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Chapter Twenty Four

When I woke up, Stark was standing at the foot of my bed.


"How do you feel?" he asked, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed.  His voice was soft, brooding.


I took a quick inspection of my body. "A lot better," I answered. "It even..." I pulled my lip back to show my regrown tooth.


Stark nodded in satisfaction and made for the door. "Come to the living room when you're ready.  You've probably got questions, and I think you deserve some answers."


"All right," I agreed. "What about you?  How do you—"


Without a word, Stark left the room and closed the door behind him.


"... feel?"


I sighed.  I assumed he would feel better by morning.  Victor may be a jerk, but his insults had never done more than annoy me.  I mean, when you have to choose between being made fun of by someone and having them fire a magic laser at your face, being made fun of doesn't really sound so bad, does it?  It didn't look like Stark shared my philosophy, though.


Great, I thought, groaning as I sat up in bed.  Well, better go see what he...




I froze, one foot on the floor and one still in bed, and looked over to see Kimberly turn over in bed to look at me.


"Uh... hey," I said more timidly than I liked, fighting the urge to pull my exposed foot back into bed.  I knew it was stupid, but I suddenly couldn't shake the image of her pouncing out of bed and biting my poor toes off. "How do you feel?"


"Tired," she answered, her voice groggy.


I nodded like I understood, even though I really didn't.  The ramidreju pills should have cured everything that was wrong with her, right?  If so, why would she still be tired?  I wasn't tired.  Then again, she was awake, so it had obviously done something.


"You should probably go back to sleep, then," I said.  I felt bad for trying to brush her off like this, but my unreasonable fear of her was still there.  I couldn't just ignore it, but if she left me alone maybe I could ignore Kimberly.


Kimberly wasn't having any of that, though.


"I remember you trying to teach me how to change," she said, sitting up as well.


I bit my lip, but forced myself to stay calm.  Meanwhile, my wolf was going ballistic inside of me.  It wasn't that Kimberly was an alpha, she was more than an alpha.  She was, like, an alpha-alpha, if something like that even existed.  She was stronger than I was.  She was stronger than I could ever be.


And she hated me.


"I don't remember anything after that," she went on. "But I remember what I felt.  I... got big, didn't I?"


I sucked in a breath.  What "Yeah.  Yeah, you did."


What did I do?  If I reminded her what happened, would that make her change again?  Sunlight was coming through my window blinds.  Could she even do it without moonlight?


Kimberly looked away, like she was embarrassed. "I... haven't been very nice to you, have I?"


Now that was a question I hadn't been expecting.


"You, um," I stuttered.  Well, crap.  How did I answer that?  Did I answer truthfully and risk pissing off the girl who could turn into a giant wolf?  Or did I lie to her face, and risk pissing off the girl who could turn into a giant wolf?  Was there an option that didn't end with pissing off the girl who could turn into a giant wolf?


Better to go out with an honest heart, I guess.


"No, you've been a little mean," I said tentatively.  My muscles were tense, ready to bolt as soon as the first hint of anger appeared on her face.  Which would be the better escape route, the door or the window?  The door was closer, but she'd be able to follow me right through it.  I'd have to jump right through the window, but at least that might give me a few seconds to run before—


"I'm sorry."


I stopped my panicked inspection of the bedroom and looked at her again.  The way her head was hanging now, she didn't look embarrassed anymore.  She looked freaking ashamed.  When she looked up at me, her face was red and there were tears running down her cheeks.


"I'm sorry," she said again.


You know how in cartoons people will open a present and a boxing glove on a spring will punch them in the face?  That's how I felt right now.


"You're... what?" I asked.


"I'm sorry!" she said a third time.  Now she was crying so hard she was having a hard time forming the words. "I'm sorry I was so mean, and for saying those mean things, and being so mean, and I'm sorry!"


Wow.  She looked absolutely wretched.  My motherly instincts kicked in then, and I got up and went to her bedside where I wrapped my arms around her in a big comforting hug, irrational fear or not.  And to my surprise, she hugged me back.


"I remember everything," she whimpered, pressing her face into my shoulder. "I was really mad all the time, but I didn't know why.  It felt like there was something inside me making me mad.  I could feel it!"


"It's okay," I murmured, stroking her hair.


"It wanted out," she told me. "It said I wasn't big enough, or strong enough.  It would make me bigger and stronger.  It didn't like you, and it said it was going to kill you."


I shuddered.  Yeah, it had almost succeeded.  I decided not to tell Kimberly about that.


