It was a different feeling to be stargazing with their families, the pack, and a handful of mostly unidentifiable Collective and Gathering people. While there wasn’t exactly a hostile energy, it was an active emotion bouncing around, between trepidation, intrigue, arousal, and eagerness. I was willing to bet my oboe that the arousal was primarily from my boys and somewhat from Ariadne and Lil Asha. The trepidation was 100% from the witches I didn’t really know, who seemed to be important to the Collective. Intrigue was strong from one Gathering man, the same one who had been staring at me non-stop when the Gathering important people talked to us and he was staring almost as much tonight. Eagerness was, well, from everyone.
I didn’t really understand why, though there had been lots of explaining. Something about a special comet, blah blah blah. I didn’t really care, other than to know that it would be kickstarting some extra strong energy and magic and bouncing it around for a month or so. And, also, it was all that Scott wanted to do for his birthday, which I thought was weird, but hey, it was better than going to a Murder House to have a murder mystery birthday right after being attacked by vampires, women who looked like Samara’s cousins, and a porcupine shadow. So I was all for it.
In any case, all of their families were there, the entire pack, a handful of people I didn’t know, and most importantly—to me, anyway—the witches. Ariadne, my witchy mentor and the Maiden of the Gathering’s Triumvirate was there with her twin brother, Theseus. The two of them comfortably melded with Michael’s family, which was expected, considering Ariadne was dating Michael’s aunt, Lil Asha. The rest of the witches, like the rest of the people not directly involved with our group, were further off, keeping to themselves.
On the edge of that group was my godmother, Violet. She kept glancing to me, worriedly, and away when I caught her. We hadn’t talked face to face, unless forced, for the past four weeks. I had been screening her calls, only answering her once or twice, and not since she’d laughed about the potion and amulet fiasco. Ariadne had been doing a good job of holding her at bay, but I knew I’d have to talk to her soon, or else she would go crazy.
“Not your problem,” Scott muttered, not looking down from the sky.
It took a moment to realize he was commenting on my worries about Violet. If it hadn’t been his birthday, I would have punched him. He knew how I felt about the link the three of us had, which gave us almost literally no privacy, including in our own minds. I liked it shut down as far as it could go, which was still far too open for my liking.
So instead, I gave him a sickly sweet smile and in the poison candy voice I’d perfected over the past few weeks said, “Thanks for the opinion, baby.”
He rolled his eyes and Michael pinched me, mentally reminding me to ‘Be nice,’ because it was still Scott’s birthday.
I cut a look at Michael that quite clearly said I was being nice.
“Can you three stop thinking so loud?” Ariadne called. “I can hear you all the way over here. Plus, that image is definitely not nice and if I can see it, so can he.”
I flushed, knocking away the less than sweet images I had about duct tape and my boys mouths. “Sorry,” I muttered, more to Scott than Ariadne, since she could easily stop reading my mind whereas he could not.
“Used to it. I’m dating a scary, violent, curly haired creeper. And you too.”
I swallowed my laugh, but knew it echoed in both of their heads, since Michael sputtered and Scott smirked in that self-satisfied way he did when he knew he’d been amusing.
“I’ll show you violent,” Michael growled pouncing on top of Scott to pin him down. I rolled away, well aware of how they got when the play wrestling came about. I wasn’t nearly durable enough for all the elbows and legs that would be coming my way.
So while they did that, I scooted over to the pack and leaned onto Vanessa’s shoulder. She was reading some smutty book, and completely unashamedly. She was so into it that she jerked at my movement.
“Oh,” she glanced past me to my boys, who were still wrestling in some play at finding the dominant, even though there was never a question about that. “I see your number one and two are busy.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh shove off it, Nestle. I still think you’re the prettiest,” I teased.
Vanessa had become increasingly jealous of the time I spent with Michael and Scott, even though I still tried to spend a goodly amount of time with her, like whenever they were working and she was free. It wasn’t as often as I’d like, but they did take up a lot of my time, considering there were two of them. And, you know, we were supposed to spend our lives together. Still, considering my schedule was pretty empty aside from a babysitting gig here and there, I wasn’t the one with scheduling conflicts.
“Oh?” she questioned, tucking her book away. “I was sure I came somewhere after Scott and Stef.”
Sometimes, when she was frustrated, she stirred shit. Saying the name ‘Stef’ around my boyfriends was stirring a colossal pot of shit that I’d been avoiding since the beginning of the month, when Stef had gone home. I felt the tension coming from them, but neither one jumped on the opportunity to talk about my relationship with my ex, which I thanked the audience around us for.
“Anyway,” I stressed, pushing her side lightly so that she knew I wasn’t blind to her attempts. “Anything new on Seer vision?” I asked, really hoping she would say no. Everything had been clear for her, aside from a ghost here and there since we’d destroyed porcupine-headed-shadow Piney and I’d made a deal with my personal shadow so that he’d leave us all alone. No creepy reflections doing their own thing, no strange shadows, no Scratchers, no uninvited vampires. We’d been in the clear.
She shrugged, which I knew meant something was up. I opened my mouth to ask her about it, but she jerked, her eyes wide and staring up at the sky. I followed her gaze and sure enough, there was a meteor shower. I mean, it didn’t warrant her reaction, but it was amazing. Tons of fiery balls of sky debris shot through the sky unlike I had ever seen. They went in all different directions, but most…most seemed to be coming straight for us.
I started to get up, but five hands pushed me back down before I could. Scott and Michael pulled me to them, helped by Ariadne gently pushing me their way while Lee took Vanessa’s hand away from me.
“Don’t interfere,” Ariadne ordered gently, but firmly. She gave a knowing look to my boyfriends before joining the other witches, who were slowly standing in a circle.
Michael wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled both me and Scott into him until we were both between his legs, leaning back into him. “Watch,” he said softly and I couldn’t help but to glance back. His eyes were gleaming gold. A glance at Scott showed his were doing the same.
“Happy birthday, Scout,” Michael and I thought at the same time, staring at our beautiful boyfriend as he shed his human skin and became his true shapeshifter canvas. It was an explosive reaction that came down. All of the weres turned into their truest creature. The shapeshifters shifted to their true selves. The vampires, succubi, banshees, furies, muses, and incubi let go of their cloak of humanity. The witches began to glow in their glittery auras. Even Vanessa changed, and I was sure she wasn’t doing it intentionally.
The closer the comets came, the brighter my boyfriends’ eyes became. And more than that, everyone’s magic and energy seemed saturated. The gold Gathering energy hung heavy in the air because there were so many of them. The scents of violets, honeysuckle, roses, scents I didn’t recognize became stronger and stronger, and when I looked to the witches again, they were holding hands in a circle.
They were floating off of the ground, all six of them. Magic lit up the air around them, twisting and twirling to meet the comets and inviting it in. A part of me opened up and I was starving, starving for their magic, for the energy, for everything that I could take. I reached out, both magically and physically, but instead of touching the magic, I was held back. Scott took my hand and Michael pulled me back. I felt locked in placed, shackled to the ground and it was torturous. I needed to get to the power before me. I needed to fill myself with it.
But I couldn’t.
By the time the witches stopped floating and the Gathering stopped glowing, I was squished between my boyfriends as inconspicuously as they could manage. Eyes turned to us and Scott turned to kiss me. I stole from him, not as much as I wanted, not as much as I needed, because it didn’t do anything for me. His was mine and mine was his. I could steal energy from him for days and it would never satisfy the urge I had, the pit of nothingness I needed to fill that had come from nowhere.
“You’re alright,” Michael whispered into my ear, or perhaps he thought it to me. “You don’t need anything, I promise.”
He was wrong. So very, very wrong.
“Charlize?” Violet’s voice rang across the field. Just her words were full of power. I wanted to steal it from her.
“You don’t need it,” Michael reminded me again as Scott let go of me. The smaller man studied my eyes.
“She needs something,” Scott muttered.
“Charlize?” Violet called again, but this time, she was closer. The pack was cutting her off from me.
“Let the witch to her mix,” the Ranger ordered.
Even he was soaked in the magic. It wasn’t fair. Why were they all allowed it and I wasn’t? That wasn’t right. I deserved some too.
Reluctantly, the pack backed away, though not without looking to Scott, and then me, to make sure they didn’t want to ignore the order. They didn’t. I’d seen the punishment they’d received for hunting rogue vampires in the Unruined Lands without the Ranger’s permission. I could only assume disobeying his direct order here would be worse.
Violet rushed forward with Ariadne at her tail, moving clumsily—which was highly atypical for her—but still quickly enough to catch up before Violet could touch me.
“She’s fine,” Ariadne announced with a peal of laughter, grabbing Violet’s hands and attempting to spin the older woman away from me in a silly dance. “Charlize is fine,” she said a little more firmly, which was made less affective by her ensuing peal of laughter. “Gods. I forgot how this feels,” she moaned, falling into her brother’s arms, not that it did her much good because both of them fell in a heap to the grass.
Violet paused, looking back to them and then to me, as if trying to determine which of us was in more dire need. She chose me, throwing a “Thorn, see to the child,” over her shoulder when Theseus and Ariadne started giggling again.
She stopped about a foot away, eyeing me. “You’re still too open,” she stated softly. “Still too torn open from the Others. You’re too sensitive to the changing flows. Here,” she reached out to me, and I could taste the power, wanted to pull it to me.
A hand caught her wrist, pulling it back. “You will not share our bounty with the mix-breed.” A man said. I didn’t recognize him, had never seen him before, but the way he spoke to Violet made it clear that he knew her very well, and the way he spoke about me made it clear that he knew about me.
“I am sharing my power with my charge,” she spat.
“What you hold now is the Collective’s power,” he corrected. “And if I’m not mistaken, it has chosen the Gathering life.”
“She hasn’t chosen anything,” Ariadne and Violet said at the same time, Ariadne sounding strained.
“I took too much,” the golden witch murmured. Instantly, it was as if I’d been forgotten, because Violet and the man went to her side. I watched closely, recognizing the act of transferal of energy. It was different from my way, since that was my ability. But I’d seen it done before, when I’d been drained by Piney and needed witch magic. And it was easy enough to alter to steal.
Which I did.
And all hell broke loose.
It was like a slap in the face. The magic, not the literal slap in the face I received, which was much more shocking, which led to a lot of growling and threatening and all that nonsense. The magic brought me out of that weird pit and into a more comfortable place.
The, uh, slap, on the other hand.
I blinked a few times, trying to push the pain out of my face to focus on Violet, who’d just slapped me across the face. Scott and Michael were between us. The pack had risen. The witches were all at her back, as if keeping her safe. I knew for a fact that if she’d felt threatened, she wouldn’t have needed their help to get my pack back.
She wasn’t nervous. She was pissed. “What was that?” she demanded, stepping forward. Ariadne tried to step in front of her, but she was apparently still weak, because Violet easily just pushed her away and the man witch (Thor?) caught Ariadne and pushed her and Theseus back. As if they were in danger. As if anyone would dare hurt the two of them.
“I, I’m sorry. It just happened,” I tried to explain.
Scott snarled at Violet. “What was that?” he countered. “You assaulted my mate.”
I put pressure on his shoulder and Michael followed my suit, but still stayed in front of me, so I had to look over his shoulder.
“Snatching rebirth magic doesn’t just happen,” Violet exclaimed and right then, I saw the crack in her fury. She was scared. Scared shitless.
“Who taught you that and where did it go?” my long-time friend, Mogra, demanded. She had that same look of disgust I always received, only this time it was accompanied by the kind of fury I normally expected from a scorned lover.
“No one?” I asked, glancing at Michael when he looked back to me in question. “I just, I felt faint so I grabbed some energy.” Not strictly true. Scott and Michael knew that, but we had been working on keeping a united front, so they didn’t call me out on it. Not aloud, anyway.
You were jonesing. What have you had today? Michael corrected.
Did anyone eat from you? Did you give out anything? Scott wondered at the same time.
Since I still had pretty limited control over giving out energy, especially when I was as content as I always was with them, I had no earthly idea about the second question. And since I was a long time practitioner of fake it ‘til you make it with differentiating energy, I couldn’t answer the first question either.
“So you just somehow managed to divert magic no singular entity can hold and ingested it so well that it’s gone?” another just super friendly male witch snarled at me. He looked older than dirt and sounded about the same.
I blinked owlishly.
“Or is it more likely that the mongrel is stealing from us to give to them,” the Violet-age male witch suggested, gesturing to the group of Gathering who were off from the entire situation, talking amongst themselves. I was insulted in several different ways. Apparently, so were they, because at that point they joined in.
I stopped understanding words, aside from mutt, crossbreed, mix, half-breed. Everyone was loud and angry and yelling and then…
There was quiet. The Gathering were pushed back on the clearing, just as the Collective were, in the opposite direction. Then I was standing there in the center with the Ranger. That made me nervous, because, you see, he’d never really forgiven me for punching him. Or for existing as far as I could tell. He seemed to blame me for just about everything wrong that had happened in the past month.
Handful of others? Charlize’s fault. Strange vampire camarilla running around? Charlize’s fault. Unusually cold? Charlize’s fault. Animals acting up? Charlize’s fault.
“Explain what you did,” he ordered in a voice that was much farther past his irritated voice than I was comfortable with. So I did as he said. And quickly.
“I needed energy, so I redirected some that was in the air and took it in. Now I feel better.”
He cut off angry mutterings with a single look. “And did the ‘energy’ feel strange to you?”
“No different than I usually get from in here,” I lied. A sharp look had me backtracking. “I mean, sort of. It felt a little stronger, and it was calling, like it wanted me. So I took it. I’m sorry. I didn’t think it was a big deal. It was too much for Ariadne and Theseus and I’m, like, limitless or something, so I figured it would be okay?”
“Give it back,” the Ranger ordered.
I frowned. “I don’t know how.”
“Yes, you do,” he stated, as if he knew what he was saying was completely true.
What bothered me was that it was.
“I would, but then I might hurt someone,” I attempted, glancing to my boyfriends, who were straining against whatever hold the Ranger had on them. Even though I knew he was stronger than both of them, by far, I still appreciated the attempt.
Ranger levelled me with his Alphing glare and I took a deep breath to try to fight it. Of course I lost, since his power was so strong I didn’t even realize what I was doing wasn’t my idea most of the time. Looking away, I pulled at the magic. It was easy to toss it away. Bouncy, firm and yet still malleable, it was willing to go wherever I put pressure. Still, I didn't want to let it go, so I let it flow back to the witches, but reluctantly and slowly.
And still I received looks of terror when it was all gone.
Ariadne was the only one looking at me as if I were a puzzle, rather than a monster. "What do you think you just gave me?"
Well, first of all, I didn't give you anything, I thought but didn't say. "What I took?" I replied as if it were obvious. Because it was obvious. I gave back exactly what I took.
They all looked a little more comfortable with that answer, though there was still some hesitation and mistrust I didn’t understand from not only the witches but the Gathering.
"Your student's ignorance is a problem," the old man shot at Ariadne. "Which, of course may simply be because of her unfortunate bloodline."
"Her unfortunate mixture, you mean," Thor snapped, as if he were personally offended by the slight at my ancestry.
"She's not ignorant," Violet jumped in.
"Are we done here?" the Ranger asked as politely as he could when almost snarling.
"We are," the same man who'd been creepily watching me all night stated. "Now if the witches might finish? Some of us have things to do, people to meet." He glanced to me at that and instinctively, I shifted toward my boyfriends, but the Ranger had me in place with a hand holding light pressure to the back on my neck.
"We are also finished," Thor stated, looking pointedly to first Violet and then Ariadne. Both women moved toward me, but the Ranger cleared his throat.
"Then, as signs of goodwill, as always, both groups will leave the Unruined Lands for the 36 hours required, by law, for my unbiased defenders to use unclaimed starburst to replenish the lands."
There were far too many eyes on me.
"Meaning the Leegion Pack stays here, including its witch and mix."
Oh. I glanced to Lee, who looked self-satisfied as all get out. The pack had relaxed, though the Gathering man, my godmother, and my mentor looked irritated, to say the least. I smiled at everyone.
"Nice seeing you all, let's do this again sometime? Maybe minus the insults, yeah?"
Apparently renewing the land mostly meant picking up litter, cleaning firepits, and making sure that there were no stragglers. I mean, the Ranger did some strange energy shit and instructed Morgan and Michael in it. But for me, the wolves, and Vanessa, it was just cleaning up. And when I offered my help, the Ranger used a strangely gentle voice to suggest that I keep myself "from stealing any more energy and fucking things up any more for the next 24 hours, if that isn't too hard."
So I stuck with Scott, who stayed near Lee, who stayed close to Vanessa who was inseparable from Tyler. They had started not-dating a few days after Halloween, something about YOLO, since being around me made life expectancy pretty low, or something equally as insulting. Not-dating included being strong with PDA, not having sex, not labeling the relationship, going out to "hang" every week, and giving me and my boys shit about the time we spent together instead of with the pack.
Tyler squeezed Vanessa's side when he passed her, doing the heavy lifting with one hand while she and I sat there, watching him with impressed looks. Scott and Lee had gone off, chasing a squatter off the land, so it was just the three of us.
"Charmander," Vanessa spoke once he was out of sight, taking a large rock to its 'proper place'.
"Hmm?" I asked, squinting at the shiny dust all over the place. It looked a lot like magic, but as far as I knew, magic wasn't actually a solid.
"How have you been?" she asked, making me focus on her. She was edging around saying something. While on one hand, I didn't want to hear her complain about my time with my boys, she sounded like she had something important that she needed to share.
"I've been okay," I said. She still didn't say anything. "Having a blast with the guys," I added, looking for a reaction. There wasn't one. She kept avoiding eye contact, which meant it probably wasn't about how much time I spent with them. "I've been playing again. The oboe. I forgot how much I miss playing when I don't. So far, none of the neighbors have complained. I, uh, saw Spectre the other day. It wasn't all that great."
Still, nothing. I squinted at her. "How about you? How've you been?" I prodded.
"Good. Fine. I'm good," she said, giving me a fake smile. I wanted to push it, but at that moment, Tyler came back. Fortunately, I was pretty sure whatever was bothering her wasn't about him, because she looked relieved when he came back and all-but launched herself at him.
"Okay, good talk," I muttered to myself, walking away so that I didn't have to watch them make out. The first few times had been amusing because of the height difference between them, but they'd perfected the art of him lifting her up so that he wouldn't have back pain. Now it was just unnecessary sucking noises, sloppy technique, and awkwardness.
I wandered a few feet pretty aimlessly until I started to hear voices. It sounded vaguely like Michael, so I started to announce my presence, but a gnawing fear stopped me. I took a step back and looked around. There was nothing around me. It was night time. I was alone in an ever changing terrain. I took another step back.
"Charlize?" Michael's voice called. Only it wasn't Michael's voice. Every time Michael spoke, I felt a rush of his energy. If he'd called my name, I would have felt like I was wading in a pool. I didn't. I felt nothing but an emptiness.
"Come here," the voice called again. There was a draw to it, something that made me want to obey the command. It wasn't quite the same as Alphing but a more familiar, personal appeal. I wanted to go to it because it felt like a part of me.
"Who's there?" I asked in reply, turning in a circle. It could be a shapeshifter or a vampire, I decided, though that didn't seem right. Even though the dominance power that Morgan and Scott had was in some ways different from Alphing, it was still, in the end, just a different version of the same thing.
This was more like having time and distance from my oboe and wanting it because it was a part of me. It was like seeing it and knowing that if I picked it up, I would play the most beautiful music, and all I had to do was get it. It was a tempered longing, similar to what I'd felt earlier, during the meteor shower. Only if I opened up, I knew I wouldn't get what I wanted. I had to go to it.
"I want to show you something," it had melded Scott and Michael's voices together. I took a step toward it, but stumbled over a sapling. I fell forward and landed on the ground, my torso hitting hard. The strange, glittery sand covered my hands and forearms as well as part of my shoulders.
And then it sunk into my skin. And I was on fire.