a surprisingly intimate gesture, but Grey couldn’t help but smile; apparently, Teddy and Kol had become somewhat fond of each other despite their tendency to bicker.

“What are we going to do about this?” Alex asked once everyone was settled.

Nobody spoke at first, unsure where they should go. They knew they had to deal with Shepherd somehow, but they had no idea how. What could they do? They were a bunch of kids, in over their heads. Any adult help they could have gotten had died with Grey’s dad, Ulfric and Barrett. Their loss was a constant heavy weight in the pit of Grey’s stomach and now everything was down to them—how had things gotten this messed up?

“Not to sound too pessimistic,” Kol said finally, “But I think that it’s going to be out of our hands soon enough.”

“What do you mean? You don’t have any precognition abilities…” Alex said.

“I just mean that Shepherd isn’t going to just sit by. He’s going to come for us somehow, some way. He needs Teddy, but if he can’t get to Teddy, he’s going to find a way to make Teddy come to him.”

“You don’t think…” Grey began, catching Teddy’s eyes.

“We should call Julian,” Teddy agreed to the unspoken question. “He’s the only one of us not here.”

“What’s calling going to do?” Kol asked. “It’s not like I know the kid that well, but he’s not exactly capable of defending himself. Even if he knows to expect Shepherd.”

The words made Grey’s throat constrict and she felt Teddy tighten his grip on her hand. “We have to go.”

“You aren’t going anywhere!” Grey commanded. “We only just managed to stop you from dying, Teddy, we’re not risking you. Besides, that’s exactly what Shepherd wants.”

“You can’t go either, Grey,” Alex said.

Grey turned a thunderous gaze on him, feeling every hair on her body stand on end at the suggestion.

“You haven’t slept in days; you nearly collapsed not five minutes ago,” Alex continued, unbothered by the display of aggression.

Teddy glanced up at that, giving Grey a severe look that made her want to disappear into the mattress. Still, she shook her head. “I’m fine,” she said. “Besides, I won’t be going alone. You’ll be with me.”

Alex still didn’t seem comfortable, so Grey reached across to take his hand in the one of hers which wasn’t currently latched onto Teddy. “Julian will need a friendly face—one he knows well—when we tell him about this whole mess with Shepherd. He’s been through a lot, too much, and honestly…I need to see him too.”

Grey knew her eyes were pleading, and she also knew that Alex couldn’t win this argument. He sighed, then nodded. “Fine, but I’m not going anywhere with you being a second away from collapsing. I imagine Julian will be fine for just one more night—why don’t you get some rest?”

They had no way of knowing if he would be—not really—but they also knew that in her current state, she couldn’t do anything to help him anyways. So with a heavy, uncomfortable heart, she nodded her agreement.

It was the wrong choice.

Rise: Chapter Thirty-Six

Thirty-Six

Everything hurt.

Teddy’s whole body was a road-map of agony, each pit-stop another injury that should have killed him but somehow hadn’t. How? Why wasn’t he dead? The last thing he remembered was Shepherd’s claws, sharp and deadly, poised to rip his throat out.  Had he heard Grey?

Soft, cold hands touched his cheek, the smell of vanilla overpowering him for a moment as he turned instinctively towards the cool touch. He knew the hand belonged to Grey; she alone could smell so clearly of vanilla and misery. He wanted to say her name, to let her know he was here, but his voice wouldn’t work and he slipped back under the heavy warmth of unconsciousness before he could muster the nerve.

*

            Someone is talking, their voice low and hushed. He can feel candlelight pulsing against his eyelids and a storm is raging outside, soft rumbles of thunder causing the voices to halt momentarily before they’re back again. The power must have gone out, he thinks. Usually, Grey would be tucked into his side but nobody is there when he reaches a hand to feel the bed next to him.

            He wants to ask where she is, but once again his voice fails him and he slips into a dream.

*

            Julian is standing in front of him, mouth quirked up in a teasing half smirk. It feels like winter here and Teddy worries that Julian will get cold because he’s only wearing a thin black shirt, the sleeves too long and half falling off one slim shoulder.

            He’s all skin and bones now, but his eyes are electric and his bowed lips are moving as he says words that Teddy wishes he could understand.  He takes a step forward, but Julian is already backing up. His hand is held out for Teddy, enticing him to follow, to keep up. Teddy tries, but he’s just a little too slow, a little too uncoordinated in this strange place where gravity feels different somehow.

            Train tracks wait behind him, snow delicately piled on top of them, and Teddy hears the sound of a train, chugging closer. Julian steps onto the track and stops, tilting his head as if listening. He doesn’t move even as the train whistles, dark eyes locked onto Teddy’s.

            Teddy opens his mouth to call out a warning, but there is no sound and Julian is lost as the train trundles into the picture, blasting cold air into his eyes and blinding Teddy momentarily. When he opens them, Julian is gone.

*

            The woman above him is unfamiliar, yet something about her screams that he should recognize her. She lifts his head softly from the pillow, but her grip is strong as she guides his lips to the rim of a cold glass.

            Cool, refreshing water passes his lips and it’s so good that he wants to suck it all down in a single gulp. “Easy, easy,” she says, and there’s a sort of amusement in her voice. She’s got a beautiful voice—husky and low—but there’s an edge of something else, something other, in those sultry tones. He thinks she might be an angel, or maybe a devil. “You don’t want to drink too fast or you’ll make yourself sick.”

            “He’s awake?” Grey asks, and he can hear the tears in her voice. His first thought is something must have happened to Julian. The dream is still present on his mind, and he wants to ask, needs to know that he’s safe, but the words die in his throat as he starts to cough.

            The glass of water is removed and he’s maneuvered into a sitting position. Agony pulses in time to his pounding heart and he can’t stifle the sound of pain the movement elicits from him.

            Grey’s hands are on his face, forcing him to look at her, and she gives him a tearful smile before pulling him into a hug. Her arms around him cause more pain, but somehow he doesn’t mind.

            The next few minutes are a blur of hushed voices, soft hands moving him to lay back down and smoothing the hair off his forehead. He drifts off to sleep like that, his worries for Julian still on his mind but seeming somehow far away because he’s never seen so much concern in Grey’s eyes—concern for him—and he doesn’t want to make her worry even more.

*

Teddy groaned, coming to with the sound of laughter in the next room. He brought a hand up to his face, feeling the familiar planes of it marked by gashes that he knew should have healed already. What was taking his body so long?

“Finally,” said the unfamiliar voice from before. The woman. She stood up from the chair next to his bed, setting a glossy magazine onto an end-table.

“Where am I?” Teddy grumbled. His mouth felt like it was full of cotton balls and the taste was even worse—a cross between cabbage and copper; the copper, he dimly recognized, must be blood.

“You’re safe, for one,” the woman said. “How do you feel?”

“Like I’d rather be dead,” Teddy answered honestly.

“Your friends might think differently,” she stated.

“Probably,” Teddy agreed, “Who are you, anyway?”

The tall blonde tried to maneuver himself up off the pillows, his arms weak but his willpower steely. Eventually, he managed to put himself into some semblance of a sitting position, his chest heaving with exertion. The woman reached over and fluffed his pillows behind him expertly. “Ariana,” she introduced herself. “I’m a nurse.”

That was where Teddy recognized her, he realized belatedly. “You were with Jules.”

She nodded. “Glad you remember,” she said.

“Are you the one that gave him those books?” he said, narrowing his eyes at her.

“And if I am?” she asked, her lips quirking up at the sides. Everything about her was daring him to challenge her, to threaten her. Teddy knew that if he had even the remotest interest in women, she would be his type. Where Grey was mostly soft and compassionate, this woman was all double-edged smiles, poisoned words dipped in honey.

“You were different,” he realized then. “At the hospital. You were softer then. What changed?”

Ariana laughed. “Nothing changed. A girl just shows different sides when she’s off duty. I admit, though, I’m a little surprised.”

Teddy shifted in the bed, closing his eyes briefly when the movement sent stabs of pain through his body. “What of?”

“I thought the first thing you’d do is ask if Julian was okay. You were calling his name in your sleep.”

Teddy blushed a little. Had he really? He supposed it was to be expected, but it was still a little embarrassing to show that side of himself to this woman. “Is he?”

“Better than,” Ariana said, and she smiled the soft smile from before, the one she’d worn at the hospital. Teddy didn’t know which side he should trust, but her words sent a flutter through him. “His results came in. He was excited to share them with you and Grey, but you guys were too busy getting yourselves nearly killed.”

“It wasn’t by choice,” Teddy said, but still, the relief was palpable. If Julian had been excited to share his results, it meant two things: one, that the results had been good and Julian was cleared of cancer; and two, he may have been angry at Teddy, but he still loved him and that meant more than Teddy could say. He’d been so afraid…

“Still, I imagine you’ve got a lot to talk about with your friends and I’ve got to get back to work. Julian may be cancer free at the moment, but he’s not out of the woods just yet and I’ve still got other patients to take care of. Your own injuries should heal up completely in the next few days or so—you had a bad infection and wounds inflicted by Lycans take longer to heal. If I hadn’t come when I had, or if you hadn’t completed your marriage rite, you’d probably be dead.”

“Thank you,” Teddy said, and meant it. He may not love his life, but he knew what his death would have done to Julian and Grey and that was the last thing he wanted to ever do to his beloved friends. Still, he was ashamed. He’d wanted to avenge his packmate; he also wanted to avenge Grey’s father and all the other innocents that had been slaughtered. But when it had counted, he’d fallen short.

As Ariana picked her purse up from the nearby table, Teddy realized something. “How do you know all of this stuff? What’s your connection to us? I don’t smell wolf on you,” he asked.

Ariana paused, glancing at him with that poisoned smile again. “Let’s just say it’s something of a family hobby of mine,” she said, heading towards the door. She paused again. “Oh, and Teddy?”

“Hm?”

“Tell your friends I said thank you, too,” she said.

But before he could ask what she meant by that, she was gone and Grey was running into the room, throwing herself into his arms, Kol and Alex following behind her and stopping just inside the room, watching the two of them with tired—and relieved—smiles.

Teddy held her close, ignoring the pain because he knew it would all be fine now. Julian was cancer free, his injuries would heal, Grey was alive and safe…everything was going to be okay. They still had to take care of Shepherd, of course, and there was the tiny matter of a massive all-out war threatening to overwhelm them.

But for now, everything was fine. For now, he could allow himself to feel just a little bit of relief. It was small, but it was his, and he would hold onto it as long as he could.

 

 

Rise: Chapter Thirty-Five

Thirty-Five

Teddy didn’t call.

Julian didn’t know why he’d expected him to. After all that…But there was no sense in worrying about it. Julian had the very real stress of wondering if his results would come back positive or not. He felt keenly aware of his failing health, body beaten down. He couldn’t find the positivity he’d been trying to hold onto. He’d allowed himself to have hope that maybe there was a way out of this after all, a way that he never had to worry about cancer again, but Teddy had shut him down.

