Julia stood up from the couch with a smile, watching Nahuel rolling on the floor with his tongue lolling. As she did so, she caught Annie watching her. It hadn’t been her intention to do this quite yet, but now was as good a time as any. She tipped her head towards the doorway and the other woman moved out of the room. Julia followed, her stomach churning a little.
In the hallway, she kept her voice quiet and calm. “Can we talk for a bit? Upstairs?”
Annie nodded, face unreadable. Julia quickly headed towards the stairs before either of the boys noticed they were leaving and decided to follow. Cal had gotten far better at picking up on social cues over the last year, but Nahuel still had his clingy thing – and he’d been pretty clingy tonight, despite obvious efforts not to be. She could hear Annie’s footsteps behind her as the other woman followed.
She stepped into to her own room, letting Annie in and shutting the door behind them. For a moment, she stopped, just looking around. It was a bit dusty – she hadn’t been in here since Christmas morning and it was now early February. Everything was as she’d left it. It made sense, she supposed. Annie seemed to be the one who was least afraid of the hoover among the wolves, and her packmate had a strong sense of privacy that she extended to the others as well. It was possible that Nahuel might have wanted to come in, but he had too much of a sense of wolf hierarchy to invade his alpha’s room. She wasn’t sure how often Cal was here anymore, and it was unlikely he’d think to clean her room.
It didn’t matter really. But seeing the pristine bed and the layer of dust over her books made her sad. She shook her head a little. Annie was perched on the edge of the bed, waiting expectantly.
“Annie… you… how are you?” Julia took a big breath, trying to smile. “I feel like we haven’t spoken since…”
“I’m fine. Just keeping busy.” Annie’s face remained calm, a faint polite smile matching Julia’s own.
“I… right. That wasn’t really what I…” Julia tried not to look uncomfortable, coming over to sit beside her packmate.
“I know.” Annie’s smile became a little more rueful, but she still didn’t answer fully or change her stance. “How is it being queen?”
“At first… it was awful. Then they realised that I wasn’t going to shut up and mind my pretty head, and that it was probably a good idea to listen to me – otherwise they only find out about what I’m doing after I’ve done it.” Julia leaned back on the bed, a small sad wrinkle growing on her brow as she tried to get comfortable. “I miss being here. I miss being with you guys. I miss being able to come home and know there aren’t people following me and watching me.”
Annie looked momentarily perplexed. “You can still come here. I don’t remember there being a rule about the queen having to stay in the sept.”
“Yes, but I… we haven’t really talked and I felt like I would be… intruding?” She laughed a little sadly. “Isn’t that awful?”
“It is. You’re my pack no matter what else has happened. You’re always welcome here… it’s your home.” Annie’s voice was blunt, and Julia laughed again without thinking.
“You say that now. Wait until there are people constantly banging on the door, wanting things from me, and guards on our lawn hanging out in case somebody gets it in their head to attack me -apparently, that’s a thing. Our neighbours are confused about us enough as it is.” She took a deep breath, swallowing the lump in her throat. “We’re skirting the issue. Sura is… Jake’s.”
Instantly, her packmate’s eyes darkened as if a shadow had fallen across her face. It was rare for rage to show – Annie was probably one of the calmest werewolves Julia had ever met. Seeing this sudden well of fury bubble up and over at such a small sentence was almost frightening. She tried to backpedal and correct herself. “Yours and… his-”
“Mine,” Annie snapped, and her eyes narrowed, the traces of a snarl around her lips. Julia nodded quickly, trying to find a way to be diplomatic as she watched the other woman take a deep breath and seem to push down the rage. She lifted a hand to try and offer comfort and apology, then thought better of it, the lump returning to her throat.
“I… that’s not what I meant, sorry, I-”
“There may be some DNA shared between the two, but no, she is not his.” Annie looked up again and met Julia’s eyes, visibly calmer. “I’m sorry.”
“He’s the father. That’s all I meant.” Julia could see herself in the mirror, knew she was starting to look a little bit weepy. It was hard to stop. She didn’t want to make her packmate angry, didn’t want to push that particular button. But they couldn’t just leave this hanging in the air between them forever.
“I know. It is a sore spot.” Annie looked quiet and thoughtful, staring down at her hands. She seemed a little lost, like she didn’t really know what to do or say. Julia understood the feeling. How were they going to talk about this? She just needed to talk to someone.
“Do you hate me now?” Julia asked, trying to keep her voice steady. The other woman lifted an eyebrow, looking back up. Julia ploughed on. “You haven’t spoken to me since. I feel like you’ve been avoiding me.”