"It started telling me to do things.  I didn't want to, but it made me do them anyway.  That's why I asked you to teach me to change.  It wanted out."


She broke down completely at that point.  I didn't blame her.  I just squeezed her even tighter.


Poor kid.


"Is it going to happen again?" I heard her ask into my pajama top.  I could feel her tears soaking through the fabric.


I clenched my teeth.  That was a good question, but not one I had an answer to.


"I don't know, sweetie," I said truthfully.  She began sobbing even harder into my shirt.  I felt horrible, but at least it was better than lying to her.


"I like you," she said, taking two big fistfuls of my clothes in her hands.


I blinked. "What?"


She jerked her head away from my chest and looked me in the eye.


"No matter what it makes me say, I like you," she said.  Her eyes were so red they were almost glowing, and when I heard her my own eyes started to sting. "I really, really do.  You're... we're like sisters, aren't we?"


I swear, my heart broke in half and exploded into a million happy pieces when she said that, because I smiled bigger than I had in weeks and hugged her so hard I almost broke her little spine. I also cried like a freaking baby, and I'm not at all ashamed to admit it.


"Come on," I said, getting up and taking her by the hand, "I bet you're starved.  Let's go get breakfast."


The mouthwatering smell of breakfast burritos wafted down the hallway, and my stomach growled.  It occurred to me that the last thing I'd had to eat was whatever Mom had force fed me while I was unconscious.  Unless you counted the ramidreju pill.  Which I didn't.  Kimberly's stomach growled too, reminding me that she hadn't eaten in just as long.


"Hope my mom doesn't mind us raiding the kitchen," I whispered conspiratorially. "Let's make her have to go grocery shopping later, okay?"


Kimberly giggled behind her hand.  My God, I had missed that sound.


Mom was slaving away over the stove when we came in, stirring, pouring, mixing, and a bunch of other stuff people do when they're cooking.  Stark was leaning on the wall by the back door with a dark look on his face.  I picked Kimberly up and put her in her seat even though she didn't really need the help, and then turned to my Mom.


"That smells awesome."


"It's almost ready," she said. "Do you want onions and peppers in your eggs, or..." she turned around, and her voice trailed off.


"What?" I asked, cocking my head.


Mom pointed her spoon at me and Kimberly. "Are you two...?"


I grinned. "Yep.  Kimmie and I are buds again." I held up my fist, and Kimberly bumped it.


"You're still not allowed to call me that, though," she said.


I raised my eyebrow, and she giggled again.  I snorted. "Smart aleck.  I think I liked you better when you weren't talking to me."


I paused.  For a second, I was afraid I might have gone too far, but then Kimberly burst out in another fit of giggles, and I relaxed.


"Sit down," Mom told me. "I'll get you both something as soon as it's ready."


I did.  Man, Mom's cooking really smelled good today.


"Amber," Stark said, quietly.  I looked at him, and he motioned for the door. "We need to talk."


The smile fell from my face like a... I dunno.  I was too hungry to make a good analogy.


"Any chance I can eat something first?" I asked, cringing.  Questioning your alpha is never a good idea on the best of days, and by the look on Stark's face I could tell he wasn't having the best of days.


"No," he said simply, and opened the door, letting the cold winter wind carry away the wonderful smells of breakfast.


"Now hold on just a minute!" Mom snapped, coming to my rescue.  She left the stove, crossing the kitchen and brandishing her wooden spoon like a weapon. "She hasn't had any solid food in days!  Whatever you've got to talk to her about, why can't it wait until after she eats?"


"Because I said so!" Stark snapped.  There was anger in his eyes when he turned to look back at my mom, and the force of his words made me take a step back.  He glared at her for a few seconds, and I almost thought he was going to throw something at her.  Then he turned back around and went out the door.  I traded looks with Mom and Kimberly, and then swallowed nervously and went after him.


Stark was waiting for me on the back porch, but the moment he stepped out into the snow, he stopped.


"What am I doing?" I heard him ask himself.  He stayed like that for almost a minute, one foot in the snow and one foot out, and then shook his head and turned back to look at me. "Tell your mother to fix you a burrito.  You can take it with us."


There wasn't anger in his eyes anymore.  Just pain.  Pain and fear.


I nodded and took a step backwards toward the door. "Thanks."