Julian knew he had every right to be mad at him. And yet, a part of him felt horribly guilty. Teddy’s stricken face when he’d thrown the amethyst chain at him haunted Julian’s thoughts every time he closed his eyes. He’d even convinced himself that if Teddy just called, he’d apologize to him. They could work this out, he knew it. But so far nothing.

Julian groaned, burying his heated face into his pillow. His heart was aching—but it was a different ache from the ache that pervaded every cell of his body; it was longing, and a knot of worry that was tightening every minute settled heavily in his gut. He couldn’t explain the knot. There was no reason to worry about Teddy. He wasn’t the one dying in a hospital every minute. And yet…

Julian worried. He knew something was wrong. Usually, Teddy would have at least tried to call. Even if it was just to insult him or tell him off for his behavior, he should have called. But he didn’t.

And Julian wasn’t really sure what to do with that.

*

 

Remission.

Julian could hardly believe it. The results had come back and he was free of cancer cells in his bone marrow. He still had to stay in the hospital for another week or so, mostly to build up his immune system before sending him out into the world, and he’d need regular blood transfusions, too. And of course, it would be back. Maybe in a few months, maybe in several years, but it would be back and he’d have to do this all over again.

Right now, though, he was officially cancer free and that was something; that was incredible. He knew he should feel happy—and he was—but there was something missing.

The two people he wanted to share this moment with the most weren’t there. He’d bitten the bullet and tried Teddy, and when he didn’t answer, he’d called Grey. No response—could it be that Teddy had told Grey how he’d reacted and now they were both angry at him?

Julian had never felt so alone. He wished he’d never found out; he wished that he’d stuck to his beliefs; he wished he’d never found that stupid hollow book or the picture with the golden-eyed man; he wished he hadn’t handed his silver necklace to Ulfric, who he now realized must have also been a werewolf. He wished a lot of things, but most of all, he wished he still had his best friends.

*

By day three, Julian was feeling antsy. It was hard staying in the hospital when he knew he was technically cancer free. He wanted to head back to the apartment he shared with Teddy, wanted to punch him for not even answering his calls so they could talk about this, wanted to beg both Teddy and Grey to forgive him and promise to ignore their supernatural lives from now on; he wanted things to be how they used to be.

But he knew that it was a fool’s hope. He’d hurt Teddy, and by extension, he hurt Grey. He knew they had a right to be mad at him. Who was he to demand they include him in everything? Who was he to demand something from them that he understood so little about? He should have asked questions first; he should have asked how it worked, what the drawbacks were, what it really meant, before demanding it. He should have been kinder when Teddy told him he didn’t want that life for him. Julian was still upset that Teddy would prefer him dead than him being a werewolf, but he should have at least asked why rather than flying off the handle. If he could go back, he would change everything. He was cancer free now; it was less pressing, less necessary, in hindsight.

His phone rang.

Julian thought he imagined it at first. He’d spent three days praying for this to happen, waiting for some sign that his friends might forgive him. Now that it was here, he found himself questioning whether he was actually hearing it or if he was just hallucinating. Did he have another fever?

It rang again.

Julian scrambled to grab it, saw Grey’s name appear on the screen, and answered the call. “Grey, thank god. I wanted to apologize…“

“Jules,” Grey said, and she was crying. Why was she crying? They’d all shared their fair amount of tears over the years, but this was the first time he was hearing it over the phone rather than in person; the first time he couldn’t pull her in his arms when he sensed she was hurting.

“What’s going on? Are you okay?” Julian asked, forgetting his own train of thought in the light of the far more serious problem of a crying Grey.

“It’s Teddy…” Grey said, and her voice broke.

Julian felt his heart turn to a block of ice. “What happened to Teddy?” he asked. His voice sounded very far away.

“He’s hurt, really bad, and I don’t…I don’t know what to do. We’re doing everything we can but it’s not enough. We can’t take him to a hospital because…”

Because he’s not human, Julian’s thoughts supplied. “I know,” Julian said, not wanting to talk about that over the phone.

“We had a doctor, one who knew about…about everything, but he’s dead now—god everyone’s dead—and…’

“Shh, Grey, shh,” Julian cut her off. He knew there was a lot more that needed to be said, but now wasn’t the time. Not when Teddy’s life was hanging in the balance. “I might know someone who can help.”

Grey quieted immediately, the surprise stifling her tears. “Really? Who?” she asked finally.

“There’s this nurse—Ariana—and she’s the one who helped me find out about werewolves. She’s no doctor, but maybe she can help. I’ll talk to her, see if she’s willing. Maybe she can help direct you to the medicine you’ll need to help Teddy.” Julian didn’t know if she could help; he also didn’t know if she’d be willing. But if there was even the slightest chance to do something for Teddy, to make up—even in some small way—for how he’d reacted, he would do it.

“Thank you, Jules,” Grey said, and her sincere gratitude made Julian’s insides warm marginally.

Just then, almost as if sensing that she was the topic of conversation, Ariana came in. “Good afternoon Jules—Oh, you’re on the phone. I can come back later if you’d like?”

“No, Ariana—Grey, here she is,” Julian covered the mouthpiece of the phone temporarily so he could properly talk to Ariana. “Listen, we need your help. A friend of mine—one with a certain monthly condition—is hurt. They need someone with medical knowledge, someone that can help him without exposing him, you know, and I know this is crazy and it’s not in your job description but if you could just look at him and get some medicine for him, I would be forever in your debt.”

Ariana looked taken aback, her face vacant of expression, then she shook herself out of it. “Hand me the phone,” she said. “I’ll do everything I can.”

Julian handed her the phone.

Rise: Chapter Thirty-Four

Thirty-Four

Everything was chaos.

Grey couldn’t remember what happened immediately after the arrow appeared in her father’s chest. She didn’t understand how something like that could even happen—and then the whole clearing had erupted in chaos as a group of what could only be hunters filled the clearing, arrows flying around. In fact, she was so shocked by everything that for a long moment she couldn’t even move.

Thankfully, Teddy was there. He tackled her to the ground as another arrow flew over them—right where she’d been only a moment before. He latched onto her arm, his vicelike grip painful. “We need to move,” he commanded, and she could feel the trickle of his new alpha abilities in his voice. If she’d been a beta, she knew she would have been compelled to listen. As it was, she wasn’t a beta but the command still did the trick. She nodded and he pulled her to her feet; apparently, he’d managed to get the ribbon intertwining both of their hands off in the seconds immediately following her father’s death.

Because it was very clear that he was, in fact, dead. She could see his empty eyes staring at her, face frozen in shock. She had to tear her gaze away or she wouldn’t be able to carry on; it would break her. “What the hell is going on?” she gasped.

“I don’t know,” Teddy ground out through his teeth and she could see how much strain it was for him to be here, to remain human with all this stress happening around him. “But we have to leave. This way.”

Teddy pulled her towards the trees. A body of another council member went down beside them and they had to skirt around it. Grey knew the man; he’d always been really nice to her and had given her a bouquet of flowers during her last play because her father couldn’t make it and her mother didn’t care, but he didn’t want her to feel alone or forgotten on her big night. She pulled her eyes off of him, too, fighting back tears as everything which had seemed so full of promise just moments ago was suddenly destroyed. The two of them kept close to the ground, hoping that the arrows would continue to fly above them and the chaos from the other fleeing council members and wedding guests would cover their escape; they couldn’t afford to be compassionate in their worry for others, far too concerned with their own survival.

They almost made it to the trees. Ten more feet, and they might have been able to transform and blend into the forestry and disappear. But they weren’t so lucky. A pair of booted feet stepped immediately into their path and Grey looked up to see who had blocked their path.

“Impossible,” she choked, because that’s what it was.

“You’re dead,” Teddy added, because the man standing before them was none other than Shepherd and he was very much alive.

“Don’t be too angry with Barrett,” Shepherd said. “To his credit, he really did think I was dead. Right up until I proved him wrong by jumping him. He put up quite the fight as I strangled the life out of him.”

“No…” Teddy said, and she could feel his pain at the news through their new bond. Barrett may have been a newer member, and mysterious, but he had been a part of Teddy’s pack—a part that hadn’t been evil like Shepherd. Packs stuck together, no matter what. And Teddy hadn’t been there. “You son of a bitch!”

The shouted words were all the warning Grey got before Teddy let go of her arm and launched himself at Shepherd, hands braced to return the favor of strangling Shepherd. But Shepherd laughed—actually laughed—and side-stepped easily, kicking the back of Teddy’s leg and sending him to the ground with a sharp howl; Grey heard the snap as the bone broke.

“Ah, Grey, beautiful as ever,” Shepherd said, kneeling down in front of her as Teddy gasped and heaved in pain, clutching his broken leg. Shepherd’s hand moved to cup Grey’s chin and she jerked it away, spitting in his face.

“Don’t touch me.”

“Just as willful as ever, too,” Shepherd said, clicking his tongue disdainfully. “I thought your mother might have taught you better in my absence.”

Something in Grey’s expression must have given her away, because then Shepherd laughed again. “She didn’t tell you she was part of this whole thing? An unwilling one, admittedly, but when I promised your safety she was helpful enough. A mother’s love knows no bounds, after all.”

Grey felt nauseous. She thought maybe her mother knew something about what was going on, but she’d never thought the woman capable of betrayal on this level. She wanted to feel pity, or at least gratitude that her mother had been trying to protect her, but she could feel only contempt for the woman who bore her.

“Leave her alone,” Teddy said, and he was already pulling himself up.

“Teddy, no, please—“ Grey said, but Shepherd slapped her and the words died as the blood filled her mouth.

“You’ll speak when spoken to,” Shepherd said. “If the man wants another round, I’m happy to give it to him.”

Shepherd turned his back on her, nails lengthening as his own transformation started to take hold. Teddy managed to pull himself up despite the crookedness of his wounded leg. “I’m not the same little boy I once was,” Teddy warned.

“You’re right, Teddy-boy. You’re so much more. And when I sink my claws into your chest, the blood I originally gave to you will be returned to me and all your new strength with it. I’ll be the most powerful alpha in history, and it’ll all be thanks to that fool Roman and his notion to marry his priceless daughter to my own beta.”

“Grey, get out of here. Find your mother, find any survivors you can, and get someplace safe,” Teddy said.

Then, he gave a wordless howl of rage and let his transformation take hold. It was the fastest Grey had ever seen him change, the least painful. He had purpose—he gave himself to his abilities and trusted they would help rather than hinder him; pride swelled inside of her.

And then Shepherd’s transformation happened in the blink of an eye and everything was sharp yelps and growls as the two began fighting, teeth and claws clashing in a fight Grey hadn’t ever seen the likes of.