“Well, I feel like we’ve both been a little busy.” Annie still looked kind of lost, and a little trapped – or perhaps that was just the awkwardness between them clouding Julia’s mind. Damn these pregnancy hormones. She usually had better control than this, but she felt like the always slightly odd and yet somehow solid relationship between her and her packmate was starting to fray.
She started to cry. “Annie… I know.”
The other woman didn’t seem to register the statement, still looking off into the distance. “I don’t think I’ve been actively avoiding you. But maybe on some level…I was.” She turned quickly. “But I don’t hate you! I have no reason to. If anything I was worried you hated me.”
“Why would I hate you?”
“I didn’t tell you. I should have. You didn’t deserve to find out that way.” Annie shook her head, sadness on her face and a faint flicker of anger still in her eyes.
“We weren’t together then, I thought I’d killed him. And you and I didn’t even know each other. Why would we ever have met, ever have ended up in the same pack?” Julia tried to wipe surreptitiously at her eyes – a fruitless effort when Annie was looking at her.
“Fate,” the other woman said simply.
“Uuurgh.” Julia sniffed at the word. “And I didn’t… I didn’t want to find out that way. But I seem to find out most things… badly. Sometimes you can’t… I was never going to be happy about it.”
“No, you wouldn’t have been. That’s why I should have told you. Either way it was going to hurt, but it could have hurt less.” Annie’s voice was sincere and earnest, her hands twitching a little in her lap.
“He could have told me. He could have… told me a lot of things.” Julia started to cry harder. Annie awkwardly pulled her into a hug. It was a little ridiculous, even sitting down – the other woman was so much shorter than her, and resting a head on a shoulder would have been an exercise in contortion. Julia knew how shy her packmate was, how the wolf within seemed to rise to the surface at these moments. She appreciated so much the effort, hugging back and sobbing onto Annie – it was proper crying, not the delicate one-tear down the face kind you saw in the movies. She knew she was getting snot and gulpy sobs all over Annie’s shoulder, but she couldn’t stop.
“I don’t hate you,” Annie whispered into her ear, gently patting Julia’s back. “It’s OK, you don’t have to…”
“Annie, I know. And I know that you know too.” She sobbed into the other woman’s shoulder. “I saw him, a few days ago. For the first time since… since Christmas… he told me… I know.”
“Oh… well at least he finally grew a pair.” She had been rubbing at Julia’s back as best she could and now paused. “Sorry, I feel that may have been inappropriate.”
Julia couldn’t stop herself from laughing bitterly, her voice a little muffled by the other’s woman’s top. “Oh god, if he didn’t have a pair then neither of us would be in this mess in the first place. Him having a pair is half the damn problem.”
“I meant in the figurative sense.” Annie sounded a little nonplussed, pulling back slightly.
“I know, I’m coping with huh- humour.” Julia lifted a hand to wipe her face, still crying. The other woman continued to awkwardly pat at Julia’s back.
“Oh, that was a joke. I guess I still need some practice.”
“Oh god, I saw the… there were still marks. From what they did. And he told me… all of it… or enough for me to… to get the…” She leaned forwards, clutching at her chest as the pain of the memory surfaced and she felt like her heart was going to tear its way out of her chest.
“I don’t imagine he’ll be winning any beauty pageants anytime soon. He was a mess.”
“He said you… you helped him.” Julia turned and buried her face in Annie’s shoulder again, reaching for the comfort of a friend. “Thank you. Thank you so much. You could have…”
You could have left him there to die. But you didn’t.
“Don’t thank me.” Annie sniffed, obviously trying to make her voice sound comforting even as she had to discuss the man she seemed to so viscerally hate.
“Why?” Julia asked, muffled.
“I still might.”
“I…” she pulled away, a confused frown on her face. “Still might what?”
Annie’s voice was cold, contained. “You know what he is. One way or another… I might still kill him.”
Julia pulled away instinctively, letting go of her packmate and withdrawing. She couldn’t keep the horror and despair as realisation of just how much Annie hated Jake really hit her. “But…! He… I don’t want…” She pulled away, wrapping her arms around herself. “Oh god.”
Annie looked genuinely upset, as if also realising something as well. “I… do you…? I’m sorry.”
Julia’s voice was quiet and painful. “Annie, I always knew what he was. I didn’t know everything, about what he did and all the… the other stuff that he…” she couldn’t finish what she was saying, still crying really hard. “But I knew he was a… why do you think I was so accepting when I found out about your father? Why do you think I tried to help at least one of Deucalion’s pack? I have to believe they can be… they have the chance to change if they…”
Annie seemed… hurt for a flash of a moment, as if she was learning something or hearing a connection she didn’t like. Her voice was calm, ignoring the damp patch on her top. “And has he?”
