Chapter Forty Four
"Sooo, how was school?" Rebecca cooed sarcastically as I shut my bedroom door behind me.
"Like so much crap," I answered. I dropped my backpack on the floor next to my sleeping bag and had a quick argument inside my head as to whether I had it in me to get started on my homework or not.
I had officially been an adult for two days now, and I was slowly coming to the realization that the world doesn’t change just because you're a grownup. I still had four months of high school left before I graduated, and that meant grownup Amber still had to take the same stupid tests, read the same stupid textbooks, and do the same stupid worksheets as kiddie Amber, and it was crap. I don't know why I thought it would be any different, but that didn't keep me from getting pissed off anyway.
"Well, I had a great day!" Rebecca rolled over onto her back and gestured up above her. "I counted allll the little bumps in your ceiling."
"Sounds riveting," I said, lying down on my sleeping bag.
"Oh, yeah. And then I looked out the window. You know what I saw?"
"Snow and trees, Amber! So many —effing— trees! When am I getting out of here?"
I shrugged. "You'll have to ask Stark. Why are you so desperate to get out?"
"You mean besides being locked in here all day without my fix?" I looked up as she said this, and saw her give and involuntary twitch. Her withdrawal fits came and went, but she always twitched a little when you mentioned her drugs.
"Well, yeah," I admitted, "but isn't this cool? You're living with a pack of werewolves. You didn't even know we existed before!"
"And I'm going to pretend you still don't as soon as I go home. Trust me, this crap isn't all that impressive."
Despite myself, I felt a spark of anger at that. "Werewolves aren't impressive? Then what—"
"It's called priorities, girl," Rebecca sat up and looked out the window again. Then, without warning, she opened the blinds, revealing the moonlit sky outside. "Ha!" she barked, spinning around and pointing at me. "Gotcha!"
I looked up and cocked my head. "Um, what?"
Rebecca hesitated, and then looked out the window again. "But... wha… the friggin' moon is full! Aren't you supposed to, you know, fuzz up or something?"
I groaned and raised my head. "The moon isn't full, you idiot. It won't be for another two nights."
Rebecca blinked, and then looked back outside. "Bullcrap. It's totally full!"
"Trust me, if it was full we wouldn't even be talking right now." I paused. "Because wolves can't talk. Not because I'm threatening you, or anything like that."
"—Eff!—" she groaned, and flopped dramatically back onto my bed. "There is nothing to —effing— do here!"
I ignored Rebecca's theatrics and looked out the window. The moon was nearly full. It hung in the sky outside my window, big and fat like a pearly white fruit almost ripe enough to be picked. Its rays were so bright they almost looked like solid objects stretching from the moon to the earth, in through my window, and...
"Oh, wow," I gasped, my body stiffening for a second. Suddenly, I felt wide awake again, like I'd just gotten up after a good night's sleep and my crappy day at school had never happened. "Geez, I needed that!"
Rebecca arched her eyebrow at me. "Should I give you and the moon some alone time?"
I looked up at her, and blushed. "It's nothing like that. Get your mind out of the gutter!"
"So, you're just friends, then?"
"Shut up. Moonlight is like food for werewolves. We feed on it."
"Ha, could'a fooled me," Rebecca snorted. "You still eat like a cow."
I shot her a glare. "Seriously? Are you trying to piss me off?"
Rebecca chuckled. "Sorry, sweethawt, I tell it like it is," she answered in a fake New York accent.
"Whatever." I sat back against me wall, still absorbing moonlight. It felt warm and cold at the same time, and my thoughts became sharper by the second the more I took in. My wolf started to wake up inside me, feeling the moonlight creep down into my soul where it slept. Suddenly, I had the sudden urge to shift and hunt, run wild, be free, be an animal, but I did my best to ignore it. I had homework that was due tomorrow, and I'm pretty sure my wolf didn't know how to do algebra. If I wolfed out and went wild, I'd never get it done.
I reached out towards my backpack, but my hand froze half an inch away. Then again...
"On second thought," I said standing up, "I think I'm gonna ask Stark if he'll take me out into the woods."
A savage grin broke out across Rebecca's face. "Ooh, I didn't know you were into older guys, Amber!"