She wanted so badly to join in; hated leaving Teddy to this monster by himself. But another part of her knew this was something he had to do; Shepherd had controlled him for so long, taken his life from him. If he couldn’t beat him on his own, she knew he wouldn’t accept it. Besides, there were plenty of others she could sink her teeth into—Shepherd had, after all, brought several friends.

Grey transformed and leapt into battle, taking down one of the attackers with a targeted attack to the back of his calf. He hadn’t expected it and he went down with a shriek. Grey was at his throat an instant later, silencing his shriek before moving on to the next meal.

Blood lust was something she had never truly experienced before. She knew, theoretically, that wolves were violent creatures when provoked, but this was the first time she understood. The feeling of being targeted, cornered, picked off like ducks in an arcade game…it infuriated her. These were her family, her friends. Her own father had been felled. And for what? Some Lycan’s megalomaniacal fantasies?

The fight blurred in a sea of red rage, blood filling her mouth until she wasn’t sure how much of it was her own from earlier and how much was the blood of her enemies; an arrow hit her in one of her shoulders, but she barely felt it and the guy who had done the shooting learned to regret it a moment later—thought admittedly, it was a very short realization because she ended his existence soon after.

By the time the assailants were beating a hasty retreat, Grey was huffing painfully and woozy on her paws, body thrumming with adrenaline. This was what it felt like to be powerful; to destroy those who deserved it. It was intoxicating.

But the victory had been hard won. Her father was dead—maybe her mother, too—and most if not all of the other Lycan Councilmen were dead or dying, their blood soaking the earth. Teddy and Shepherd were nowhere to be seen.

Worry thrummed through her—a wolf’s worry for her mate more than anything resembling a human emotion—and she limped away from the battlefield, desperate to return to his side. She felt it when he started to lose, and the pain that swept through her almost halted her steps. Instead, she hurried, following the scent of Teddy, knowing she was smelling more blood than he ought to have lost.

Please live please live please live please live, she thought manically, then broke through the trees in time to see a horrifying sight.

Teddy was pinned to the earth with both of Shepherd’s paws, and his teeth—already glistening with Teddy’s blood—were poised to rip open his throat.

Grey ran. She had never run so fast in her entire life, but she knew it wouldn’t be enough. Too slow too slow too slow…

She knew she wasn’t going to make it, but she ran anyways, desperation lending more speed than her body had ever handled.

Then several things happened at once. The nearby brush moved, a sleek wolf shooting through the leaves and twigs, and it slammed bodily into Shepherd, sending him careening off of Teddy and into the ground below. Shepherd made a whimper of surprise, then growled and snapped.

Images swept into her mind—the wolf was Ulfric, and he was telling her in no uncertain terms to get Teddy and run as far and as fast as she could because otherwise he wouldn’t survive. She felt his own pain at losing Barrett, realized dimly that they had been very close and had gotten to be almost best friends in the time they’d spent looking after Shepherd, knew that he needed to fight in order to avenge his best friend.

He didn’t plan on surviving, but he could buy them time.

Grey clenched her eyes shut, then transformed into a human. She grabbed Teddy into her arms, felt his numerous injuries, but didn’t have time to treat him. Not here, not now. She had to go. Quickly, she hefted him over her shoulders the way a hunter might carry his game.

“Thank you,” she said to Ulfric, then turned and ran through the trees, heading to the only place she knew of that might be safe: Alex and Kol’s place.

 

 

 

Rise: Chapter Thirty-Three

Thirty-Three

The clearing was occupied when Teddy arrived and it took him a moment to remember that the congregation was actually for him. His heart still ached with Julian’s rejection, so he wasn’t able to muster the kind of enthusiasm he’d thought the day would bring. Grey looked equally dismal.

“Hey,” he said, coming to stand beside her.

Grey sighed and leaned into him. “I hate my life,” she said.

“You too, huh?” Teddy asked sympathetically.

Grey nodded, closing her eyes. “Alex isn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of me being married to someone else, even if that someone’s you. I thought he’d be happy, but for some reason he thought I would marry him,” she explained.

“But how would you continue your family line that way?” Teddy asked.

“Right?” Grey added. “But apparently, he was thinking that I’d turn my back on my whole pack, not just my mother, so that I could be with him. Is that selfish of him, or am I just being paranoid?”

“I guess it’s all a matter of perspective,” Teddy said. “Anyway, it’s better than what happened with Julian today.”

Grey immediately turned to him, eyes wide. “What happened to him? Is he all right?”

Teddy shook his head. “He’s the same old Jules. Except…” Teddy sighed. “He knows everything. Well, not everything, but enough. Worse, he said he wanted to be one of us.”

“Oh, Teddy…” Grey said, and he could hear the pity in her voice. “You told him no, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did! Grey, you know how I feel about this fucking curse.”

“Ugh, you idiot,” Grey groaned, running a hand over her face. “I know how you feel about it, but that doesn’t mean you just force others to feel how you feel. You have a mature discussion about it and let people make their own choices. Jesus–what am I going to do with you two?”

“That sounds an awful lot like judgement,” Teddy complained.

“That’s because it is. Teddy, I’ve known you two forever. I’ve never met people who care so much about each other but are so stupid when it comes to dealing with each other. In his mind, you told him that how you feel about being a werewolf is more important than his actual life.”

“That’s not what I meant at all!” Teddy protested. A few of the gathered werewolves turned to look at them, which made Teddy’s cheeks burn. He couldn’t believe it; first Julian was against him and now Grey. Would he ever be able to stop offending everyone around him?

“It doesn’t matter what you meant. That’s what it came off as. Next chance he gets to receive visitors, we’re going there together and we’re going to fix this. I’ve already had my relationship screwed up for now; I’m not letting you screw up things with Jules, too. You’re my last hope for a true love story.”

Teddy rolled his eyes, but he felt a little better. Having Grey there as back up would hopefully help him to avoid making stupid mistakes. One would think that after all these years, he’d understand Julian’s mind a little more, but the truth was when it came to things like this, he was absolutely clueless. Even now, with the truth finally out in the open, he felt more fear than relief. He kept thinking that because Julian now knew about the supernatural world, it would hurt him in some way. It was ridiculous—the supernatural world could have hurt him at any point, whether he knew about it or not. And the normal world, it had already hurt Julian enough. None of it seemed fair, but at least now Julian would know why things were happening to him a little more. So why couldn’t Teddy feel happy about the fact that he finally could be honest about everything with Julian?

“Dad’s motioning for us,” Grey said suddenly. “Ceremony will start soon.”

Teddy felt a thrill at that. It was the first time he felt something approaching happiness about anything to do with being a werewolf. For so long, it had been a source of misery. But with his union with Grey, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe they could finally have the pack they always wanted with minimal interference from others. They would both be full adults in the eyes of the others and that meant a great deal to both of them; for Grey, it was independence. For Teddy, it was release in a sense. His only true obligation would be to Grey, rather than the villain who’d done this to him in the first place and that meant a lot to him; he’d lived forever controlled by what Shepherd had done and now that Shepherd was dead, he was ready to move on from him in every sense.

The ceremony itself was a simple one, but tricky in that the ceremony had to be completed just before the moon rose and Teddy transformed. If they didn’t finish what they had to by then, it would be pretty awkward for everyone involved. Already, he felt a flutter of nervousness. He hadn’t transformed in front of anyone except for Grey in years, and now he’d have to do it in front of the entire council.

Grey took his hand, sensing his nervousness. She offered him a smile of comfort and he forced himself to relax further. He could do this; he knew he could.

“Shall we begin?” Roman said, regarding both with a fond expression. One would be hard-pressed to find any indication that this was difficult for him, but Teddy knew it had to be. It was difficult, giving up on something that you knew everyone around you believed in so much, to the point of fanaticism. In fact, as charged as the topic was in their own little Savannah chapter, he knew that other chapters, other packs, were even more fanatic. There was a reason wolves seldom congregated together and the group that Teddy belonged to, which answered to Roman’s Lycan Council, was rare enough on its own; werewolf packs very seldom combined forces. But Roman’s desire to change things seemed sincere, and that drew people together, made them believe anything was possible. Grey’s mother, however, was not so happy. Her face was a tight-lipped expression, eyes darting around as if waiting for someone to leap from the bushes.

When both had indicated that they were ready, Roman carefully tied a black ribbon around both of their hands in a complicated pattern that indicated the interweaving of lives, of tradition and new beginnings. It was a beautiful pattern and Teddy wondered how many weddings one had to perform in order to perfect it; then he wondered how often those marriages really worked. He kept his eyes trained on Grey’s, startled once more by the stunning beauty of them and the complicated color that he had never really seen on anyone else before, finding comfort in those hazel depths.

Once the ribbon had been tied, Roman pulled out a silver knife. This was the hardest part of the wedding ceremony. It was a double-edged dagger, the blade made of pure silver, and any werewolf who was cut with it would have a scar. It was this scar that marked a married couple—it was more permanent than any ring, and since it was inserted between the bound hands, slicing both simultaneously, the blood mingled. Between two Lycans, this simply solidified the pack-mind between them; but for a Lycan and a beta, as Grey and Teddy were, it would give Teddy some small measure of an alpha’s abilities. He would control his transformations a little more, maintain more of his mind during Full Moons, and could control betas as long as the beta didn’t resist too much.

Roman began speaking, the words a foreign language that most had long forgotten the meaning of but which lived on in this tradition as well as the traditions of births and deaths. It was a beautiful language—and Teddy found himself closing his eyes and nodding his head to it; this would make a good song, he decided, if he could learn the cadence of this language.

When the dagger came, it was not a surprise and yet it hurt nevertheless. The silver burned, both going in between their hands and being pulled swiftly out. He heard Grey’s soft gasp of pain, his own sharp intake of breath. The pain didn’t recede; if anything, it increased until Teddy was biting his lip, and then he realized that it wasn’t just the slice along his palm. It was the transformation, taking hold even as their hands were still bound.

His eyes flashed open, panic written in his face, but Grey held his gaze. “This is part of it, Teddy,” she whispered, or maybe she didn’t speak at all. “Control it. You have the ability.”

Teddy clenched his jaw, his grip on Grey’s hand tightening as he felt the tingling agony become almost unbearable. “I can’t,” he gasped. His teeth were already elongating.

“Fight!” Grey growled and he saw her teeth were also elongating.

The command seeped into his bones, igniting the fire that was already burning in his veins. His need to obey his Lycan mate warred valiantly against the natural inclination of the change and the agony was on another level. But he knew which impulse he wanted to win, and with everything in him, he did what Grey told him to: he fought.