“Has he what?” Julia breathed deeply, trying to calm herself and not doing a great job of it.
“Has he had his chance to change?”
She looked up at her packmate with big sad eyes. The other woman was staring off at the wall like she couldn’t even look at Julia. “I… don’t think anyone ever gave it to him before. I believe he could. I believe he would… for me. I must believe that. I just don’t know how.” She slumped. “I never thought he… it’s eating me up. He wanted me to break up with him and go far away. He said that would keep me safe. But I love him. I can’t not.” There weren’t words to convey the confusion, the conflict, the bubbling well of emotions inside her. She had never expected this. How could she have been so stupid? And yet… “I don’t know what to do anymore, Annie. I want to hate him. I want to give him what he wants… a part of me completely understands why you would want to… to… But I can’t.”
Annie’s voice was still calm, almost a little clinical. “It’s been, what, almost a year since he came back into your life, right? Has he said anything to you about changing his ways? About getting a second chance?”
Julia laughed bitterly. “About three days ago.”
Annie frowned, a tiny crease on her brow. Julia wished she could tell what was going on behind those eyes. “And what did he say?”
“That he wanted to change. That he loved me. That he… just can’t see how he could get out. That once you’re in, it has your soul. How…” She buried her head in her hands. “He’s selfish, Annie. He’s selfish and greedy and arrogant and he… he’s done terrible things.” She sniffed, wiping at her eyes. “But so has Cal. And I forgave that over and over, and he seems to have finally grown up a little. But I could see how to help Cal, even if I needed him to be willing to change too. I don’t see how I can possibly… Gaia, what have I done? I feel like I get so wrapped up in things, and then I turn around and the world is just waiting to punch me in the face. And you… you had to… I’m so sorry.”
“Do you truly believe him?” Annie’s voice was insistent as she stared off into the distance, as if she was looking for something and Julia wasn’t delivering it. She blinked in confusion, unsure where Annie was going with this. Was the other woman hoping to change her mind, or perhaps find a reason still to kill him? Or was this something else?
“I… of course. But… I don’t know if I could exactly be considered a ‘neutral party’. You must think I’m a such a fool.”
Annie turned her head at last with a sigh. “A fool in love.” She reached out and gently rested a hand on Julia’s. “Would you bet his life on it? Him wanting to change?”
“I… what?” She frowned. “The only life I’d ever be willing to bet with is my own, Annie. I’d never use somebody else as a bargaining chip.”
“It isn’t a bargaining chip.” The other woman shook her head, withdrawing again.
“I don’t understand.” She leaned in a little, looking concerned. “Annie, are you OK?” She swallowed nervously, trying to work out where the other woman was going with this. “Did I… I shouldn’t have said… I know you hate him. Please don’t hate me. Gaia, this is such a mess.”
They sat on the bed in silence for a moment, staring at each other. Finally, Annie spoke, her voice frank and uncompromising. “I hate him, Julia.” There was no sugar coating in her voice. “I thought about it. Killing him, after he showed me his mark. I didn’t because I thought you wouldn’t understand. But I wanted to. Because to me…he broke me Julia. And after knowing what he was… I believe it was on purpose.”
Julia opened and closed her mouth, unable to answer. How could she possibly answer that? She didn’t know what had happened between them, not truly. She knew now at least some of what he’d done, couldn’t deny the possibility. She didn’t understand how it could be the case from the little she was aware of, but Annie had always held her cards close to her chest when it came to her feeling and her past. This seemed to be the angriest she had seen the woman, and also the most open.
“I was an…” Annie’s voice rose but she caught herself, seemed to return to that calm. “I’ve changed a lot since our first meeting, since my first Change.” She swallowed, as if the words were catching in her throat. “I can help him.”
“You were angry,” Julia said quietly. “I’ve never seen you… you’re always so calm. It almost scares me a little when you get… but I… understand. I think perhaps, were our roles reversed, I would be the same.”
“If you believe that he actually wants out… I can help,” Annie murmured, a note of incredulity in her voice like she couldn’t quite believe she was making the offer.
Julia shook her head. “I… thank you, but I don’t think what Andy did would work. I mean, it isn’t really ‘out’ properly, and he-”
“That’s not what I mean,” Annie interrupted. “I can cleanse him.”
“I don’t think that would work. It’s not really that kind of wyrm taint-”
“No, it’s not. And yet, I… can. I can’t tell you how…it would expose someone.” Annie’s voice remained quiet and level, utterly certain. For the first time, Julia stopped crying. There was an impossible hope inside her. It didn’t seem real. But then, what else about her life ever did these days? Who was she to say that something wasn’t possible? The other woman kept speaking. “It could kill him Julia. But it could also cleanse him.”