"Sorry, I'm ignoring you," I said, already halfway out into the hallway. She tried to send another sarcastic remark my way, but I shut my door, cutting her off. I went to the living room, where I found my Mom and Stark sitting side by side on the couch, watching TV. Stark's arm was around Mom's shoulders. "Hey."
They both turned to look at me at the same time, and Stark's hand was back in his lap so quick I almost didn't see him move.
"Hey, sweetie," Mom greeted me, her face burning. "What's wrong?"
I shook my head. "Nothing. I just..." I hesitated, and glanced out the window again. "It's a really clear night, and the moon's out. Stark, I was wondering if you'd help me work on my midshift."
Stark thought for a minute, and then nodded. "Sure, why not? We haven't had many clear nights lately, so we may as well take advantage of it. Jennifer, is that all right with you?"
"I suppose," Mom said, and then gave him a coy look. "Don't leave me by myself here too long though, okay?"
Stark grinned. I gagged.
"Hold up!" another voice said. We all turned to see Rebecca emerging from my room. "I'm coming with ya."
Stark's expression darkened, and he looked at me out of the corner of my eye. I shrugged.
"Why would you want to come with us?" he asked.
"Cuz this place is boring as fried hell," she answered. "Actually, fried hell sounds pretty cool, so this place is definitely more boring than fried hell."
Stark grunted in irritation and turned to leave. "Get back in your room. Amber, let's go."
"Aw, come on!" Rebecca whined, following after him. She hunched over, her arms dangling like they weighed a hundred pounds. "I haven't been out of this
—effing— house in, like, a week! I wanna get some fresh air!"
I followed after them, feeling somewhat forgotten in the middle of the drama.
"No!" Stark said again.
Stark whirled around. "Because you are an annoying little—"
Okay, you know what? You don't need to hear the rest of that sentence. If that had been directed at me, I would have gone slinking back to my room with my tail between my legs. Rebecca, though, just planted her feet, crossed her arms, and fixed Stark with a glare of her own.
"It's your fault I'm here in the first place," she insisted with more strength in her voice than I'd have thought possible, especially facing down an alpha. "Don't you owe me this much?"
Stark stood rigid in front of her and took a deep breath. "Fine," he finally said. "But if you get lost in the woods, you're on your own."
"You say that like it'd be a bad thing," Rebecca said, but she smiled sweetly anyway.
I could see the veins popping up in Stark's neck, but he forced his anger down and looked at me again. "Wait here, there’s something you'll need before we get started."
He brushed past me, his movements too hurried and stiff to mask his feelings, and disappeared into his bedroom.
"You think he's going to get my stuff?" Rebecca whispered to me.
"Shut up," I hissed back. "You've caused enough trouble already."
"I hope he is. I'm so freaking tired of being weak."
I gave her a stern look. "That stuff does not make you stronger. It's the opposite, actually."
Rebecca returned my look with a smug smirk. "Just wait till I get it. Then you'll see what I mean."
Before I could say anything else, Stark came back out, carrying something in his fist.
"What's that?" I asked, nodding towards it.
"You'll see," he promised, and then brushed past us to get to the door. The cold air gushed inside as soon as he opened it a crack, and he ushered us outside in a hurry.
"Can't believe you freaks want to go out in this weather," Rebecca grumbled as soon as we were all out.
"Hey, if you don't want to come..."
"Oh, I'm coming. I'm just saying, you people are messed up in the head."
"Come on," Stark interrupted us, leading the way into the forest. "Before it gets any colder."
"Are we going all the way to the arena?" I asked. He nodded in reply, but didn't answer.
Even weeks after falling, the snow was still deep enough to almost reach my knees, and while Stark's long, powerful legs might have been enough to carve a path for himself, I wasn't so lucky. I had to raise my legs up almost to my stomach with every step, which made keeping up with him a little difficult. It only took a couple minutes before I was out of breath. Not only that, but I wasn't wearing boots, and it wasn't long before my tennis shoes were soaked all the way through to my socks. Stark never once slowed his pace, though, and I didn't need to ask him why. Scrawny, lazy, out of shape Rebecca was having an even harder time keeping up than I was. The awkward way she was stepping made it look like she was trying to walk on top of the snow, and she cursed every time her foot sank down below the surface— which was pretty much every step. Stark was hoping she'd give up and turn back.