Finally, the pain began to recede like a wave ebbing with the tide. He felt Grey’s pride, her love for him, her hopes for their future; they were a balm against the agony of moments before and he began to feel the pain on his hand more distinctly. This was it; he’d done it. Somehow, even as the full moon appeared in the sky, he was still human. He let out a breathless laugh, and Grey was laughing too. “You did it,” she gasped and that was when she grabbed his face and kissed his lips.

He was surprised by the gesture, but so full was his heart that he returned it without question.

Roman’s voice sounded pleased. “I now pronounce you…”

But that was as far as he got before a silver arrow embedded itself in his heart.

 

Rise: Chapter Thirty-Two

Thirty-Two

Julian had grown accustomed to the sterile smell of the hospital; even the fluorescent lighting, so long his enemy, had grown more comforting with time and familiarity, but more than anything, he still longed for home. He’d had his bone marrow aspirations taken earlier that day, and he was still waiting to hear the results. The experience had not been a pleasant one, to say the least. He’d hated the feeling of having blood taken before—extracting bone marrow was infinitely worse. His hip, where they’d inserted the long and menacing hollow needle, ached fiercely with every beat of his heart. Still, he felt hopeful. With any luck, there would be no further evidence of the cancer in his body and he’d be able to go home in a week or so—provided he managed to avoid any life-threatening infections in the meantime.

In fact, he’d been doing so well that the doctors were even letting him visit with Teddy in the flesh today. Julian could hardly wait. It had been a long couple of weeks without his best friend there to physically cuddle him—probably the longest they’d been apart in years. He was feeling incredibly bereft and seeing Teddy’s sunny face, feeling his warm skin against his—even if it was just holding hands briefly—would do wonders for his somewhat bedraggled spirits. So far, he’d only been allowed the occasional visit from his parents and even those were kept brief to reduce the chances of them inadvertently giving their son a germ when he was physically incapable of fighting it off himself. Even with those precautions, he’d managed to get a pretty severe infection earlier on in his treatment and his fever had gotten so high that he literally couldn’t remember a thing. Just a vague sensation of pain and confusion remained of that ordeal and he’d been building his strength back up ever since.

Mostly, he did this by reading—which brought him to the second reason he was eager for this visit.

As promised, his nurse had brought a bunch of books to keep him occupied. All of it had been on the occult, oddly enough. Evidence of the supernatural in the area, werewolves and the like. He’d thought it was a joke at first, but the more he read—more out of boredom than actual interest in the subject—the more he started wondering about it all. The silver allergy, which he’d been intrigued by enough to ask in the first place, was mentioned often, but only ever in conjunction with werewolves. A part of Julian had ignited when he’d read about them and he started comparing what he’d found in Teddy’s secret hiding place with what he now knew from his books and all the sketchiness that surrounded his best friends’ occasional disappearances. Was it possible they had been disappearing for the full moon? He wished he’d had more of a mind for keeping track of things like that so he could compare.

Could werewolves be real? It seemed impossible, and yet at the same time…he couldn’t help but feel a little hopeful. If there were werewolves, and that was a huge if, that meant there could potentially be a way he could prevent his cancer from ever coming back. But how did you bring something like that up?

Ever since he’d started investigating, he’d taken to tracking the dates. His nurse had been all too happy to get him a calendar so he could start marking them down, comparing the date with the moon cycle. The full moon, he’d discovered, was tonight. This, he decided, would be his ultimate test.

Every book he’d read had told him that werewolves began feeling sick the closer to the full moon that one got. Their senses overwhelmed them, apparently, and they would be more affected by loud noises or bright lights. The hospital had plenty of those, and although Jules felt a little bad about putting Teddy through that if he was indeed a werewolf, another part of him felt it was justified considering he’d been keeping such a monumental secret from him. And maybe, just a little bit, Julian wanted Teddy to understand just what he’d felt like this past couple of weeks. Misery loved company, after all.

So Julian was looking forward to seeing Teddy. He was so excited that he couldn’t even nap, no matter how much his body begged him to. Instead, he laid listlessly on his side, trying to count his breaths and imagine a world where he could be free of this pain—where he could run with Teddy and Grey through the woods as wolves instead of being cooped up in the chemical dump tank that was the hospital.

A light knock on his door roused Julian from his daydream and he laboriously pushed himself up off the bed to face the man of the hour. He couldn’t help the smile that blossomed on his face. “Teddy…”

Teddy crossed the distance between them in two swift strides, his long legs easily carrying him to Julian’s side. He crushed the smaller boy to him and even though it caused a whole slew of agony, Julian found he didn’t mind it too much. It was worth it to breathe in the warmth of outside and the scent of iced coffee which clung to him, to feel Teddy’s strong arms supporting his weight. He shook with the pain of it as he tangled his hands in the fabric of Teddy’s shirt, but an earthquake wouldn’t have been enough to pull them apart.

“I missed you so much,” Teddy said, his breath tickling across Julian’s ear in a way that was difficult to ignore. He seemed to realize that he was hurting Julian a moment later, though, as he swiftly let go and sat back, carefully untangling himself from Julian’s IV.

“Ugh, I missed coffee so much. Why couldn’t you bring me some?” Julian asked with a pout.

Teddy laughed. “I tried, but the doctors wouldn’t let me. Smuggling is unfortunately not one of my talents.”

“I guess I should have befriended a better smuggler then,” Julian said. “But god, it’s so good to see you—how are you?”

“Surprisingly okay, but who cares about me? How are you?”

“Hopefully I’m all better,” Julian said. “I got a bone marrow aspiration earlier today to see if that’s the case or not. Probably be another day before I get the results.”

“Is that where they stick that long needle in your spine?” Teddy asked in horror.

“Hip, actually, but yeah—definitely didn’t feel great. Still smarts.”

Now was the time to begin his probing, he decided. Carefully, Julian shifted in his bed just so that his foot hit the food tray enough to cause a loud noise. Teddy flinched; Julian felt his heart leap. “Are you hungover?”

“Nah,” Teddy said, shaking his head. He looked pale, Julian noticed then. Expression pinched. Could it be true after all? “And before you ask, I’m not sick, either. I would never put you in danger and I know you’re not in shape to fight off whatever I might catch.”

“I didn’t doubt you for a second,” Julian said. “I’m still not convinced you’ve gotten sick in years. When was the last time—Tybee?”

Teddy shifted guiltily; Julian tried not to celebrate. It could all just be a coincidence, he told himself. It took more than a couple of weird incidences to prove that everything he knew to be false may not be so false after all. “I don’t remember,” Teddy said at last.

Julian arched an eyebrow. “You don’t remember getting a fever so high, your whole family had to cancel the vacation and rush you to a hospital? I thought you were dying. It was probably one of the scariest experiences in my life and after going through this whole ordeal myself, I find it difficult to believe you don’t remember at least being sick.”

“No, I remember that,” Teddy said with an exaggerated eye-roll. “I just don’t remember the last time I got sick.”

“Teddy…” Julian began, biting his lip. He didn’t know if there was a way to ask this without sounding like a lunatic. He already felt foolish enough just considering the possibility; but another part of him was desperate for this to be true—to have some explanation for all the weird shit that he’d witnessed and a maybe even an opportunity to escape the fate he’d been dreading since he’d gotten his cancer diagnosis. “Is it possible that…maybe you just don’t get sick anymore?”

“Everyone gets sick, Jules,” Teddy said. “Maybe not as sick as you, but…”

“Not everyone,” Julian cut in. “Look, I’m not great at doing the whole subtle bullshit thing. I think we’ve both danced around the truth long enough now.”

“What truth?” Teddy asked, and Julian could hear the frustration in his voice, could see it in the way he raked a hand through his hair.

“Are werewolves real?” Julian asked, careful to keep any humor out of his voice so that Teddy could understand that this was very much not a joke; that he genuinely wanted to know.

Teddy looked stricken, but he composed himself quickly. Maybe a little too quickly. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m on borrowed time, Teddy. I don’t have the luxury of being ridiculous,” Julian said.

“You said it yourself—you might be all better. You’ve got all the time in the world to be ridiculous because you’re not going anywhere; you’re going to be fine.”

Now it was Julian’s turn to be frustrated. “Even if it’s gone now, cancer doesn’t just disappear. I’ll have to live with the testing, the treatments, all of that, for the rest of my life and one day, eventually, it’s going to come back. And one day, eventually, I’m not going to win. I need to know the truth. Are werewolves real?”

Teddy couldn’t answer, or maybe he just wouldn’t. But Julian pressed, “Who’s Shepherd? How do you really know Kol? Have you been disappearing on the full moon every month instead of visiting your grandparents? How does Grey figure in all of this? What’s going to happen tonight?”

Each question seemed to overwhelm Teddy even more, Julian’s words hitting their mark until the tall blonde resembled Saint Sebastian, peppered with a hundred arrows though his were invisible ones and they were being fired by his best friend. But Julian refused to back down—he’d had enough lies to last a lifetime. Seeing him now, the stricken and horrified look on his face, Julian became suddenly certain that all the evidence he’d uncovered up to now pointed to his best friends being werewolves. “I saw your hollow book, Teddy. I saw the wolf’s bane, the silver chain, even before you gave it to me. I saw the pictures of the golden-eyed man. He’s Shepherd, isn’t he? Did he do this to you? Can he do it to me?”

Teddy balked visibly. “No,” he gasped.

Julian continued, sounding almost desperate. “I don’t want to die,” he said. “I keep thinking of it, of the possibility of it, and it terrifies me. Cancer is going to kill me—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but somewhere along the line, it will. I won’t get to live a full life—I’m a dead man walking and I’ve barely begun to live.”

Teddy was shaking his head. “You don’t know what you’re asking, Jules. You can’t or else you would never…” the blonde stopped, realizing what he had just admitted. But he also seemed to realize that he couldn’t go back, not now. He squared his shoulders. “Even if he could do it, I wouldn’t let him. I would die before I ever let anyone give you this…this curse. Because that’s what it is. It’s a curse—it’s painful and it’s lonely and you can never escape it. It’s as sure a death sentence as cancer, except less predictable. Besides…he can’t turn anyone anymore. He’s dead.”

Julian sat stock-still at the triumphant declaration. He couldn’t believe his ears. In one short visit, his best friend had not only admitted that there were werewolves in the world, but he had told him point blank that there had been a cure for his cancer all along, that this suffering could have ended already–but his life wasn’t worth saving. “Get out,” he said, and his voice was calmer than he thought it should sound considering his whole world was imploding in on itself.

“Jules…” Teddy began, seeming to realize what he’d done a moment too late. “Please…”

“I said get out!” he shouted, and grabbed the amethyst chain from where it was tucked underneath his pillow. He hurled it at his friend, who caught it and then shrieked in agony, doubling over his now-wounded hand. Julian should have felt bad—he did feel bad—but it wasn’t enough to stop the anger quaking in his soul.

As Teddy straightened, blue eyes swimming with unshed tears either from physical pain or emotional hurt, Julian held his gaze; he would not back down.

Teddy nodded, as if answering his unspoken thought, then backed out of the hospital room, door clicking shut behind him.

Julian buried his face in his hands and began to cry.

 

Rise: Chapter Thirty-One

Thirty-One

It was here. The day of the full moon, when Grey and Teddy were supposed to wed. It had been a long wait, all the longer for what went on between full moons, and though the sun was a long way from going down, the council was already starting to gather for the nuptials.

Not Grey and Teddy though. Not yet. Grey wanted to visit with Alex and Kol before heading to the clearing and Teddy was getting to visit with Julian in person for a bit, under doctor supervision of course. She wondered if Teddy would tell him what was happening—she doubted it.

Her visit was strictly business, though. That morning, Barrett had finally called and told her the news they’d been waiting to hear: Shepherd was dead. She figured her witch-friends might want to hear that.

As she pulled up in front of their little house, however, she started to second-guess herself. She hadn’t seen Alex much since their trip into the fairy club; she worried that he was blaming himself for their lost time, since he had been the reason they went. But Grey had agreed to go; she was just as guilty as him. Taking a breath, she walked up the steps to the door and pressed the doorbell.

She heard the ring from outside, echoing in her sensitive hearing. This close to a full moon, even she had a hard time keeping completely human and all of her senses were on fire. Her body thrummed with the untapped energy within her, begging for release.

Then the door flung open and words fled as she saw Kol standing there…almost completely naked. “Um…” she began intelligently, staring where bare skin met towel. She quickly glanced up at his eyes. “Did I interrupt a shower?”

“Nope,” Kol said.

“Where’s the shampoo?” called another voice, distinctly male and not belonging to Alex.

“Not yet anyways,” Kol corrected with a devilish grin. “Should be under the sink! Wanna join us?”

“What?” called the voice.

“Not you! I was talking to Grey that time.”

“Who?”

Suddenly a face appeared at the top of the stairs and a grinning, blue-eyed behemoth of a man was grinning back at her. “She’s cute! And if she’s anything like you in bed…” The man’s sentence trailed off suggestively.

“I um…really can’t stay. Is…Is Alex here?” Grey asked, cheeks burning.

“Yep. He’s buried in his books. Come to think of it, he might be in need of feeding and watering…” Kol’s brows puckered in thought, as if trying to remember the last time he’d seen his roommate.

“He’s not a plant,” Grey said, though her lips tipped up in a smile. “I’ll take care of him. You go take care of…” she nodded towards the stairs where his paramour was waiting. “That.”

“Oh, I will,” Kol said, winking before heading back up the stairs. Grey waited to hear the bathroom door close and the sound of the shower turning on before heading upstairs herself. She found Alex’s room easily enough and, just as expected, he was buried up to his eyebrows in books and, weirdly enough, parchments. Massive bags were beneath his eyes, spectacles placed on his nose doing nothing to conceal them.

“You wear glasses?” she asked curiously.

Alex startled, nearly upending an entire tower of books on top of himself. Grey’s fast reflexes saved him from that gruesome end and she straightened the stack out, trying not to laugh as he tried to compose himself. “Gods, you scared me,” he breathed, then started laughing too.

Grey folded her legs neatly beneath herself and sat with him, reaching for a nearby parchment. “What are you researching?”

“Hunters,” Alex said. “Since I didn’t get a chance to research them…you know…before.”

“Before we flung ourselves at a fairy club and didn’t realize we were dancing our lives away?” Grey suggested.

“Yep, that’s it,” Alex said, taking his glasses off and rubbing the bridge of his nose. “What brings you here?”

“Shepherd’s gone,” she said.

She could tell Alex was trying not to look as relieved as she felt. “It’s okay, you can be happy,” she said.

“No, I can’t,” Alex said, shaking his head. “The loss of a life, no matter how inconvenient or unworthy that life is, should always sadden us. It’s what separates us from the monsters.”

Grey frowned. “Does that make me a monster, then?” she said, quietly.

“No, of course not,” Alex said. “Any more than I’m a monster, because even though I know that I shouldn’t, I feel—not happy necessarily—but relieved. I just need to try and convince myself that the relief is from the idea of him no longer suffering.”

“Is it working?” Grey asked wryly.

“Not yet, but give it time,” Alex returned with a grin. “I’m an expert at convincing myself to believe things.”

“Yeah?” Grey said, leaning forward over some books, almost close enough to kiss, but not quite. “Like what?”

“Like,” Alex began, glancing at her lips and then back up at her hazel eyes. “Someone as beautiful as you could possibly, maybe, actually enjoy my company.”

He gently reached up to tuck a piece of hair behind her ear. “I think I do a good enough job convincing you of that myself,” she said, leaning into the touch. “Because it’s the truth.”

“Hm…I dunno, I think I need more convincing,” Alex joked.

“Oh, do you?” Grey said, closer now. “I better get to work then, huh?”

They kissed then, more passionately than they had before. Several books toppled to the side as they pressed together, closer and closer, wanting to feel every inch of one another’s body through the thin layers of their clothing. Grey gasped a breath between fevered kisses, thinking that this is what love was supposed to feel like; this is what she had been waiting for. It didn’t matter that they hadn’t known each other long; he was already swimming in her veins, invading her thoughts.

When at last they parted, Grey didn’t go far, leaning her head against Alex’s. The silence stretched out between them a moment longer until she decided she needed to break it. “I’m getting married tonight,” she confessed.

Alex froze, confusion warring with jealousy. “What? But you said…”

“Shepherd’s dead,” she agreed, “And he is. But I’m not marrying him. I’m marrying Teddy.”

Grey sat back, trying to catch Alex’s silvery-green eyes. It was clear that he still wasn’t quite understanding what she was trying to tell him. “I thought…isn’t Teddy…you know…” Alex struggled to find the right words.

Grey tried not to smile too much. “Gay? Yes, he is,” she said.

“Then why…”

Grey rolled her eyes. “It’s a wolf thing,” she explained. “It’s political, but at the same time…I can’t think of a better person to marry. If I’m married to Teddy, I get a seat on the council and he gets alpha status. We can actually make a difference now.”

For some reason, the words were not as comforting as she thought they would be. She frowned. “What’s the matter?”

“You said you can’t think of a better person to marry but…what about…I mean, I know it’s too early to talk about that at this point but wouldn’t it be better to marry the person you…you love?” Alex asked.

“Well, of course,” Grey said, “But love doesn’t need marriage to flourish. Marriage by definition is simply a political match to strengthen one’s standing in a community and propagate the species; it’s an institution wherein you create an obligation between husband and wife to remain with one another so that the child is raised in a stable environment. Love isn’t even necessary there and anyway, it’s Teddy. It may not be romantic love, but I’ve loved him since I was fourteen. And it’s not like he’s going to stand in the way of…of you and me.”

It had never occurred to Grey that she could marry Alex. More than that though, she hadn’t thought he’d mind the arrangement of her being technically married to Teddy but remaining romantically tied to him. Was he so invested in a traditional marriage? Why hadn’t she thought to ask?

“You don’t think it’s the least bit awkward, being married to someone else and carrying on an affair?” Alex asked.

“I wouldn’t call it that exactly,” Grey said, feeling discomfort at the word. It sounded so tawdry when he said it like that. “And Teddy knows about you; he likes you and knows that you make me happy. And he’d have Julian, of course. So it’s hardly an affair.”

“And that’s not weird at all? You talk about an open marriage like…like it means nothing.”

“I don’t understand,” Grey admitted. “Of course it doesn’t mean nothing. Teddy and Jules have been my best friends for years; they’re everything to me. Even if I weren’t technically marrying Teddy, they would be a huge part of my life. They always will be. Marriage is just a means to an end; a way to achieve power. Love, that takes many forms.”

“Marriage is supposed to be a monogamous commitment; it’s a pact between two people who love each other in a special way—in a way that’s more than what you feel for a friend or sibling or child,” Alex tried, but Grey was already shaking her head.

“Marriage didn’t make my parents love each other any more or less; it only made them obligated to one another. What good is love if it isn’t freely given?”

“Would you have children with Teddy?” Alex probed.

“Well…” Grey paused, thinking for a moment. “Yes. I mean, we probably wouldn’t have sex, but science is capable of so many wonders. It’s my duty as a Lycan to continue the line; to create more like me. I can hardly do that with…”

“With a witch?” Alex asked and Grey knew as he said it that this conversation had taken a very wrong turn somewhere and she didn’t know how to navigate it out of the troubled waters. In a way, it was way too early to have this conversation. In another, it was way too late. She was going to marry Teddy that night; there were no two ways about it. But she certainly hadn’t expected for her relationship with Alex to end that same night.

“Alex,” she began, reaching for him, but he pulled his hand away. The rejection hurt her more than she cared to admit.

“Sorry,” Alex said. “I just wasn’t expecting…”

He sighed and scrubbed a hand worriedly through his hair. Grey nodded. “I get it. I guess we were raised two different ways.” She stood, dusting off her knees. “You can call me later if…” She didn’t finish the sentence; she didn’t have to. If you decide I’m worth sharing with my Pack, because we’re a package deal.

Alex nodded. “Let me show you to the door at least?”

“No need,” Grey said, then slipped out of his room. She ignored Kol’s lewd comment inviting her to rethink her shower invite and made her way out of the little Victorian and into her car. She took a few deep, steadying breaths…then made her way towards the clearing where she would become Teddy’s wife.

She wished Alex had understood what that meant to her.

Rise Bonus Content: Road Trip

Road Trip

Summary: Slight AU/sequel wherein Julian knows everything and is finally healthy and the trio, plus Kol, decide to visit Florida during Spring Break. Naturally, everything goes wrong.

 

It was meant to be a fun trip—the four of them, five hours down the coast to Florida for what was supposed to be an unforgettable week of (mostly illegal) drunken revelry and a damn good time at a cabin Kol’s family owned and was willing to lend them. After everything, they felt that they deserved a chance to unwind a little and what better way than to get away from the source of most of their problems?

Between school and everything else, it had been difficult to get away, but they were all in agreement: they needed it. So without further ado, they piled into Teddy’s convertible (and of course he had a refurbished  classic convertible he’d stashed away in his family’s garage because he felt like a total douchebag driving it around on his own, but they all agreed there was no better way to travel along the coast than in a convertible, even if they couldn’t fit half as much luggage as they could have if they’d taken Grey’s SUV and anyway, who needed luggage when the cabin would likely have everything they needed?) and headed off early in the morning.

There was just one rule, and that was they weren’t allowed to talk about, reference indirectly, or even think about everything they’d gone through up to that point. It was too soon, too much, too hard for any of them to really process, and so they wouldn’t. This week was all about the forgetting, the letting go, and that was what they intended to do.