She stared at Annie, conflicted. Her hand drifted down towards her stomach, the beginnings of the little bump that had begun to grow in the last couple of weeks. “I can’t… I can’t make that choice. It’s… it’s not mine to make.” Her voice wobbled a little.
Annie opened her mouth like she was going to say something, and then closed it again and nodded. “As long as you don’t think he’ll go back. It isn’t easy and I’d rather not waste it.”
“I… I don’t know.” She felt terrified. “You’d have to ask him. If he… if he said yes, would you believe that he meant it? That he wanted to change?”
“No. I think he would lie to me to get whatever it is that he wanted.” Annie’s voice remained frank, unwavering. “That’s why I’m asking you. You have to be sure. Then he can decide if he wants to risk his life.”
Julia hesitated. How could she answer that? How could she make the both of them believe? “I… don’t think he’d go back. I don’t think he could go back. If you could truly… cleanse this from him, somehow break the bargain… they’d probably rather make an example of him than ever accept him back into their fold.” She swallowed again, wiping at her face. “He couldn’t… it would be hard to change. But it’s always hard to change. I have to believe that he’d do it, if only for me.”
Annie nodded, face calculating and careful.
“Annie, what are you going to do?” She could hear the waver in her voice, a bit lost as she sniffled and wiped her eyes again. “Why are you…? You could leave him be. Surely that would be the best revenge, to just sit and watch as his life falls apart because he fucked up so much.”
“Then I would have to watch your life fall apart.”
“I… oh.” She paused, then leaned across tentatively to offer a hug. For a moment she wondered if Annie wouldn’t accept, but the other woman warmly opened her arms and let Julia sink into them. “Every time I think I understand, you always surprise me.”
“What about this surprises you?” There was a hint of humour and of hurt in the other woman’s voice.
“Well, for starters, the previously unmentioned ability to undo a bargain with the wyrm.”
“That’s fair.” She felt the nod, Annie’s cheek brushing against the top of her head.
“And I know… I know you hate him, Annie. He’s the only thing that seems to bring you close to angry, and we’re werewolves. Anger is our thing. For you to lose your cool… I would understand if you didn’t want to help. I would have understood if you had simply never mentioned that you could do this.” She sniffed, trying not to make the mess worse on Annie’s top. “I’m not sure if anyone else I know would have, were they in your position.”
“Well…that’s also fair.” There was another note of amusement in that response, and a little sadness.
“You know, sometimes I think maybe you should be alpha instead.” It came tumbling out of Julia’s mouth all at once, the thought that had been building in her head ever since the crown had been burned into her. “Perhaps when this whole… ‘apocalypse’ thing is over, I should step away and let you take the lead.” She paused. “Well, not ‘let’. That came out badly. But I don’t think… I don’t think you guys could ever have the normal lives you all want with me as alpha.”
Annie pulled out of the hug. “I don’t know if I could be that person again, Julia.” There was a sadness behind her eyes, a certain finality that said this conversation was over. “Let me know when you’re ready…for Jake.”
“I… oh. OK.” She hesitated, realising she may have said the wrong thing. Perhaps it would be better to save that conversation for another time. After all, it had already been a pretty heavy evening for the two of them. "I mean, whenever you… are you going to talk to him?
She squeezed Julia’s arm. “It’s a discussion for another day, but you don’t have to worry about what you say to me. I know what you mean when you say it.” She smiled. “I will let him know what’s at stake.”
Julia nodded. “Thank you, Annie. I… can’t even begin to describe…”
“It’s ok. You’d do the same.” The other woman shrugged, standing up.
She smiled a little wryly. “Yeah. I guess I probably would. But if Raven turns out to secretly be working for the Outsider or something, can we nip that one in the bud early?”
Annie smiled and laughed, the emotion lighting up her face. Julia wished she could help her packmate smile more. “You know, I can’t be certain. But I think I would have seen a mark by now.”
“Just… check thoroughly. I don’t want any more nasty surprises.” She shook her head. “I mean thoroughly. As your queen, I am giving you permission to go to town on your girlfriend. Better to be sure.”
“Well, if the queen commands it. I suppose I must.” She winked.
Julia laughed too and wiped her eyes again, glancing over at the mirror and wincing at her reflection. “I should clean up. I look a fright.” She turned and looked up at Annie, her voice earnest. “Thank you. I can’t say it enough.”
“It’s OK.” Annie shrugged, a small smile on her face. “Like I said, you’d do the same."