A minute later, I rejoined him with a tortilla full of eggs and bacon in my hand, so hot that it made mouthwatering steam rise in the air around it.  I took a bite, Stark nodded, and I followed him away from the house.  We stopped just at the edge of the trees, and for a second I was confused.  Why take me out of the house if this was as far as we were going to go?


Then it occurred to me: Kimberly wouldn't be able to overhear us from way out here.


"I've been keeping secrets from you, Amber," Stark said, folding his arms and resting against a tree.  I didn't need werewolf hearing to detect the doubt in his voice.  I felt like I ought to say something that would put him at ease, but... he was my alpha.  He had no reason to be intimidated by me.  "But that ends now.  I'm going to tell you everything."


I braced myself inside.  Something told me this wasn't going to be a pleasant conversation.


"First of all, about what happened last night," he went on.


"Those guys in the black coats."


He gritted his teeth, but nodded. "Yeah, them.  There's not a whole lot to say about them.  They're dangerous, and they're everywhere.  They make it their job to kill mythical beings like us."


A chill ran down my spine. "Can't say I'm surprised," I admitted. "They were doing a pretty good job last night, until the glowey-eyed guy came along."


Stark stood up a little straighter. "Glowey-eyed guy?  What glowey-eyed guy?"


"Oh, right," I said, looking away.  I'd completely forgotten to mention him.  "This guy in a hood showed up when they were... doing their job.  There was, like, blue fire in his eyes, and he made two knives out of it."


Stark stared at me for a few seconds, wide eyed with disbelief. "What the hell is he doing way out here?"


"Wait, you know him?"


Stark shook his head. "I don't know him personally, but I know of him.  He's... I guess you could say he's a pretty big player when it comes to stuff like us." Before I could ask him anything else, he held up a hand. "Don't worry about him, he's not important."


He saved my life yesterday.  That made him seem pretty freaking important in my book, but I didn't argue and let Stark continue.


"Anyway, one of the reasons I started a pack out here was because this place is so out of the way that not many people notice it.  That means fewer of them stopping by for a visit."


"So... am I in danger?"


For once, Stark cracked a smile, though it wasn't exactly a happy one. "Amber, for people like us, we're always in danger."


I nodded in agreement.  Yeah, that pretty much summed it up.


"But in this case, you should be safe enough, so long as you don't go around making a scene or anything," he concluded. "Keep a low profile, and they won't even know you exist."


He didn't continue immediately, so I took a bite of my burrito.  One of the benefits of having heightened senses is that things like this taste so much better for us than for normal humans.  Once I'd swallowed, Stark went on.


"Second of all, I bet you're still wondering what happened to Kimberly last week."


A pit formed in my stomach. "Um, yeah," I said.  I looked down at my burrito, but suddenly it felt like my appetite had gone away.


Stark sighed, his breath fogging in front of him. "Hell," he muttered. "How do I explain this?"


Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he looked me right in the eye. "It has to do with the Silverblood project at Majestic."


That answer hit me like a punch to the gut.  I don't know why.  It was obvious, now that I thought about it.  Still...


"I don't get it," I admitted. "If that... thing she turned into is part of being a Silverblood, then why hasn't it happened to you?  Or me?"


"I'd better start at the beginning, I suppose," Stark said. "Majestic isn't making Silverbloods for kicks and giggles, Amber.  They're a business, so in the end they're hoping to make money off of this."


"What kind of money?" I asked, already knowing that I probably didn't want to know.


Stark sighed. "You're part of a bigger world than you realize, Amber.  Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.  You don't know about the Slayers, you don't know about the war..."


"There's a war going on?" I asked.


Stark ignored me. "Other times, it's what gets you into trouble.  Like right now.  Yes, there's a war going on.  Majestic runs so many different kinds of businesses under one name that I doubt any one person can even name them all.  One of their biggest investments, though, is breeding mythical creatures to be used as weapons."


Stark paused, watching me to gauge my reaction.  I leaned in closer to him, narrowing my eyes. "You're not joking, are you?  You're being serious with me right now?"


Stark never once broke eye contact. "Dead serious."


"So right now, I'm... I'm a walking, talking weapon?"


Stark's mouth was a hard, thin line as he nodded to me.


I leaned back against a tree, trying to let that sink in.  It wasn't easy.


"So," I finally spoke up again, "what happened to Kimberly..."


"Is exactly what Majestic wanted to happen.  They didn't just breed a werewolf that was immune to silver, they bred one that was stronger, faster, larger, and more aggressive than a normal werewolf."


"That's horrible," I whispered.  Already, I was having flashbacks to that night in the garage, watching Kimberly's body deform itself and grow bigger, bigger, big—


"Amber, snap out of it!"


I gasped, and realized that I'd started shaking. "Sorry," I whispered.


"So, yeah, that's the gist of it," he said. "Silverbloods were made to have the ability to absorb huge amounts of moonlight, and initiate a second stage in their transformation.  That's what happened to Kimberly." Stark winced, as if just thinking about it cause him physical pain, and when he spoke again I could hear that pain in his voice. "She became a true Silverblood."


Hearing my alpha talk like that, like he was about to fall to pieces, I started shaking again.  I couldn't help it.  I thought things couldn't get any worse than this, but then an even more horrible idea occurred to me.


"When will it happen to me?" I asked.  My eyes grew wide at the thought. "If that's what Silverbloods are made to do, when's it going to happen to me?"


I started hyperventilating, my burrito falling from my hand, forgotten, into the snow.  More pictures were appearing in my mind, each more horrible than the last.


"Am I going to lose control too?" I asked, growing more frantic with each heartbeat. "Am I going to hurt Kimberly?  Am I going to hurt my own mom?  I don't want that to happen to me, Stark, I didn't want any of this, TAKE IT AWAY!"


"Amber, calm down!" Stark yelled.  I blinked, and realized his face was only a few inches in front of mine.  He was my alpha, so his command began to take over... until I looked into his eyes and saw how scared he was, himself.


The wolf inside me woke up.


He scared, weak, my dark, savage side told me.  Alpha's not scared or weak.  Not my alpha!


Stark must have seen the rebellion in my eyes, because his face grew hard.  His weakness immediately vanished.


"Amber," he said a second time, this time in a low, dangerous growl, "calm down right now!"


This time, it worked.  I took a deep breath, and let it out as a sigh of relief when my heart slowed down and my thoughts cleared.


"Thank you," I said.  My knees felt weak, and Stark didn't protest when I sat down in the snow.  It soaked my clothes and froze my butt, but I didn't care.  I had bigger things to worry about.


"For what it's worth, I never expected this to happen," Stark admitted. "Majestic had all but declared the Silverblood project a failure.  Out of all the wolves they experimented on, very, very few actually built up a resistance to the silver..."


Stark didn't have to tell me what happened to the rest of them.  Silver was like acid to a werewolf, and Majestic had been injecting it directly into their veins.


"Those that survived either died soon after, or the pain drove them insane," Stark went on. "Even then, none of them actually became 100% immune.  Like you, you still react to silver, even if it is at a highly decreased rate.  Majestic might have been satisfied with that, if the final part of their plan had been successful.  It wasn't, and so the testing continued.  As far as I'm aware, Kimberly is the only one to have undergone the full transformation."


"Why did it... work on Kimberly?" I asked.  I hated using the word "work" for this.  "Work" meant something had gone right.  This wasn't right.  This was wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!


"Hard to say," Stark replied. "But I have a suspicion it's because of her age.  She's only a child, hardly more than a baby.  Her body's barely begun to grow.  She's like a blank slate, perfect for the Silverblood strain to completely rewrite her DNA into whatever it wanted."


I looked down at my feet, the inside of my head a storm.  I had so many questions, so many feelings, all fighting for dominance in my tiny, beaten down, exhausted skull.  I was shaking again.  This time, Stark didn't tell me to stop.  Probably because he knew I couldn't have anyway.


And then, one question rose above all the others, and I looked at Stark.


"How do you know all this?" I asked.


Stark sagged visibly, suddenly looking older than... no, I realized.  He finally looked his age.  The way he carried himself made him look like a man half as young as he was.  But that one question, which I was already beginning to regret asking, made his back slouch, his knees bend, and all the confidence drain out of his face.  Somehow, I already knew what he was going to say.


And I didn't want to hear him say it.


"Because I was one of those test subjects," he said. "I'm..."


He clenched his fists, and I got the feeling he would rather punch his own teeth out than tell me what was on the tip of his tongue.


"No more secrets," he whispered in a low, harsh voice. "No more.  All right...  Amber," he looked me in the eye again, "I'm the werewolf that bit you.



NEXT TIME: Kimberly’s back to normal! Yaaay!  But Stark’s a total cad!  Boooo!  It’s like a birthday party in a glue factory and the horse that was giving everyone rides just got put on the conveyer belt.  Does that make any sense?  I dunno.  Happy birthday, be here next week for another chapter.  Plastic bowls!

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