“Ahh…the breeze feels good,” Grey murmured from her place in the passenger seat, the wind buffeting her hair. She looked more at peace than she had in months.

“Are you kidding? I’m freezing,” Julian said, snuggling closer to Teddy’s side in the backseat. His hair had started to grow back already, the look more masculine than he’d had previously. As a rule, Julian’s appearance changed with him and he felt he had turned a page and it was time to close the chapter on his boyhood and enter the adult world. The edgy, almost feminine hairdo he’d had before he shaved it was an important part of who he had been; this new look was who he was going to be in the future.

Teddy smiled, tightening his arms around his boyfriend’s shoulders. He was happy with how much more substantial he felt in his arms—less like a corpse and more like a flesh-and-blood human being—and there was a brighter look in his eyes that was absolutely becoming. All they needed now was to add some color to his pale cheeks and maybe they could forget about the months of illness he’d endured—what better place to do that than the sunny Atlantic coast?

In the driver’s seat, Kol was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel in time to the music on the stereo despite the fact that none of them could really hear the song, drowned out as it was by the sound of wind in their ears and the rumbling motor of the convertible. Before long, they were all singing a different song; Julian suspected that Kol and Teddy were making up lyrics while he and Grey tried to actually sing the real ones, neither sure they were even remotely on the right track. Somehow, it didn’t matter.

The temperature climbed, waves of heat rising on the pavement, but the breeze off the ocean brushed the brunt of it away from the four of them, sweeping drops of sweat off their brows before they even had time to consider they were there. The group had already decided to take the longer backroads route, not wanting to rush the trip or spoil their views with stark grey buildings and fast food chains. It admittedly made stopping for gas and food more difficult, but there were small ma and pop diners and gas stations along the way and they took advantage whenever they needed to. The scenery flipped by, transforming from beautiful scenic ocean views to lanes of dark trees, Spanish moss dripping off their branches like dark spider webs, and then back to the ocean, the hot sun glinting off its glistening surface like a crystal mirror.

Unfortunately, Teddy’s pale skin was much less tolerant of the sun.

“Dude, you’re turning red,” Kol declared shortly after they crossed state lines, more amused than concerned for the blonde’s complexion.

“Teddy never could be out in the sun without getting burnt,” Grey said, tossing a grin over her shoulder. “Remember how bad your sunburn was last time? I bet we could have fried an egg on your forehead.”

“I remember,” Teddy said, deadpan. “And you definitely tried that experiment.”

Julian gave a helpless little laugh. “I’d almost forgotten that! I swear I saw smoke rising off the egg. If you’d have given it a couple more minutes, we could have had some delicious breakfast.”

“Unfortunately, having egg on one’s face does not bring about a particular desire for breakfast,” Teddy said, grinning dangerously at them. “Unless that breakfast involves putting the two of you in an oven for once.”

“Hey, it’s not our fault we’re blessed with more tropical complexions,” Julian said, smug.

“I feel your pain, Teddy-boy,” Kol said. He took his eyes briefly off the road to reach across Grey’s lap and open the glovebox. He rummaged around, eyes flitting up to make sure the car was in the right lane and not likely to move out of it and into oncoming traffic any time soon, before his hand closed on a small black bottle. “I burn like you wouldn’t believe, then it fades into freckles. So. Many. Freckles. I look like a damn Weasley during the summer.”

No sooner had he taken hold of the bottle than Grey cried out a sharp warning. “Kol! Watch out!”

He dropped the bottle as he rushed to correct the steering wheel and ending up almost entirely in the other lane, not sure what Grey saw but knowing that he didn’t want to hit it whatever it was. The glovebox fell open the rest of the way and papers exploded out of it, several of them flying up into the sky, snatched by the wind and sent fluttering down the street behind them; several others hit Teddy, Grey, and Julian in the face as they tried futilely to hold onto them and prevent further littering and/or dangerous debris. The wheels screeched unceremoniously as Kol turned and slammed the brakes following the sharp swerve, the car sliding into an almost sideways position as it finally ground to a halt.

“What was it!?” Kol demanded, chest heaving as he looked around, expecting to see a truck or a tree or something—anything—to explain Grey’s warning.

“I…it was a turtle,” Grey said, hand clutching the car door like a claw. Her hazel eyes were wide and concerned, though he couldn’t tell if it was for them or the turtle.

Julian pushed a piece of paper off his face and twisted in his seat to look behind them. Sure enough, there was a rather large turtle making its slow way across the road, inch by inch.

“You made me stop the car and nearly kill all of us…for a turtle?” Kol said.

Grey looked affronted. “You of all people…” she began.

“Why, because I turn into animals? News flash, just because I can turn into an animal doesn’t mean I value one animal’s life over the life of four actual living people!” Kol ran a shaking hand through his hair. “Jesus…”

Teddy was looking around the car, gathering up the papers. His face was screwed into a look of worry that was growing more and more pronounced with every second, inching closer to panic with every breath.

“What’s wrong?” Julian asked. “I mean, besides the obvious.”

“My registration…” he began. “It was in that box. If it flew out and we get pulled over, we’re going to be in a world of trouble.”

“Shit,” Julian cursed, getting down and pulling more papers out from beneath the seats. Grey was climbing out of the car.

“What are you doing?” Kol hissed.

“I’m going to get that turtle off the road,” Grey said, “Since clearly, I’m the only one who cares about him.”

“Forget the stupid turtle, Grey—we need to…” Kol argued, but just then there was a loud popping noise from the hood of the car and the next second a plume of smoke hissed out of it. “Um…I’m not an expert, necessarily, but even I know that’s not a good sign…”

As if to prove the words, there was another popping noise, much louder this time which caused all four of them to jump, and a small fire erupted in place of the smoke.

From there, it was a flurry of curses and hurried movement as all four of them stumbled out of the car and into the grass, all huddling together as if they expected an explosion.

It never came. After a tense, awkward moment, they peeked up and saw the fire had already burned itself out, but the car was still smoking.

“I don’t think it’s going to start back up,” Julian stated unnecessarily.

“You think?” Kol said wryly.

“Goddammit!” Teddy erupted. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you drive my car. Do you know how long it took my dad and I to restore that thing!?”

“Hey, I was trying to help you out with some sunscreen! And anyway, I had it under control. If Grey hadn’t shrieked like that…”

“I wasn’t about to let you hurt that turtle!” Grey argued, and then all three of them were talking over each other, each arguing about something different with the other two.

Finally, after attempting to follow all the escalating conversations and watching as the offending turtle made its way safely onto the opposite side of the street, Julian was done listening. “Enough!” he snapped, and his voice—normally musical and quiet—cut through them all like glass, silencing their argument.

“None of this is actually helping,” he continued. “Why don’t we just call a tow truck and get them to tow this thing to the nearest shop? We can all chip in for a replacement rental and get this godforsaken road trip back on the road. The sooner we’re relaxing, the better. Deal?”

They all mumbled their assent and then pulled their cellphones out of their pockets. There was a tense moment as they all flicked through their contacts for a suitable company, but no call was made. Instead, they began shuffling uncertainly, each holding their phones this way and that. Finally, Teddy said, “No service.”

“Me either,” Grey said, then cursed softly. “Stupid dead zone.”

“Are you kidding me?” Julian asked, dark eyes glancing up from his own phone and dancing furiously. “All of us?”

“Yep,” Kol said. “Of course there’d be no service. We’re in the middle of bumfuck nowhere. How much you wanna bet the nearest town isn’t for miles?”

“No, I refuse,” Julian said. “This is supposed to be a fun trip.”

“Look around,” Teddy said, motioning at their surroundings with an expansive arm gesture. “No fun for miles. Believe it or not, we’re stuck out here. We can either start walking, or hope someone happens by with a cellphone that actually works.”

They all exchanged a look, each reading in the others a look of dread and absolutely no desire to walk or move any further or faster than they absolutely had to on foot. But counting on the kindness of strangers proved a very difficult task. The four friends sat sullenly on the side of the road as the sun continued to beat down on them, the sound of cicadas thickening as the golden disc began its long journey westward.

They gathered what papers they could, transforming them into makeshift fans so they could at least attempt to cool themselves off, but soon enough they were all desperate for a respite.

“This is hopeless,” Julian declared. “Nobody in their right minds goes this way. We’re going to die out here and our families won’t even know until months from now when some other idiot stumbles upon our dead bodies.”

“Jules, don’t say that,” Grey said. “We can’t just…not like that. No way. We should move—I know, I don’t want to walk any more than you guys do, but if nobody is coming here, it’s up to us. If we follow the road, we have to end up somewhere eventually, right?”

“Yeah, somewhere,” Kol agreed, looking darkly up at the failing light. “No telling where that somewhere will be, or if they can actually help us.”

“They might even try to kill us,” Teddy supplied unhelpfully, earning a sharp punch from Grey.

“Die here, die there. What’s the difference? Let’s just get walking—I can’t believe this is what happens the first real vacation I take in years,” Julian said.

But as it turned out, the road was not so clear in the dark. It was overgrown in several parts, sometimes turning into a pure dirt road before asphalt reemerged and they got back on track.

At least, until they hit the wrong piece of dirt and found themselves surrounded by dark, imposing trees with no break in sight. Julian swatted viciously at a piece of moss which dripped down to his collar, flapping his hand at it much longer than necessary to ensure it was not going to get him and then dancing away, grabbing hold of Teddy’s arm.

“I hate this,” Julian declared.

“None of us is enjoying this,” Grey said. “I feel like every bug in this godforsaken place is feasting on my flesh.”

“I wonder,” Kol mused aloud. “What happens when a bug drinks the blood of a vampire or a werewolf? Do they become like, mosquitowolves or undead bugs?”

“That’s a terrifying thought,” Teddy said, eyeing the moss with much more suspicion than before.

“They probably die,” Julian guessed. “Or maybe they just…metabolize it. These bugs are great carriers of disease, but I think they’re basically immune to them. It’s probably a lot like that. I think the more frightening idea is that they could carry the werewolf or vampirism disease, mutated by their own bug anatomies, to unsuspecting innocents.”

“And the award for most scientific and awful explanation goes to…” Teddy began, but just then, Grey halted ahead of them.

“Guys…stop,” Grey said, holding her hand out.

Silence fell over them as they all paused, ears straining to hear whatever it was that had made Grey uncomfortable. After a moment had passed without a sound, Kol hazarded to speak. “What is it?” he whispered.

“I thought I heard something…” Grey said. “But…I guess not. It’s all quiet now.”

They listened some more; she was right. It was quiet. Maybe even a little too quiet.