If only we were so lucky.
Ten minutes later, we arrived at the arena, a ring of bare earth in the pure white landscape. It had snowed almost every night over the past week, but our training circle still didn't have a single snowflake in it. Even as I watched, a gust of wind blew through the forest, kicking snow up in flurries all around us, but as soon as we stepped into the arena the air was clear. It swirled all around us, but never once crossed the ring's threshold.
"That's pretty cool," I admitted.
"Thanks," Stark said, grinning.
"Huh." Rebecca stood back a few feet, inspecting the arena. Then she knelt down, scooped up an armload of snow, and threw it at us. I flinched a little, but I needn't have worried because as soon as the snow touched the outer edge of the ring, it exploded like it had struck a solid wall and fell back to the ground. "Am I high right now? I think I might be high right now."
"So, first of all," Stark turned to me, "you're going to need these."
He extended his hand, and I finally saw what he was holding: a pair of golden pins.
"Oh," I said, a little surprised. I reached out and took them from him, one in each hand. "Thanks."
Both pins were almost thick enough to be nails, and they were polished so that they glimmered in the moonlight. They were straight as nails too, except for the blunt ends, which curled back around on themselves. I held them up closer to my face, and saw that the heads of the pins had been engraved with the image of a running wolf.
"Those are called shift pins," Stark explained before I could ask. "They may not look like much, but they're magical."
I blinked and looked at them again with new interest. "Magic how?" I asked.
"Well, you pin them to your clothes, and then you shift. The magic in the pins will make your clothes vanish as soon as the change begins. When you turn human again, they reappear."
I looked at the pins, and then at Stark, and then down at my clothes . So, I can..."
"And then I could..."
I stared at the pins for a good five seconds, and then a wave of emotion came rolling over me. "Holy crap," I whispered, my voice quivering. "This is the best present I've gotten since... since I got bit!"
Stark sighed. "Well, seeing how I'm the one who put you in this mess to begin with, I guess it seems fitting that it be my responsibility to make you happy."
My fault... my responsibility to make you happy...
Dear God, how many times had I said that, myself?
Almost before I knew what I was doing, I darted forward and hugged Stark. He grunted in surprise, and didn't hug me back, but that was okay.
"You're the best alpha I could hope to have," I said with my arms still wrapped around him. "I... I know that you're the one who killed my dad, but after everything you've done, how can I not forgive you?"
I felt Stark wilt a little, and stepped back. "Amber," he said hesitantly, "you don't have to do that. What I did was unforgivable. I don't expect you to—"
"Too late," I cut him off with sly grin. "I already have!"
My alpha froze with a stunned look on his face. Then he reached up and brushed something off his cheek. It was a tear, I realized. Small and nearly invisible in the moonlight, but there nonetheless.
"When I told you the truth," he said in a hoarse whisper, "I thought you were going to hate me forever. You have no idea how much this means to me."
"I still miss him," I confessed, "but I'm not mad at you. Not anymore."
I smiled at him, and he smiled back. I struggled to think of what to say next, but my mind came up blank. What could I say at this point? We'd already said everything that needed to be said.
Luckily, Rebecca saved us from our own awkward moment.
"Geez, Amber, I was just joking before when I asked if you were into older guys!"
She came to stand beside me, and I gave her a werewolf-strength push, sending her stumbling across the ring until she fell face first in the snow.
"What the —effing— hell?" she screamed once she'd pulled her head free of the snow.
On my other side, Stark laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. "Maybe that'll teach you to keep your mouth shut!"
Rebecca got up, her face turning an alarming shade of red. She raised a finger and jabbed it at me. "I'm going to kill you, you little—"
Yeah, you don't need to know the rest of that sentence either.
Stark and I laughed again. When Rebecca saw that neither of us were taking her seriously, she threw a few more choice curses at us, spun around, and stomped back in the direction we'd come from.
"Think she'll be okay heading back by herself?" I asked once we'd caught our breath.
"If we're lucky? No."
I chuckled, and looked down at the pins again.
"Go ahead and try them," Stark said.