“Maybe we should just turn around,” Julian suggested, swallowing an uncertain lump in his throat. The ground beneath their feet had become suspiciously damp, he’d noticed. He tried to ignore it, telling himself it was probably just wet grass or dew dripping from the sky onto the land and creating mud. But he was nearly soaked to his ankles now and he was relatively certain they were headed into a swamp.

That was when he heard it, too. A snap, or maybe a crunch. Either way, he felt his extremities run cold. He tightened his grip on Teddy’s arm.

“We should investigate,” Teddy said, trying to sound tough, but he made no effort to move. “Do you think…gators maybe?”

Another snap, this one much closer. They all moved together into a loose circle instinctively, hands searching each other out in the darkness until they were all linked up with one another in some way. “Kol, do something!” Julian hissed.

“Me? Why me?” Kol hissed back. “Why don’t you make her do something? She’s the one with all the claws!”

“You can turn into something!” Teddy said, nudging Kol forward a bit.

“Turn into what!?” Kol said.

“Something dangerous,” Julian supplied. “Like…I dunno, a grizzly bear or something.”

“A grizzly bear? Really? You think I can just…poof…turn into one of the most fearsome predators of the world?” Kol sneered.

“Well…yeah?” Julian said, not sounding so certain.

But they were out of time, because just then there was a shout of “Yee-hoo!” and something exploded out of the brush to their left. The four of them shrieked and tried to move as one, but they were all headed in different directions while still stuck together by their hands and they didn’t make it far, flopping instead into the water with a great splash.

An alligator, sleek and deadly, exploded out of the marshy grasses, followed by two others. All four of them screamed, finally letting go of each other and trying to crawl away. Julian and Teddy just wanted to get the hell out of there, as far and as fast as they could; neither of them could do anything on command to defend themselves. Grey had turned into a wolf and was snapping at one of the gators, but it was obvious she was out of her element and the gator was very much in his.

As for Kol…he made a strangled yelp and then, where he had been previously, there was a small pink lizard-fish looking thing.

Julian froze in shock and stared at it, time seeming to slow down for a minute as he asked the only question he could think to in that moment. “What the hell is that thing supposed to be?”

Then there was a frenzy of battle, big splashes and yelps and weird hisses. Teddy grabbed Julian and pulled him further down the way. He didn’t get very far, though, because their escape route was blocked suddenly by another alligator.

Teddy didn’t even think; he pushed Julian into the mud and covered him with his body, as if he could stop the gator from snapping them both in half in a single bite—which, while adorable, was incredibly stupid to Julian—by placing his body over his boyfriend’s.

But the bite never came.

The splashing seemed to fade and lull, the only sound becoming Julian’s breathing, which sounded wet as he tried to keep his head above the small amount of water with Teddy’s rather imposing weight on top of him. Muddy water slipped into his mouth despite his efforts, and Julian found himself wondering what Teddy would do, if it turned out he’d accidentally drowned him in an attempt to protect him; he imagined that would be kind of embarrassing for the both of them.

Then, finally, Teddy—obviously as confused as Julian—pushed off of him, allowing the younger man to sit back up and survey the situation.

The gators were still there, but rather than trying to eat them, they were watching the group in a curiously silent way. Grey’s sides were heaving with exhaustion though her stance was still tense and clearly on guard, hackles still raised to show her impressive array of teeth, and Kol was still a lizard, head tilted in confusion.

And just like that, the gators transformed. Where they had been, there was now a circle of…rednecks? They were dressed in overalls, straw hats on their heads and eyes leering out from beneath them. “What have we here?” one of them asked in a deep drawl, and Julian dimly could place his voice as the same one which had gave a triumphant cry prior to the attack. “Cousin Kol, that you?”

Kol the Axolotl transformed then back into a human. “You have got to be shitting me…” he gasped.

“Wee-yoo! Hot damn! What the hell are y’all doing out this way? We thought you was comin’ in an automobile.”

“We were!” Kol said. “Our car broke down, though, and we had to start walking. I had no idea we were this close. But…I thought you guys would be gone for the week?”

“The property’s a few miles thattaway. But we don’t never go too far,” said another of the gator-guys, “We was gonna get some huntin’ done, set up camp a few miles down yonder. Decided to set it a little early when we saw and heard all the splashin’ around over here. Figured it was worth investigatin’.”

As he finished speaking, Grey slipped back into human form. She had thought to bring her bathing suit, so she felt no more exposed than she would at the beach, though she was painfully aware of how little like a beach this nasty swamp water really was; she tried not to think of how many leeches were likely stuck to her calves already. The gator-guys had the decency to look away, nevertheless.

Teddy seemed dazed as he sat on his haunches, heaving a sigh of not-quite-relief. “Can someone please fill me in?” Teddy asked, “And Kol, why the hell were you an axolotl? How is that even remotely helpful?”

Kol puffed out his chest. “Axolotls are majestic creatures,” he defended, though it was obvious he had never intended to become an axolotl—not in front of his friends, at least.

“I bet you’d stop the car happily for one of them…” Grey mumbled, though it seemed ridiculous to bring that up again.

“I actually would, myself,” Julian agreed, surprising everyone and earning more than a few raised eyebrows. “What? They’re endangered!”

“Uh-huh,” Teddy said. “Anyways…what’s the deal?”

“Erm…this is my family,” Kol said. “The ones I told you about. They own the cabin we’re staying at.”

“Pleased to make y’all’s acquaintances,” said the one that had spoken first. “I’m Clyde, that there’s Owen. The scrawny one behind ya is Kit—she’s not to be underestimated, that’un. You watch your wallets now, y’hear?”

“Oh, um, thanks,” Teddy said, immediately checking to make sure his wallet was secure; it was, but Teddy noticed the quirking of the kid’s lips and knew he was far from safe until they were well on their way in the opposite direction.

“So, since ya’ll are soakin’ wet and miles yet from the cabin, why don’t ya join us at camp? We caught a few fishes earlier and they’re mighty tasty when grilled up right. It might be a bit of a tight squeeze, but we even got an extra tent y’all can use ‘til mornin’.”

Julian almost protested. But then his stomach gave a mighty grumble, deciding for the whole group really, and they agreed to follow the gator-guys to camp.

“So,” Grey began, “You guys are druids too? Able to transform into animals and control plants and stuff?”

“Sure are,” Clyde said. “Though none of us can do more’n a gator—we ain’t special like Cousin Kol; boy can transform on a dime. Mighty confusin’, you turnin’ into that weird pink lizard, though.”

Kol straightened up with as much dignity as he could muster. “That was my plan. Confuse the enemy, give Grey a chance to bite your faces off. You really should work on how you welcome people, though.”

Owen grinned, showing off his missing teeth. “We ain’t too fond of trespassers ‘round these parts,” he said. “Our land is ours, y’hear? We gotta protect what’s ours.”

As the camp came into view, the four friends exchanged a look; this was not what any of them had in mind when they set out for their road trip. But being here, being together, seeing the warm fire and hearing the friendly voices of Kol’s cousins, Grey rather thought this wasn’t bad as far as road trips went. Sometimes, she decided, adventures and new discoveries were worth more than a picture perfect spring break.

And the fact that Kol could turn into an axolotl? That was a new discovery Grey and the boys wouldn’t let him forget any time soon.

 

 

 

 

 

Rise: Chapter Thirty

Thirty

Teddy felt an intense wave of relief when Julian’s face appeared in his screen; he knew it was illogical, that of course Julian hadn’t gone anywhere, but after the week he’d had, he couldn’t be too sure. After all, the one person he expected to never disappear had done just that: Grey. And with her, Alex. After what had happened with Shepherd and Malik, Teddy had been frantic. He’d looked for her everywhere, even tried to contact Steph to see what they had to say on the matter, but nothing turned up.

And then, finally, earlier that evening, he got a call from Grey. She seemed genuinely confused when he started yelling at her, wondering where she’d been all this time. She seemed downright shocked when he told her she’d been gone nearly a week. Then she told him that she’d been in a fairy club and had lost track of time, as one does, but that she had a potential lead in the form of a very angry fairy whose brother had been killed. She seemed to think that Shepherd was in on it to some extent and wanted to talk about it. She would be coming over soon, but for now, he wanted to take a minute and catch up with his other best friend.

His relief at seeing Jules was somewhat short-lived, however, because it meant he had to come face to face with the ghost of his best friend; his skin was pale, almost green, sweat creating a light sheen across his forehead. His cheekbones looked more angular than ever, giving his face a gaunt appearance, almost hollow. Dark eyes, usually full of life, were dulled but for the fever brightness in them and every breath Julian made seemed to rattle in his chest. Of course he’s not doing well, he scolded himself, he’s got cancer, remember? Teddy forced himself to smile anyway. “Jules,” he said, and the name was almost a prayer.

Julian gave him a sharp smile in return. “In the flesh…kinda,” he rasped. “Where the hell have you been? I kept thinking you’d call.”

Teddy winced at the hurt in his voice. “Something came up. Grey went AWOL.”

“Grey did?” Julian asked, eyebrows drawing together. “That’s not like her.”

“Tell me about it,” Teddy said. “I’ve been frantic.”

“Is she okay? Where did she go?”

This was where he’d have to lie, but simply leaving out details wasn’t really lying, was it? “She decided to go on an impromptu vacation with her new boyfriend, didn’t even tell me about it. Must be love on her brain.”

Julian shook his head. “Damn,” he said. “I leave for one week and Grey is already becoming a rebellious wild child. I should have known you guys couldn’t function without me.”

Teddy laughed. “You’re right, we’re at a loss. Everything seems different now. I wish you could come home already.”

“Me too,” Julian said. “But there’s still three weeks left on my sentence—and that’s only if this first round goes to plan.”

Teddy didn’t want to think what it would mean if the first round didn’t go to plan. Survival rate decreased a great deal if the doctors couldn’t get the cancer down to unnoticeable levels during the first induction. There would be follow up for months after, even if the first round did go to plan, but at least the worst would be over and Julian could have a normal life despite it all. “I miss you,” Teddy said, and he knew he sounded needy, but he didn’t care.

Julian’s smile wasn’t sharp this time; it was soft and comfortable. Genuine. “I miss you, too,” he said. “It’s so hard to sleep here. Cold all the time, and they never really turn out the lights. Plus, they’re always coming in as soon as I start to sleep. I hate it.”

“I wish there was something I could to help,” Teddy said, meaning every word.

“Sing to me?” Julian asked, and his voice was so small and plaintiff that Teddy knew he couldn’t deny him; he sounded like a child again.

“You’re the one with the pretty angel voice,” Teddy tried despite knowing this, smiling lightly at a remembered time when their show director couldn’t stop singing—literally—Julian’s praises.

Julian made a face. “Not right now. It’s so scratchy and low.”

“I’ll sing to you, but you have to try and get some sleep. Deal?” Teddy said.

“I’ve been trying,” Julian said, but it wasn’t really an argument and he settled down into his pillow with a sigh, eyes drifting shut.

And Teddy sang. He started out with a hum, not sure what song he should sing, but before long the song started to take shape and he was singing a song that he wrote with Jules the year before for a class project. When that song ended, he went through their favorite numbers from musicals, pop songs, whatever came to mind. By the time it ended, his voice was tired and almost as scratchy as Julian’s, but when he opened his eyes he saw that Julian was asleep; the pain Teddy had noticed was gone from his face, banished to wherever pain went whenever the brain checked out, and his breathing soft if a bit uneven. He smiled. “Night, Jules,” he muttered, then ended the call and set it to the side.

Almost as if sensing that the time was now, there was a knock on his door. Teddy didn’t ask who was there; he already knew. “Come on in,” he called.

Grey stepped into the apartment, looking sheepish. “You still mad?”

Teddy pinned her with a stare.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Grey said, then sighed. “But I do suppose I deserve it. I swear, though, we were only going to stay for a few hours. I never dreamed…”

“That you’d get sucked into the fairy magic and lose track of time? Whoever would have thought that?” Teddy said acerbically.

Grey winced. “Sorry,” she said, for perhaps the hundredth time.

Teddy held the stare a moment longer before finally relenting, scooting over and patting the seat next to him on the couch in invitation.

She flopped down into the couch right next to him, immediately nestling into his side and resting a head on his shoulder, arm thrown across his middle. Teddy moved to put his arms around her, just holding onto her as if he were afraid she’d vanish again. “This has been the hardest week of my life,” Teddy said. “Jules in the hospital, Shepherd still clinging to life—he looks truly dreadful, Grey, you should have seen him—and then you vanishing like that…I thought for sure you’d been taken like he had. That the next time I saw you, you’d either be dead or, worse, like him.

“I’m so sorry, Teddy,” Grey said with feeling this time, nestling down into his shoulder and sighing heavily. “I never meant to put you through that. But…it’s not for nothing.”

“What did you find out?” Teddy said, knowing this was what she’d really come for even if the comforting snuggles were a major plus.

Grey extricated herself from Teddy’s arms and leaned forward to pick up the thing she’d deposited there. He hadn’t even really noticed it at first, but now that he was looking at it, he could see that it was clearly a weapon of some kind. When she tugged the wrapping off, he saw that it wasn’t just any weapon: it was Shepherd’s cane sword. He’d always carried the thing with him. Teddy thought it looked ridiculous. Shepherd was someone who took himself very seriously and it was almost embarrassing the way he completely unironically used things like this.

“Where did you get this again?” Teddy asked.

“Apparently, Shepherd is the one who killed that fairy we found when we were running last full-moon. His—the dead fairy’s—brother was furious and said that this was the weapon that he’d been killed with. Do you think there’s even a slight possibility that Shepherd could have done that?”

“If he had,” Teddy began, chewing his cheek. “I’d think it would be against his will. After all, he was poisoned too. Maybe they threatened him? Or maybe they just wanted it to look like Shepherd’s fault—easy enough to frame someone if you have them in your custody and therefore nobody else can contest his whereabouts.”

“Either way, it’s our responsibility,” Grey said.

“What do you mean?”

“The fairy almost killed me and Alex right there,” Grey said with a sigh. “It was only when we promised to get revenge for him that he let us go. He said we have three months to get justice to his satisfaction or else he’d take the blood price from us all.”

Teddy ran a hand over his face. “So justice or war,” he said.

“Basically. But, I mean, he’s dying anyway, right?”

“He should have been dead days ago,” Teddy said. “I don’t know why he’s clinging to life so hard. It’s like his spite is keeping him alive.”

Grey snorted. “That’s not even a surprise. Either way, that should suffice for justice, right?”

Teddy shook his head. “Maybe, but that’s only if he’s solely responsible for that fairy’s death. If it was someone else—whoever took Shepherd, for instance—it might be that we have to get them too, in order to satisfy the price.”

“I want to get them anyways,” Grey admitted. “I don’t like Shepherd, but torture like that…it’s awful. And Malik didn’t deserve it, whatever the case.”

“It’s kind of funny,” Teddy said, smiling a bit.

“What?” Grey asked, sounding confused and unhappy about that fact.

“Hearing you get all bothered by the death of a witch,” Teddy said. “If your parents could hear you now…”

“Oh boy,” Grey said, shaking her head. “I don’t even want to know what they’d do if they found out about my relationship with Alex.”

Teddy chuckled and the two settled into a companionable silence. “It’s almost time, isn’t it?”

“Hm?” Grey asked, sounding as if she were inclined towards sleep herself. It had been a long week for her, too, no doubt, even if she couldn’t remember it because of the fairy magic. Dancing for a week straight can take a hell of a lot out of a person.

“Our marriage,” Teddy said. “Or did you forget?”

“Two weeks,” Grey said. “And then we’ll be married. I’m kind of excited.”

“Only kind of?” Teddy teased.

She laughed. “Okay, a lot excited. Could it really be happening? Just like that, everything sorted out?”

“Well, not everything,” Teddy said, thinking about Julian. “But most of it.”

Grey nodded. “Mind if I stay the night here?”

“Mind? I’d prefer it, actually. I don’t want to let you out of my sight at all if I can help it. But what about your parents?”

“Didn’t even notice I was gone,” Grey said, and he could hear the slight hurt in her voice.

Rather than try and comfort her with words, however, Teddy just pulled her back down to their previous snuggle pile. “Let’s not worry about that for now,” he said. “For now, let’s just get some rest.”

 

Rise: Chapter Twenty-Nine

Twenty-Nine

It had been the longest week of Julian’s life.

If he looked back and remembered how much he hated having his blood drawn, he would have to say that it had been an understated and minor hatred compared to the way he felt as the drugs they filled him with went to work on his body, breaking him down in more ways than he ever thought was possible. Everything hurt—like his blood had been replaced with acid—and nausea wracked his body in waves; each breath felt as if it were falling short of the mark or as if he was breathing through a damp rag. He tried to sleep it off, but every time he managed to doze, someone came into the room and began checking him over, spooking the sleep away and leaving him exhausted and sick and full of misery, but unable to escape it. It didn’t help that it was never quite dark here, either. There was always some kind of light—whether it be the slightly dimmer, less invasive lighting they used to make the room just a little bit more comfortable for those staying longer than a few days or the fluorescent monstrosities that always lit up hospitals, there was always light. Julian had a black-out curtain for a reason; even the slightest bit of light was annoying to him when he wanted some blessed sleep.

The worst part was that he hadn’t heard from either of his friends since that call with Teddy the first night he’d been here. That hurt more than he thought, considering he’d been furious with Teddy when he checked himself in. But he’d expected that once he and Teddy made amends for their little spat, things would go back to normal. As normal as could be expected, at least, when Julian was practically on his death bed. But there had been nothing. He supposed Teddy’s life didn’t stop just because Jules had gotten sick, but so much of their life had been together that it seemed strange that he had so much to do without Julian in the picture; he supposed that had a lot to do with whatever was going on in his life that he and Grey had kept secret from him all these years.

He wondered if Grey had meant it—that she would tell him everything when he was better. Why couldn’t she have just told him then and there? Or any time before that, honestly. What had changed? Or maybe she just told him that so he wouldn’t die feeling bitter towards his two best friends.

Julian tried to roll over in a huff, but then cursed as it pulled on the IV stuck in his vein. He made a soft sound of distress as he tried to untangle himself, his limbs weak from the chemotherapy. One of the nurses came in, clucking at him as she went about helping him get untangled.

“Thanks,” he muttered, though his breathing was strained and the word came off much raspier than he’d thought. He hadn’t used it much lately, which was particularly telling of the kind of condition he was in. Usually, he couldn’t help but sing. Sad songs, Broadway songs, pop songs…he loved singing. It gave him life, an escape. But even that was something he couldn’t have right now, not when his lungs struggled with every little breath and he was more likely to spew vomit at any moment than hit a decent note. As if in response, his stomach gave a helpless sort of flip inside him and he had to close his eyes to keep from retching.

“How are you feeling today?” the nurse asked him, looking over his charts and reading the monitor beside him.

“Not great,” Julian said. “Obviously.”

She gave him a compassionate smile. “Understandable,” she said. “I haven’t met anyone who felt great after your particular cocktail of drugs. Well, unless they were dying.”

“Really?” Julian said, eyes bugging out. “So if I’d said I felt fine…”

“I’d say you were lying, or you’re dying,” the nurse said.

Julian shook his head, then stopped when that made him dizzy; being dizzy sitting down was not a pleasant feeling. “Has anyone told you about your bedside manner?”

“I’ve been told it’s quite comforting,” she said. “Gallows humor can be a great stress reliever for the chronically or terminally ill.”

That made sense. He didn’t think he’d feel particularly happy with people dancing around his feelings, looking at him with pity. So young, they’d say. So much potential, cut short by this tragedy. What a pity.

Julian didn’t want to be pitied; he didn’t want people to feel like they had to police their words around him. It was quite comforting, hearing someone that wasn’t afraid to joke about death when it was a lot closer now than it ever had been before.

“What did you say your name was?” Julian asked.

“I didn’t,” she said. “But it’s Ariana.”

Julian nodded; speaking really was more trouble than it was worth.

“Anything I can do for you?” she asked, seeming to finish taking in his vitals and such. “Some way to pass the time, perhaps?”

Julian was about to say no, that all he wanted to do was sleep. But then he remembered how impossible it was to find sleep here, and how much he wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding his friends. If he was going to be miserable anyway, he may as well be miserable and productive. Problem was, he didn’t even know where to start.

“Can you get me some books?” he asked, hesitantly.

“Certainly. Anything you like.”

“Maybe look at…instances of an allergy? Like a silver…allergy?” It sounded stupid; even as he said it, Julian knew how stupid it sounded.

But something sharp and unfamiliar flashed over the nurse’s face before she nodded, impeccable smile in place. “I think I know just what you’re looking for,” she said, then disappeared out the door.

An uncomfortable weight settled into his stomach. How could she know? How could she possibly know from his vague and very stupid request, what he needed to understand? Was he literally the only person in this whole damn city that wasn’t part of this secret?

He pulled the amethyst crystal out from underneath his pillow, examining it in the dim lighting of his hospital room. It was probably all in his head, but looking at it made him feel just a little bit stronger, a little less like he was dying. Maybe it just made him feel less alone. He closed his eyes and clutched it to his chest, wishing he had more of an understanding of what all this meant.

Suddenly, his iPad made a familiar chirrup sound which meant someone was calling. He stuffed the crystal under his pillow once more and then reached for the tablet, knowing already the face he would see and feeling an uncertain tingle of anticipation. He accepted the call.