My heart beating with anticipation, I pulled my shirt away from my body with one hand and slid the pin into the fabric, and then clipped the other to my pants. Then, without waiting for him to tell me, I got down on my hands and knees and shifted. I gasped when, sure enough, my clothes seemed to evaporate as soon as my fur started to grow. When the change was finished, and I shook myself to untangle my fur, I was as naked as... well, a wolf. I immediately shifted back, and couldn't help but jump a little when my clothes suddenly reappeared on me exactly the same way they had been before.
"This is awesome!" I exclaimed, pulling the hem of the shirt away from me so I could at the pin. "No, seriously, this is freaking amazing. Now I don't have to take off my clothes every time I change!"
Stark grinned ear to ear at me. "That's the idea!"
I let go of my shirt and hesitated. "Stark? Thank you."
I looked up just in time to see a second tear slide down his leathery old face.
"Now come on, let's get busy," he said, clapping his hands. "It's cold out here, so the sooner we get this done with, the sooner we can go inside."
I nodded and took a deep breath. "Right."
Stark took a step back, his face suddenly stern. "Remember what I told you. As soon as the change reaches its halfway point, reverse it. Then just keep reversing it over and over, and you'll be midshifting."
"Okay." I spread my arms like I was about to take off flying and closed my eyes. "Let's do this."
I initiated the change. Just like before, my clothes vanished into thin air, but my fur grew in before I could feel the cold. What exactly what the halfway point, I wondered? I waited until my hands began to morph into paws and my back started to bend over, wanting to stand on four legs, and then grappled mentally for the imaginary switch inside my brain. If I could throw it again, I'd—
No, too late, I realized. I was already a wolf again.
"Don't get discouraged," Stark told me. "This isn't an easy thing to do."
Come on, I thought to myself. Focus!
I closed my eyes and shifted again. My fur, my tail, and my snout shrank down inside me, but again I was too slow. I looked back at Stark with a human face this time.
"And don't forget," he warned me. "This'll drain your moonlight really fast. If you start to feel faint, just lie down and absorb some more."
"All right," I agreed. I held my arms out again, flexing my fingers, and... crap! Wolf again!
I growled softly in my throat in frustration, my breath sending up twin trails of fog from my nose. I had to do this. This was, like, the next step in werewolf-ism, wasn't it? I still wasn't sure if I wanted to stay a werewolf or not, but as long as I didn't have a choice I may as well make the most of it.
I tried to push the nagging voice of my wolf further back into my head, but it stubbornly persisted.
Not want be wolf. Wolf better!
Shut up, you stupid animal!
Wolf not stupid. Prey stupid. Prey not use its senses. Prey—
I'm not listening to you!
Prey not even smell intruder!
I said... what?
I raised my snout into the air and took a deep breath. My eyes opened wide. Holy crap, the wolf was right. I spun around to face Stark, and the look on his face was all I needed to see to know he hadn't noticed the scent either.
"What is it?" he asked when he saw my expression.
We're not alone!
Before I could shift back and tell him, though, I heard the crunch of heavy boots on snow. This time Stark noticed too, and we both turned to look into the dark forest. At first we didn't see anything, just the whiteness of the snow and the darkness of the night.
And then the darkness moved.
A growl rose to my throat, the fur on my back standing on end. This scent... it wasn't a new one. I'd smelled it before, but for the life of me I couldn't place it. The shadow came closer. It was something recent, wasn't it? Like, within the past few weeks. I began to hear the sound of fabric flapping in the wind as whoever was out there came closer. Someone stepped out of the trees, and the first thing I saw was a long black coat.
Beside me, Stark sucked in a panicked gasp, and fear radiated from him as powerfully as if he'd spent a whole month without taking a single shower.
No, I realized when I took a closer look at the man in the black coat. It wasn't Hendricks. It was someone else. Someone I knew. Someone who might be far... far... worse...
"At last," said the bald man with the red beard. "I've found you."
NEXT TIME: Oh shoot! Oh shoot, oh shoot, oh shampooscrumdiddlyumptiouswaxonwaxofftyrannosAURUSCHICKENNUGGESTLKASSDODKSDKPSADKDSKJNSADOEFAOJ NCDNOSDVKSDKMLDSLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL