Among the Stars by Tiffany Allen

-Present Day-

“Hey pass me another box, would you?” Stacy Montgomery, aka my bestfriend, gestures toward the pile of cardboard boxes stacked precariously in the corner of her room.

“Yeah sure thing,” I say as I hop off her bed. I carefully pluck the top box off the stack and bring it over to her.
Among the Stars
Among the Stars by Tiffany Allen
“Here, take this one and tape it up,” she instructs, passing me a full box. I take the box over to the bed to tape and mark it. I write books on the top and take it out to the hallway where the ready to go pile is. I then flop back onto the bed. “How many shoes are too many shoes?” she asks. I look over to see her holding up four different kinds of sneakers by their laces. She has even more in her closet. “I would say take two of each kind and if you need more, ask your mom to mail them to you.” “But now I have to choose,” she groans and drops the shoes onto the floor with a pout. She walks to her closet where she begins digging out more shoes. I laugh and go over to help organize them into piles. Each different type gets its own pile. This way it will be easier for her to see all her options and choose. I don’t know how she even knows what shoes she has. I only have a third of the amount that she does and I forget that I have half of them. “I wish you were coming. I’m gonna miss you.” I look up from my organizing to see Stacy staring down at a silver high heel in her lap. “Are you talking to me or the shoe?” I chuckle. She looks up and glares at me. I look away and go back to organizing the piles. “I know. I’m going to miss you too.” With those words, the happy atmosphere disappears. Stacy and I grew up together. We’ve lived in the same town, went to the same schools, and we were supposed to go to the same college. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan though. I spent the weeks after graduation hanging with my friends. We went shopping, took mini road trips to the beach, went camping, and just enjoyed having the weight of high school lifted from our shoulders. That weightless feeling didn’t last long. Two weeks after graduation my parents were killed in a car accident. With that car crash, my whole world crashed down around me. Instead of picking out dorm decorations I was picking out coffins. Instead of writing thank you cards I was writing a eulogy. My grandparents flew in to help me plan the funeral and took care of most of the preparations and legal stuff so I didn’t have to. I know they were trying to help but the more they did the less I had to occupy my mind. People don’t tell you that grief feels like you’re suffocating. There’s a helpless feeling that comes with it. My options were: distract myself or sit in my grief. I had so many regrets. I should have spent more time with them after graduation. Maybe if I had been home that night, they wouldn’t have gone out for dinner and gotten hit. The what ifs are what really get you. That and the suffocating weight of loss. “Ailey?” Stacy says softly as she touches my hand. I startle a bit because I’m so lost in my thoughts. It has become a regular thing since I lost my parents. I squeeze her hand and go back to separating the shoes. “I’m sorry Stace. It’s not your fault. I’ll be fine. I just need time to figure stuff out.” “I know. Don’t rush. You’ll just have to visit lots and come to a couple college parties with me.” She winks at me. “Sounds like a plan.” Oddly this makes me feel better; knowing I have at least one thing planned out. Besides taking a year off before college and road tripping across the country, my plans were zip. “How’s packing going?” Stacy’s brother, John, storms in and walks right into a pile of boots; stubbing his toe and knocking them into the pile of flats. “Ow! Geez Stace, do you have enough shoes?” “John, you messed up my piles,” I exclaim. I throw one of the boots at him which he catches and tosses back at me. I barely grab it before it hits me in the face. “That could have broken my nose.” I glare at him. “And you could have broken my toes.” He fakes a limp and sits on the bed. “How would I pick up the ladies with broken toes?” “Oh I’m sure you’d do just fine.” I laugh and fix the shoe piles. John is two years older than Stacy but where Stacy is short and petite, John is tall and muscled. They have the same light brown hair though which they get from their mom. For the longest time Stacy tried to get John and I together but it never worked. I grew up with him just like I grew up with her and he became the brother I never had. Their whole family is like a second family to me. “Speaking of ladies, how’s my favorite sister?” John nudges my shoulder with his “hurt” foot. “I’m right here you know?” Stacy throws him a death glare. He winks at her then looks back at me. “I’m alright. I’m better than a few weeks ago.” I smile at him. When my parents died he had made it his job to look after me. He even stayed at my house until my grandparents arrived. I really appreciated everything him and his family had done for me. “Good because you gals are going to a party tonight.” “Really?” Stacy’s entire face lights up and John nods. “Yup. Ben is throwing a party and we’re going so I can teach you guys how to party before college.” “Aren’t big brothers supposed to tell their sisters not to go to parties?” Stacy raises an eyebrow at him. “I never said I was the best influence. Plus, I don’t want you to be blindsided by the college parties. I’ll sleep better at night knowing you guys know how to handle yourselves.” He puts his hand over his heart and looks lovingly at us. “Okay now you’re trying too hard,” Stacy laughs. “I’m in. Ailey?” “Sure. Might as well get used to them for when I visit.” “That’s the spirit,” John jumps up and claps his hands. “Party’s at nine so be ready in time. Oh, and don’t tell mom.” John carefully steps over the piles of shoes and leaves. “Okay new job. What shoes am I wearing tonight?” Stacy asks. I toss her the red boots. “Definitely these.” Chapter 2 The three of us get to the party around ten. Stacy had a major wardrobe crisis, and John wasn’t too happy about the delay, but we eventually made it. We parked a few blocks away and walked to Ben’s house. The music was loud but not so loud as to draw attention. It looked packed but so far everyone was in the house and not spilling outside. John went to knock but Stacy stopped him. “Wait, gotta do a wardrobe check.” She spins around for me while John groans. She’s in a red fitted V-neck, black skinny jeans, and is wearing the boots we picked out earlier. Her short light brown hair is curled and softly frames her face. “Lookin’ good, how about me?” I spin for her while John stands with his arms crossed looking annoyed. I’m wearing a black v-neck, red skinny jeans, black boots, and my long dark brown hair is straight. Stacy thought we should match but flip our colors and I must say we make quite the pair. “Can we go now?” John, who’s in plain jeans and a blue t-shirt, slowly reaches for the doorbell. “You may proceed.” Stacy waves him on like a ruler giving permission to a subject. John rolls his eyes and rings the doorbell. A blonde in a short sparkly dress answers it. She waves us in and shuts the door before directing us to the kitchen where Ben is. Ben is one of John’s friends from high school. They don’t go to the same college though so they only get to hang out when they come home for the summer. Ben is sitting on the kitchen counter with his girlfriend, Jen, drinking a beer. He sees us, kisses Jen on the cheek, and hops off of the counter. John meets him half way and they hug in that special way guys always seem to do. “Dude, you’re late,” Ben says. He passes John a beer. John twists off the cap and expertly throws it into the garbage can in the corner. “You can thank the wardrobe twins for that,” John gestures at us and takes a drink of beer. Ben laughs and hugs us both. Ben wasn’t like a brother so much as more of a cousin-type. “Great to see you guys. When do you leave for college, Stacy?” “In about a week. I want to get settled as soon as I can.” “Smart move. When are you leaving for your trip, Ailey? “Not too long after Stacy. I’m going to see her off; then pack up and hit the road.” “Right on. Well, I hope you guys enjoy the party and try not to get too hammered, okay?” “You don’t have to worry about me,” Stacy responds as she reaches for a beer. “Uh no. Not happening.” John intercepts the beer and passes his to her. “You can finish this though.” There’s only about a third left and Stacy glares at him. “Really bro?” “If you think I’m going to let my little sister get drunk at a party then you got another thing coming. You’re here to observe.” John repeats his cap toss on his new beer and looks at me as I reach towards the counter. “Don’t make me get after you too.” “No no,” I say, grabbing a pop. “I’m the responsible one, remember?” “Good. Keep an eye on that one.” He points at Stacy who then sticks her tongue out at him. I give him the thumbs up and he leaves to find more of his friends. When he’s gone I slide a beer over to Stacy and give her a wink. “Oh you are the best friend ever,” she squeals. She tries to repeat her brother’s cap toss but she misses. “Damn.” “You can practice at college,” I laugh and we move out of the kitchen, keeping an eye out for John. We follow the music and find the majority of people in the living room near the back of the house. Most of the people seem to be from Ben and John’s graduating class but there’s some from ours that we recognize. Two of them, Zack and Jaden, are intensely playing a game on the TV while a group of guys chant and shout around them. Sprawled throughout the room are couples making out and groping each other. I nudge Stacy and point at one of them, pretending to barf. She looks and nods her head. We decide to see if we can find more of our classmates. We spend about ten minutes pushing our way through the house before we find a group of our friends hanging out in the dining room. They are playing beer pong and Stacy wants to join. Tyler, who also grew up with us, teaches her how best to toss. She actually isn’t that bad. I thought her cap toss failure would have been an indication but maybe Tyler’s tips helped her out. I stand beside her and cheer while Tyler cheers from the other side. I look between Tyler and Stacy. I always thought they would make a good couple. Tyler has the same outgoing personality that Stacy has and he’s super sweet. He’s huge into sports and played most of them while we were in school. He’s actually going to college on a basketball scholarship. The same college Stacy is going to which I don’t think is a coincidence at all. I think he’s had a thing for her since last year but he’s never acted on it. Stacy has always been dodgy when it comes to Tyler, never giving me a definite answer. Knowing someone since childhood can either build a great relationship or make it impossible for one. In mine and John’s case we ended up like siblings, but Stacy and Tyler are different. I think college is going to give Tyler the boost he needs to act on his feelings and I suspect Stacy will return his feelings. College will be good for them. I look around and see John coming down the stairs weaving his way toward the dining room. I grab Stacy and Tyler, pulling them towards the opposite doorway that leads into the kitchen. “Abort abort! John’s coming.” We escape without notice and make our way towards the living room. “Why are we hiding from John?” Tyler asks as he scans the crowd. “Stacy isn’t supposed to be drinking,” I say. Tyler’s eyes get big and he scans again with a look of worry on his face. “Great, now you tell me. He’s gonna be pissed.” Tyler runs his hands through his hair and shakes his head. “He’s gonna beat me up.” “Not if he doesn’t find us,” Stacy whispers at him. She giggles and ducks behind him like she’s hiding. She’s definitely feeling the booze. Just then her favorite song comes on. “I love this song,” Stacy squeals and pulls us towards the people dancing. She’s a little uncoordinated but she’s stable and moves with the beat. Tyler and I join her and we dance for a handful of songs. It gets really hot and I need some air. John and Tyler are the only ones besides me I’d trust with tipsy Stacy so I tell him to watch her and I’ll be right back. He gives me two thumbs up and moves closer to her to fill the space I left. He’ll make sure no one messes with her. I squeeze out of the group and head towards the front door. The front yard is still empty of people and I’m relieved. I haven’t been around that many people in a long time and it’s a bit much for me to take in. My life became pretty low key after my parents died. Ben’s porch has a swing that I sit on. My feet hurt and it feels good to give them a rest. There’s a slight breeze but it’s still a warm night. I push the swing and look up at the stars. The sky is clear and despite the street lights I can see a few of them. I’ll have to find somewhere without lights to look at them on my trip. I sigh as I lean back and close my eyes. My hope is that this trip will force me to deal with the loss of my parents instead of just distracting myself from it. I think I need time with myself, venturing out and seeing the beauty in the world. Being in my home town where everyone knows everything about me makes me feel trapped. I love Stacy and all them but sometimes I feel like they are waiting for me to get back to who I was before the accident. I don’t know if that’s even possible. My parents have always been there and I have to come to terms with the fact that they no longer are. “I really wish you guys were here with me,” I say up at the stars. “I could really use some advice.” The front door opens and I nearly jump out of my skin. I really need to stop getting lost in my thoughts. I look over and see a guy, tall, that looks about John’s age, maybe older. His hair is dark like mine and is neatly cut. He’s wearing jeans and a dark green t-shirt that fits perfectly, molding to his muscles. His facial hair is stuck in that stage right after stubble and when he looks at me I see that his eyes are green like emeralds. He has that rugged look that makes you think he belongs in the woods. He smiles and walks over to me. “Mind if I sit?” He gestures to the spot next to me. His voice is deep and it matches him perfectly. “Nope, not at all.” I scooch over to make room for him but this isn’t a very big porch swing and his arm bumps mine. “Oops, sorry,” He laughs and leans over to the other side so he isn’t crowding me. I laugh too. “It’s fine. It’s a pretty small swing.” I smile at him and he relaxes, not trying so hard not to brush arms. A breeze blows past and carries the smell of pine off of him and towards me. How does he manage to smell woodsy too? “Enjoying the party?” He angles towards me a bit so he can look at me while he’s speaking. “Not really my kind of crowd but yeah I am. How about you?” I turn towards him too and it makes our knees touch but he doesn’t seem to notice. “It’s not too bad considering I was forced to come. My friend wouldn’t take no for an answer.” “Do you know Ben?” “No but my friend does. They go to the same college.” “Oh, what college do you go to?” “Actually, I’m not in college.” He scratches his head nervously. “I’ve never really had the desire to go. Not the smartest move I know.” He looks like he’s gotten the college lecture quite a bit. I wonder if his parents don’t agree with his decision. “No judgement here. I’ve decided to not go either, at least not yet anyways.” He perks up like he’s glad to finally find someone who isn’t in college, but considering the kind of people at the party and his friend, maybe he normally feels like he’s on the outside. I know I do. “What are you doing then?” “Well, I just graduated but I’m going to take a year and road trip. Take some time for myself. See the Grand Canyon, the Redwoods, camp in cool places, stuff like that.” “You’re definitely speaking my language now. I love to travel. I’ve seen so many beautiful places and had so many unique experiences by just going where the wind takes me. I think it’s something everyone should do.” He smiles brightly. “That’s really good to hear. I think my friends think I’m crazy.” They’d never actually say it but I know some of them feel that way. “I don’t think you’re crazy at all.” He smiles at me again and I decide I really like his smile. The front door opens again and we both look to see who it is. It’s the blonde in the sparkly dress that let us in earlier and she’s with a guy. His hair is blonde and shaggy and his face is the classic pretty boy face that drives Stacy crazy. They are all over each other and behind me woodsy man sighs. They both turn towards us at the sound and the guy leads her over to us. “I see you found a friend. Hope you don’t mind but I’m gonna bail,” the blonde guy says, giving the guy next to me a wink. “Knock yourself out,” he replies. He looks annoyed and waves his hand dismissively. The other guy winks again and the pair walk down the stairs and disappear down the street. “That was my friend, Caleb,” he explains. I turn back towards woods man and he has a disapproving look on his face. “He seems,” I try to think of a word that won’t offend him, “interesting.” To my surprise, he laughs. “Not the word I’d pick to describe him but I suppose interesting works. He’s not always like what you just saw, there’s more to him than that.” “Don’t judge a book by its cover right?” He smiles and looks up at the sky. I don’t know when but at some point he put his arm on the back of the swing behind me. It doesn’t feel like a move though, more like he is just more comfortable sitting like that. He turns his eyes back towards me and extends his hand. “I’m Oliver by the way.” I take his hand and shake it. “Nice to meet you. I’m Ailey.” “That’s unique,” he smiles and releases my hand. “It’s Irish isn’t it?” “Yeah, I’m surprised you know that.” “Like I said, I like to travel. Does your family come from Ireland?” “No, that’s where my parents met. They thought it was fitting to give me an Irish name. It means light.” “I have a feeling that that normally fits you quite well.” His words poke my heart. “Normally?” I ask. “You seem very sad to me,” he smiles again but it’s not the full face smile like before, it looks sad. “I guess you could say that,” I don’t want to tell him that my parents just died. It’s been nice not having to be the grief stricken girl that others treat me as. He simply nods and looks at the sky again. I’m relieved he doesn’t ask me about it. I don’t feel like I’m suffocating around him, he’s like a breath of fresh air. He’s new and doesn’t know my past; it’s what I’ve wanted from my road trip and it hasn’t even started. It gives me hope that it really will help me get back to normal. “You can’t see the stars very well here,” he states suddenly. “No, the streetlights make it pretty hard but probably the best place to see them is the cemetery. There’s not as many streetlights and it’s on the edge of town. I wish you could see them better. Do you like the stars?” “I never get tired of looking at them. There’s something about them that calls to me.” I can understand that. My mother was the same way. We spend a few minutes sitting in silence looking up at the sky. Too bad I was leaving. I wouldn’t have minded getting to know him better. “Well, I better go find my friend and make sure she hasn’t gotten into too much trouble.” I get up and he does the same. “Do you need a ride home?” “I think we’re okay. I didn’t drink so I’m good to drive. Thank you though.” “No problem at all. It was a pleasure meeting you.” He walks down the stairs and walks to the road. When he gets there he turns back and waves at me. I return the wave before going back into the house. Before I close the door, I look back but he’s gone already. I close the door and go search for Stacy. Chapter 3 “Rise and shine sleepy head,” I sing cheerfully as I fling open the curtains of my bedroom. The light shines right on Stacy’s face and she groans. “Go away,” she mumbles and flips over, away from the light. “Come on,” I yank off the covers and jump on the bed, “I made pancakes.” “You are the worst friend in the history of friends,” she says, sitting up and holding her head. “That’s not what you were saying last night at the party.” “Obviously I never knew you were so cruel. God, my head feels like it’s gonna explode.” “That’s what you get for drinking so much. I only gave you one beer, remember? The others were all you. Now come on,” I hop off the bed and head downstairs. “The pancakes are going to be cold by the time you start moving.” I hear another groan and I laugh as I make my way towards the kitchen. Tyler had done a good job of keeping an eye on Stacy last night but she had swindled a few more beers out of him. When John came to say he was ready to leave, he wasn’t too happy to find his little sister drunker than a skunk. He said she had to stay at my house so their parents didn’t see her. Since I was the only one who didn’t drink, I drove us home in John’s car, including Tyler. In comparison, Stacy was way more intoxicated than the boys. She kept giggling the entire car ride home. She went on and on about how John couldn’t know that she was drunk and she’d lean over and whisper to Tyler that it was their little secret. Needless to say, John wasn’t too happy with my way of keeping an eye on her. He’d get over it though. Ten minutes go by until Stacy finally makes her way to the kitchen. She sits at the bar and lays her head on the cold tile. I grab her some pancakes and slide them in front of her with a glass of water and a bottle of ibuprofen. She looks up, sees the ibuprofen, and smiles. “I take it back. You’re the best friend ever.” She takes the pain killers and starts eating. “I know. You don’t have to tell me. Make sure you go easier on the booze at college, Stace, you’re not the most functioning drunk.” “I’m never drinking again,” she says with a mouthful of pancakes. “It’s not worth the hangover.” “Uh huh, sure.” I know she will. I just hope she is careful. I won’t be at those parties to watch her like I was last night. Maybe I’ll ask Tyler to keep an eye on her just in case. “So,” Stacy is still talking with her mouth full, “anything exciting happen that I should know about? Last night is kind of fuzzy.” “Well,” I tap my chin like I’m thinking about it, “not too much. You killed it on the dance floor, gave John a heart attack when he saw you, and oh yeah, you made out with Tyler.” “What?” She instantly starts blushing. “Please tell me you’re not serious?” “Okay so it was a little more than making out.” I shrug at her and eat my pancakes. “This isn’t funny,” she shouts and punches me in the arm. “Ouch! Fine. There was no making out. Tyler was a perfect gentleman and you were like a little kid. He even stayed with you while I went out for some air.” “Oh thank goodness. I would be so embarrassed.” “Only a matter of time,” I mumble. “What did you say?” “Nothing. Nothing at all.” I give her my most innocent smile. She scowls and goes back to eating. The door bells rings and I go to answer it. It’s John and I let him in. He goes straight to the kitchen and helps himself to some pancakes. “Yes John, you may have some pancakes,” I say with mock annoyance. He just ignores me and sits next to Stacy. Both of them sit in silence as they finish their breakfast. “Geez, you guys sure are fun this morning.” Matching glares is all I get as a response. My cell phone rings and I flip it over to look at the screen. I don’t recognize the number but I’ve been getting a lot of calls since my parents died so I answer it. “Hello?” “Ailey? It’s Oliver.” He was the last person I expected it to be. “Oh. Hi.” My heart beats a little faster. “I hope you don’t mind but I had Caleb get your number from Ben.” I didn’t know Ben had my number. John must have given it to him. “Oh no it’s fine, what’s up?” Stacy is mouthing “who is it?” but I ignore her. “Well, I was wondering if you would like to have lunch with me today?” He wants to have lunch with me? I am not prepared for this. I still have to take a shower, get ready, and I haven’t even told Stacy about him yet. But I really want to go have lunch with him, it was so nice talking to him and I had a hard time falling asleep last night because I was wishing I could see him again. I guess I was silent too long because I hear, “Ailey?” I mentally kick myself. “Sorry, yes, I would love to have lunch with you.” “Great,” I can hear the smile in his voice. “How about I meet you at 1 at that café you pass coming into town? The one next to the hardware store.” “I’ll be there.” My heart should not be beating this fast over a lunch with a guy I just met. “See you soon.” “Bye.” I hang up and Stacy punches me in the arm again. “Who are you going to lunch with?” she demands. “A guy I met last night,” I answer simply. “And?” she presses. “And what?” “Details?” “He’s a friend of one of Ben’s college buddies.” “So he’s older. How old?” “I don’t know.” “What do you mean you don’t know?” “I didn’t ask.” “Ailey Grant, you stop messing around and tell me!” “I’m not messing around!” Teasing Stacy is always fun but now that I think about it I really should probably know how old he is. “He could be a serial killer for all you know.” “I highly doubt that but it’s not like I’m going away with the guy. We’re having lunch at Kelly’s. I’m meeting him there and it’s a public place so you don’t have to worry.” “Tell me you at least know his name?” “His name is Oliver.” “Hmm. Okay but I expect to hear from you every half hour.” “Yes, mother.” I roll my eyes at her. “Anything you want to say John? John?” He’s lying down on the counter with his eyes close. “John?” I poke him and his shoots up. “I’m wake. I was just resting my eyes.” He rubs his bloodshot eyes and lays back down. “Good because you guys can clean up. I have a lunch date I have to get ready for.” “What? What date? With who?” He looks towards Stacy, confused. “Fill him in Stace,” I yell as I run up the stairs to get ready. ------------------------------------------------- I wait until it is exactly 1 o’ clock to get out of my car. I didn’t want to be late or too early so I got here 10 minutes ago. I’m parked just down the street from the café where I’m to meet Oliver and I’m slightly stressed. For the past 10 minutes I’ve been repeating “it’s just lunch” to myself and it hasn’t helped. Besides school dances, no one has really asked me out on a date. I’ve always seemed more like one of the guys or like a sister to them for the most part. The curse of growing up to together in a small town, I think. I take a deep breath and hop out of my car. It takes less than a minute to reach the café. When I get there I see Oliver sitting at one of the outside tables looking at a menu. He looks up suddenly and sees me. I give a small wave and walk over to the table. When I get closer he gets up and pulls my chair out for me. “Thank you,” I say as I sit. “My pleasure.” He pushes my chair in and takes his seat. “I’m glad you agreed to have lunch with me.” “I’m glad you invited me. It was a nice surprise.” He smiles at me and I smile back. He picks his menu back up and resumes looking it over. “Do you recommend anything?” His eyes shift from the menu to me. “The sandwiches are pretty good but I love their clam chowder. It’s what I always get.” “I think I’ll have that then,” he says, setting down his menu. The waitress comes and we both order the clam chowder and iced tea. She takes our menus and gives me wink. She’s from my school and we were in track together. I blush slightly but get it under control before it’s noticeable. “Here,” he says, “I thought you might find this useful.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of paper and hands it to me. I unfold it and see it’s a list of places all over the U.S.; some of the places have a star next to them. “It’s a list of places I thought you should see on your trip. The starred ones are places that are perfect for star gazing,” he says before I can ask. “Wow,” I say, truly grateful. “This is amazing. I really didn’t know where I was going to go. This helps a lot. Thank you so much.” “You’re very welcome.” He bows his head at me then leans over the table to point at the list. “They are ordered in which ones I like the best.” “So you’ve been to all these places?” He nods his head and leans back, “Multiple times.” “That’s amazing. Thank you again.” I put the list in my purse just as the waitress brings our food. We thank her and start eating. “This chowder is really good,” he comments. I’m glad because I’m the only one in my family that ever liked it so I wasn’t sure if he would or not. “Glad you like it,” I say out loud. We go back to eating for a while. “So tell me about yourself,” I say. He takes a drink before answering. “Well, I’m 21,” he starts. “I move around a lot, traveling across the country. Thanks to money I inherited from my great grandparents, I don’t have to work really but I do take little jobs every once in a while. Recently I worked as a firefighter in California. I really enjoyed doing that. Most the time I travel alone but Caleb wanted to spend the summer together so I’m going around with him. We both love the outdoors so we’ve been doing a lot of camping and hiking.” “That sounds so fun. Have you ever been out of the country?” “I have. That’s an entirely different list I could give you if you plan on traveling abroad.” “I think I’ll stick with this country for now.” He laughs and I join him. “How about you? Tell me more about you.” He leans forward as I start to talk. “I’m 18 but I turn 19 in November. I’ve lived in this town my whole life. I was planning on becoming a journalist but now I’m not so sure. I love the outdoors too and used to go hiking almost every weekend. I did well in school but I wasn’t very sporty until senior year, when I did track. And I’m leaving in a week for a road trip that I’m using the money my parents saved for college for me.” “How do they feel about that?” he asks curiously. “Uh, they just want me to be happy.” I feel bad. I should tell him they are dead but I’m not ready. I’m not exactly lying either, I really do think they would just want me happy. “I think that’s what all parents should want for their children.” “How do your parents feel about your choices?” He’s about to reply when a man stops next to our table. “Oliver, my old pal, how are you?” Oliver stiffens and clenches his fists. He turns to look at this new man, as do I. He’s about the same height as Oliver but not as muscular and is dressed all in black. Black jeans, black shirt, black jacket, his hair is even black. He’s wearing sunglasses and I see myself reflected in them as he turns towards me. “And who might you be?” He voice is low and it gives me chills. Somehow it sounds as dark as his clothing. “What are you doing here, Alexander?” Oliver’s voice is low and dangerous. His warm demeanor gone, replaced with something almost predatory. His eyes seem darker and he looks ready to jump out of his chair. The new guy, Alexander apparently, turns his attention away from me and I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. “You know it’s Alex now,” he hisses. “What are you doing here?” Oliver repeats. He leans forward in his chair, poised to jump at a moments notice. “No hello? Now Oliver, is that anyway to greet an old friend? It’s been ages since we’ve seen each other,” Alex replies, avoiding the question. Oliver doesn’t respond. He just sits there, waiting. I don’t know who this guy is but he definitely doesn’t seem like a friend. “I’m Ailey,” I say, trying to diffuse the situation, I stick my hand out towards Alex. They both turn to look at me. Oliver looks shocked but Alex just smiles and takes my hand. “Ailey? What a pretty name. Tell me, how long have you known Oliver here?” “We just met. How long have you guys known each other?” He hasn’t released my hand yet and it’s making me uncomfortable. “Oh years. A long long time, seems forever actually.” I try and pull my hand away but he doesn’t let go. I look at Oliver and he looks like he’s about to punch something, or someone. “Can I have my hand back please?” I ask firmly. Alex smirks before releasing my hand. “She sure is something, isn’t she Ollie?” “Don’t touch her again.” Oliver is suddenly between me and Alex. I didn’t even see him get up, how did he move so fast? “Are you going to stop me?” Alex replies coldly. His tone chills me. “I remember a time when you stood by and let others do whatever they wanted.” “Leave. Now.” Oliver steps in close, there’s barely any space between them. “Very well,” Alex steps back and shrugs, “just wanted to say hi. It was lovely meeting you Ailey. Don’t you two be strangers now.” With that he turns around and walks away. Oliver doesn’t sit back down until Alex disappears around the corner. I wait for an explanation but none comes. “Wanna explain to me what just happened?” It’s obvious he’s not going to tell me on his own. “We used to be friends. He made some bad choices, got in trouble, and now we aren’t friends.” Oliver is still tense but he doesn’t seem to be as wound up as before. Seeing how aggressive he got with Alex makes me worry. I know he could have his reasons and the guy did seem odd but it just reiterates what Stacy was saying, I really don’t know him. Being around the same people my whole life has made me a little too trusting when it comes to new people. I need to be more careful with who I let my guard down. “Thank you for inviting me to lunch but I really should be going,” I don’t want him to know I’m freaked out so I add, “I’m meeting a friend in a little bit and she gets mad when I’m late.” For a moment I think I see hurt in this eyes but it’s gone a second later, if it was there at all. He smiles and nods his head at me. “Don’t worry about it, it’s my treat,” he says when I take out my wallet. “Thank you.” I stand up and he does too. I wait to see if he says anything but nothing comes. “Well, uh, good bye,” I say awkwardly and turn to walk away. “Ailey,” I turn back around to look at him, “I’m sorry I scared you.” My heart clenches at the look on his face. “What? No you didn’t. I just really have to go meet someone. I had a lot of fun.” He simply nods his head and I continue down the street towards my car. Normally I have a great poker face but I must have let something slip for him to know I was scared. Maybe it was just how quickly I left that tipped him off. I feel bad but it’s better safe than sorry in this case. I reach my car and text Stacy to tell her I’m coming over. I need to see what she thinks about my weird lunch date. ------------------------------------------------- “I’m telling you Stace, that guy was bad news. It was like he was purposely trying to be creepy.” As soon as I got to Stacy’s I told her all that had happened. She was just as weirded out as I was. “Maybe they used to be in a gang together and he ran away from them and he has to move around so they don’t find him.” Stacy’s theories tend to be on the dramatic side. “This isn’t helping,” I whine and bury my head in her pillow. “This is serious. If they are in something shady then do I need to worry about them knowing who I am?” Her crazy theories were starting to make me paranoid. “I think it’s pretty unlikely that you are in any danger. I mean what are the chances that you met rival serial killers and they are in a competition to see who can kill you first?” “I hate you, you know that?” Stacy stops packing and takes the pillow away from my face. Her face is serious as she stares at me. “I honestly think they are old friends that had a falling out. Remember when Sarah got into that fight with that sophomore? That girl went out of her way to make Sarah miserable. I think it’s probably along those same lines.” “You really think so?” “I do and I wouldn’t worry about how Oliver reacted. I wouldn’t have been too happy either if someone had tried to ruin my date like this Alex did. He was probably just being protective.” “Are you sure? You’ve dated more than me. I’m not used to these things.” “Have you ever felt threatened by Oliver?” “No. Even at lunch I didn’t feel like he would hurt me. I just felt like he would hurt Alex.” My gut told me that I didn’t have anything to worry about from Oliver. “There’s a big difference between knowing someone is capable of something and them actually doing it, especially if it’s to protect someone they care about.” “I know and from what little I know about him he seems like a really nice guy.” “From what you’ve told me I think so too. Ben said that Caleb is a good guy too and he only hangs out with good guys too.” “When did you talk to Ben?” “I had John do some digging while you got ready.” “And?” I ask eagerly. “Ben is really good friends with Caleb. He said he may be a lady’s man but he’s on the up and up. Ben doesn’t think he would have bad friends. In fact, he said Caleb got into a fight one night with some guys that were trying to spike girls’ drinks. Took them all out by himself. He had nothing but good words about the guy.” “That makes me feel better. I’m glad you had John ask.” “John wanted to make sure you’d be okay too. He worries about you.” “I know he does.” Stacy may have eased my fears that Oliver wasn’t a murderer but now I feel even worse for running out on him. Alex was obviously up to no good, I could tell that right away. It sounds like Caleb doesn’t stand for people who take advantage of others so I’m sure Oliver is the same way. It would make sense that if he knew someone wasn’t a good person that he would stand up against them. “So are you going to see him again?” Stacy asks. “I think after the way I acted, he probably wouldn’t even want to see me again. Plus who knows where I’ll be in a week.” I pluck at the edge of the blanket. It makes me sad knowing I probably messed things up. “Exactly why you should, because who knows where you’ll be. You could be three states over peeing in trees and living off the land, who knows? Live in the moment and grab life by those huge muscles you say he has.” She throws her arms around me and gives me a hug. “I want you to be happy. Don’t let fears keep you from living because that’s no way to live.” I hug her back and smile. Stacy can be either the silliest or the wisest person I know and I’m glad she’s my bestfriend. We let go of each other and she goes back to packing. I don’t know what I’m going to do without her for a whole year. Chapter 4 After eating dinner with Stacy’s family I decide to head home. Stacy tried to get me to stay over but I still have to pack for my own trip and if I don’t get a start on it I’m never going to get it done. On the way home the wind picks up and it starts raining. Not unusual for the Pacific Northwest but I was hoping for a bit more sunshine. At least I’ll get to go to some warmer places on my trip. It’ll be nice to get away from the rain. When I get home I boil some water for tea and turn up the heat. While waiting for the water to boil I double check the doors and windows to make sure they are all locked. Living alone has made me slightly paranoid. Once again I consider getting a dog to keep me company. It wouldn’t be bad to have one as a travel companion either. It’s probably too late to get a dog now though. Maybe I’ll ask John what he thinks. He’s big into dogs and would know what kind I should get. The kettle whistles and I go make my tea. Once that is done I head upstairs to start packing. The good thing is that I don’t have to take much besides clothing and things I’ll need on the road. I come from a long line of planners and savers. My grandparents had bought this house as a wedding gift to my parents but my parents had insisted on paying half. It wasn’t long before my fugal grandparents and lawyer parents had the whole thing paid off. They left everything to me in the will. There is plenty of money in the savings account to pay house expenses, go on my road trip, and also, with the help of my scholarships, to go to college. Thankfully money isn’t on my list of worries. I decided to keep the house. I just couldn’t get rid of the only place I’ve ever called home. I needed to have someplace I could come back to. After my trip or even if I wake up one day and decide road tripping isn’t working out, I can just head back home. Stacy’s parents offered to keep an eye on the house while I’m gone. We don’t get much crime around here but it’s comforting knowing someone is going to watch over my home. I had just gotten out my suitcases when I hear a noise downstairs. I’ve gotten used to hearing noises that the house makes but this didn’t sound like one of those. I stop moving and listen. I hear another noise but this time it sounds like a door shutting. I grab the baseball bat I keep next to my bed and reach for my phone but it’s gone. I know I had it plugged in on my nightstand. Where did it go? “Looking for this?” I spin around and see Alex standing in my doorway. He looks the same as he did at lunch, sunglasses and black clothes. He holds my phone for me to see. “What are you doin-” I start to ask but like magic he’s suddenly in front of me. “Right now that doesn’t matter,” he purrs, reaching for me. I swing the bat at him but he grabs it and rips it from my hands. Slowly, he removes his sunglasses and I freeze as his eyes hold me captive. His irises are completely black, no color, just black orbs surrounded by white. “Right now. I need you to be afraid.” He grabs me and flings me at the wall like I weigh nothing. I hit the wall and the breath is forced out of my lungs. Alex stands there watching as I try and breathe. I scramble to my feet and run for my bedroom door. He appears in front of me again but I don’t stop. I keep running and plow right into him. He gasps in surprise and we both fall down. I land hard on the floor but waste no time in getting up and running down the stairs. My only option is to run for help. My neighbors are currently on vacation so there was no hope of them coming to my aid. I turn around to see if he’s following me and run right into a wall of muscle. Strong arms encircle me and I’m swept out of the path of a swinging baseball bat. Shocked, I look up and see Oliver gazing down at me. I don’t know how he got here but I’m relieved to see him. He releases me and turns around to face Alex who somehow made it down the stairs and was about to bash my head in. “You took longer than I expected,” Alex says to Oliver. He holds the baseball bat relaxed on his shoulder. “I didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to go after her,” Oliver growls. “Did you really think I would leave her unprotected after the stunt you pulled?” “On the contrary,” Alex’s hands tighten on the baseball bat, “I planned on it.” Alex swings the bat at Oliver’s head. Before I can warn him, Oliver pushes me out of the way and avoids the bat. He rushes Alex and elbows him in the face. Blood drips from his nose but Alex just smiles and swings the bat again. Oliver blocks it with his arm while using his leg to sweep Alex’s legs out from under him and knocks him to the floor. Oliver yanks the bat away and tosses it across the room. He reaches down and grabs Alex by his coat collar and pulls him up from the ground. He knees him in the stomach and Alex slumps to the ground. Oliver crouches next to him and pulls his arm back for a punch. “I don’t know what you were thinking. You know you can’t beat me.” Surprisingly his eyes are full of sadness as he swings his fist towards Alex. Oliver never hits him though. Alex disappears into thin air. Oliver turns around in bewilderment. Alex reappears a second later in front of him and stabs him in the stomach with a knife. “You’re getting slow old man,” he whispers. Alex twists the knife and rips it out before disappearing again. Oliver stares at his stomach in shock before falling to his knees. “Oliver!” I scream. I run over him and press my hands against the wound to try and stop the bleeding. “You’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.” Blood continues to escape between my fingers, covering my hands and the floor around us. Hands grab me from behind and pull me away. I try to hold on to him but the blood makes my hands slippery. Alex laughs and places the knife against my throat. Oliver tries to stand up but falls back to his knees. “How are you able to Travel?” Oliver asks through clenched teeth. He’s losing a lot of blood and I don’t think he’ll survive if I don’t get him to the hospital. “You have no idea what I’m capable of now.” Alex presses the knife harder against my throat, forcing me to take tiny breaths so I don’t get cut. “Let her go. It’s me you want, not her.” Oliver manages to stand up but uses the couch for support. “How about we make a deal? You use your power, heal yourself, show her your true form, and I’ll let her go.” Power? What is he talking about? He’s completely nuts. “What are you playing at, Alexander?” Oliver growls angrily. “Answers aren’t part of the deal. Use your power. Save yourself and save her.” Alex presses the knife harder and I cry out as it cuts into my skin. “Okay! Stop! You have a deal.” Alex relaxes the knife a bit and waits, looking expectantly at Oliver. Nothing happens at first and I feel like I’m missing something but then I see it. Before my eyes, Oliver changes. His green eyes darken to black and silver, his hair grows longer and stops at his shoulders, his clothes change to leather armor, and a sword hangs at his hip. Bright light shines from his wound for a moment before disappearing. Except for the blood, there’s no evidence of a stab wound. He stands tall and strong like he was never injured at all. Alex lowers the knife but I don’t move. I stare at Oliver in shock. What I saw doesn’t make sense at all. Oliver looks at me and I involuntarily flinch at those black and silver eyes. “Finally.” I hear Alex whisper and he’s no longer behind me but in front of Oliver. Alex grabs his forearm and Oliver yells out in pain. Black tendrils flow from Alex’s hand and wrap around Oliver’s arm. Oliver tries to pull his arm free but he doesn’t seem able to. It’s like they are connected, bound by black threads. Windows and glass break as he keeps yelling. A strange wind blows through the house and knocks me backwards. I crouch on the floor watching the scene in disbelief. Alex lets go and Oliver stops screaming. The wind stops and Oliver falls to the floor holding his arm. The black bands stay for a moment but then seem to dissolve into his skin. “What did you do to me?” Oliver is out of breath as he stands up and faces Alex. “What I’m going to do to all of you.” Alex straightens his clothes and turns to me. “Thanks for your help.” Then he disappears again. I wait to see if he will reappear but he doesn’t. I sit on the floor, frozen in place. What just happened? What did Alex do to Oliver? Is Oliver okay? How did Oliver change like that? I don’t know how long I sat there running what just happened through my head but eventually I noticed Oliver crouching in front of me. Surprised and a little scared, I try and back away but I hit the wall. “It’s okay,” he says. “I promise I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to see if you are okay.” I remain completely still as he slowly moves my hair so he can examine the cut on my neck. His eyes and hair are back to normal, as well as his clothes. “It’s not deep. Will you let me heal it?” He speaks softly like his afraid I’m going to bolt any second which isn’t far off from what I’m thinking about doing. I don’t understand but I tentatively nod my head and he gently places his hand on my neck. His hand warms and his eyes briefly flash to black and silver before returning to green. He removes his hand and I touch my neck to find smooth skin. “Are you hurt anywhere else?” he asks gently. “The back of my head hurts. I think I hit it when he threw me into the wall.” I answer honestly. “May I see?” He reaches for my head but stops before he touches me. I nod again and he softly touches the back of my head while looking for any signs of trauma. “There’s no blood but you do have a bump. I can heal it and also take care of any concussion you may have.” “Okay,” I say quietly. He heals me again and I instantly feel better. He sits down in front of me when he’s done and we sit in silence. Eventually I work up enough courage. “Who are you?” Oliver sighs and looks me in the eyes. His eyes are warm and honest. “My name is Orion,” he says, “and I’m a Constellation.” Chapter 5 “Orion? The constellation?” I ask incredulously. Oliver, or apparently Orion, nods his head in confirmation. What does that even mean? “And Alex is one too?” I’d never heard of a constellation named Alex. “Alex is something else. I’ll explain everything, I promise, but I need to get you out of here. He may come back and it’s not safe for you here.” “Shouldn’t we call the police?” What was I even going to tell the police? Obviously I couldn’t tell them the constellation Orion was fighting some other being in my living room; they would think I was crazy. I’m having trouble not thinking I’m crazy myself. “There’s no need.” “What about my house?” Someone will definitely notice all the broken windows in the morning. Then they’ll notice the blood. “I’ll have someone take care of it. Right now my first priority is to get you somewhere safe.” “Where are we going?” Orion stands up and offers me his hand which I take after a moment of hesitation. “Not far. I have a house where you’ll be safe. Do you need to bring anything? It will just be for the night, I’ll bring you back in the morning.” “I should probably grab a few things.” “I’ll wait for you down here. I’ll know if you need me.” I want to ask how but I just nod and head upstairs. I go straight to the bathroom and wash the blood from my hands and neck. I try not to think as I watch the bloody water flow down the drain. Working on autopilot, I change out of my bloody clothes and throw some clothes in a bag, grabbing a few essentials as well. I also find my phone on the floor and I grab it and its charger too. Lastly, I grab a coat and head downstairs. Orion is waiting for me exactly where he was when I left. “Okay, I’m ready.” “Stay close to me until we get to my car. It’s just down the street.” He opens the door and peaks out. “Okay, let’s go.” We walk quickly out into the night, the rain and wind from earlier is gone. I stick close to Orion the whole way. He constantly scans our surroundings until we reach a jeep not too far down the street. When we get to the car he opens my door and shuts me in before he gets in on his side. He turns the car on and throws it into gear, speeding down the street; we quickly leave my hometown behind. I watch the trees pass steadily by. As time goes by I feel like I’m getting farther and farther from the only life I’ve ever known. I start shivering uncontrollably, the shock finally moving from my mind to my body. Orion notices and reaches into the backseat to pull out a blanket. I accept it and wrap it around me as he turns the heat up. An hour later we reach a town. The town is dark and quiet as we drive through it. Not surprising this late at night. When reach the other side, he turns down a winding dirt road and pretty soon a house comes into view. It’s a two story ranch style house with what looks like a shop off to the side. The lights are still on inside the house. Orion parks the car and we get out. He motions for me to follow him and we walk up the porch and enter the house. The house is clean and smells like cinnamon. A man that I recognize as Caleb sits on the couch watching TV. “It’s about time you got home,” he says without looking at us. “I was wondering if you had forgotten it was movie night.” Orion clears his throat and Caleb turns to look at us. “Oh,” he says in surprise. “If you need the house, I can leave.” “It’s not like that. Alexander attacked her. I needed to bring her somewhere safe.” Orion motions for me to sit and I sit down in a rocker as he sits down next to Caleb. He flops down with a sigh and I notice how tired he actually looks. “You’re kidding, right? Why would he do that?” Caleb looks from me to Orion. “I don’t know but he’s different. He can Travel again.” “That’s impossible.” “That’s what I thought too. I had him beat but then he Traveled and it caught me off guard. He stabbed me and threatened to kill her unless I used my power. When I did, he did this to me.” Orion shows Caleb his arm and he looks at it with confusion. I lean forward to look as well. Black veins stretch their way up his forearm. “Does it hurt?” Caleb touches one of the black veins. “Not now but when he did it it sure did. I can still use my powers and I don’t feel any different. I’ve never seen anything like it.” “Neither have I,” Caleb says grimly, he looks towards me. “She knows then?” “The bare minimum. I didn’t have time to go into the details.” “We? You’re one too?” I ask Caleb. He stands up and gives a bow. “Canis Major at your service,” he says, smiling proudly. “You can call me Canis.” “I’m Ailey. We met the other night.” I say. “I remember. Would you like anything to eat or drink?” he asks. “I think I’m okay.” I was still shaking a bit and I didn’t trust myself to hold onto anything. “I’ll have something,” Orion says. He turns towards me. “I’m going to go call Caelum to fix your house and I’ll be right back.” Orion takes out his phone and walks outside. “Caelum?” I ask Canis as the door shuts. “He’s one of us. Also known as the chisel. He and his brothers, Sculptor and Pictor, are experts at fixing and creating things. It’s part of their powers.” “Oh.” The full extent of how little I know about them hits me again. How many of them are there? What powers do Orion and Canis have? Who is Alex to them? “Sure it’s a no on the food? I made soup earlier.” “I’m sure.” “Suit yourself.” He then leaves me in the living room, probably going to go get food for Orion. I don’t sit there long before Orion comes back in and sits back down on the couch. “You’re house will be fixed before morning. No one should notice,” he assumes me. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that.” “Well, I was the one who destroyed it in the first place,” he says, chuckling. “It wasn’t your fault though.” “I suppose you’re right. It’s no problem though.” He smiles at me and I give a small smile back. I still don’t understand what he is but he hasn’t hurt me and I don’t think he will. If I thought he planned on hurting me I wouldn’t have come here with him. After getting over the initial shock of being attacked and seeing him change, I’ve realized he means me no harm. He’s still Oliver and he protected me. Canis brings in two bowls of soup. He hands one to Orion and puts the smaller one on the coffee table in front of me. “Just in case,” he says with a smile. Then he walks up the stairs, leaving the two of us alone. Orion sits and eats his soup in silence. “You really should eat something.” Orion glances worriedly at me before returning to eating. Trying not to shake, I carefully pick up the bowl and take a few bites. It’s absolutely delicious and I take a few more. I guess I was hungrier than I thought because I finish the whole bowl. When we are both done Orion takes our bowls into the kitchen and comes back with a mug of tea which he hands me. “Thanks.” I sip at it, my hands steady after eating. “Are you ready for me to explain?” he asks. “Yes,” I reply eagerly. I set my tea down and give him my full attention. “I’ve never really had to explain it to someone before so please bear with me.” He takes a deep breath and begins. “I said before that I’m a Constellation but to be more specific my soul is in the stars the make up the Orion constellation.” “Your soul?” “Yes. Unlike you, and the rest of the human race, my soul isn’t in my body but in the stars.” He notices my confusion and scratches his head awkwardly. “I’m sorry; I’m not explaining this very well. You see each human has a sort of energy coming from them. That energy is your soul and we can sense it. When a person dies, that energy leaves their body. Residual energy can linger but for the most part that person’s soul dissipates into the cosmos. A long long time ago, I died, but my soul got trapped in the stars. When it did, it changed it and since my body still had a residual piece of my soul, it changed too. I woke up, alive, but different. My soul is still in the stars but I’m connected to it by the little piece left inside me. I get my powers from the stars in my constellation.” “How did your soul get stuck?” I ask, completely flabbergasted. “We aren’t sure. From what we have figured out, certain stars seem to have a unique energy to them. Since we couldn’t sense these energies before we changed, we don’t know if that energy is a part of our soul or part of the original star. Either could be the reason it got stuck. It seems like a different energy than our soul but for all we know it could be an effect of the star on it. Our souls are so different from humans now that we really don’t know. Ours may have different forms just like we physically do.” “You aren’t human?” “In a way but not like you are.” “What are you then?” “Collectively, we call ourselves Stars. Specifically though, as I said before, I’m a Constellation since my soul is in multiple stars. Not all of us are Constellations; some only inhabit one star, they are called Singulars.” “How many Stars are there?” “I don’t know an exact number but in the hundreds. There used to be more of us,” he responds sadly. “What happened?” “Something very human. We went to war.” I wait for him to explain and eventually he does. His voice becomes somber as he begins his story. “We are very old. I can’t even give you a date for when we became what we are but we all became Stars within years of each other. In the beginning we had no clue how to control our powers or even what we were. As we found more of us though, we came to understand how our powers worked and we knew we weren’t alone. We kept thinking there had to be a reason we had come back to life with these powers. A higher purpose we said. We thought it had to be to protect humans, protect you from what happened to us, so that’s what we did. We became the human races’ protectors. Guardians of what we used to be. We’ve watched over you as you’ve grown and fought to survive. As time passed, others decided that that wasn’t good enough for them. We are very powerful and some decided that it was more appropriate for us to rule over you as the greater species. There was a war between Constellations and Singulars. The Constellations wanted to remain protectors and the Singulars wanted to rule. There were some Constellations that sided with the Singulars and vice versa but for the most part it was one side against the other. The Singulars outnumbered us but we were stronger because of our multiple stars. We are immortal but there are ways to kill us. It takes a lot of power though and the Singulars just didn’t have it.” As his story goes on, he seems to go farther and farther away. I wonder if he was close to any of the Singulars. Did he have to kill his friends all so humans wouldn’t be ruled by them? Back when he was fighting Alex in my house, there was that one moment when he looked sad as he prepared to hit him again. He said Alex was something else but he must be like him somehow. I wonder if they used to be close. “After we decided to stop peaceful negotiations, it didn’t take long for us to win. We decimated them. They had two options: give up or die. After the war, most of us went separate ways. It tore us apart. Some groups banded together, ones who were close friends, but for the most part we stopped coming together.” He stops talking and stares at the wall like he can see the past splayed out before him. With his powers, maybe he can. His face is heartbreaking and it wrenches my heart. I move out of my chair and sit next to him. Taking his hand in mine, I gently squeeze it. When he looks at me he seems surprised and he studies my face as if he’s looking for something. “I’m sorry,” I say, and I truly am. Human wars are so damaging and their war was no different. They fought this huge battle for us and we don’t even know about. We don’t know what they did for us. They are just thankless heroes. Orion puts his other hand over mine. “Thank you,” he says. We sit like that for a moment longer before he removes his hands. “It’s late and you must be tired. I’ll show you to your room.” I still have so many questions but I am tired and I don’t want to push him. He looks beat both physically and emotionally. I nod and he leads me upstairs. “There’s only two rooms so you can have mine. I’ll sleep on the couch.” “I can’t let you sleep on the couch,” I exclaim. “This is your home. I’ll sleep on the couch.” I turn to go back downstairs but he stops me. “Please, I insist. Trust me the couch is one of the comfier places I’ve slept,” he assures me. “Are you sure?” He’s done so much for me and now he is giving up his bed too. “Completely. The bathroom is through that door there.” He points to a door to the right of the bed. “If you need anything, I’ll be right downstairs. Sleep well.” He touches my shoulder as he walks past. “You too,” I reply and head into the bedroom, closing the door behind me. The bedroom has a warm feel to it. The decorations remind me of the forest. It’s decorated in pretty greens and accented with dark wood furniture. Nature themed pictures dot the walls and the bedspread has an animal border. His room matches his personality perfectly. I guess Orion the Hunter would be outdoorsy. I change into my pajamas and brush my teeth before climbing into bed. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a more comfortable bed. The sheets are soft and I’m surrounded by his scent. It makes me feel safe and I quickly fall asleep. Chapter 6 A soft knocking on the door wakes me up. “Yeah?” I call out sleepily. “Canis made breakfast if you want some,” a man’s voice comes through the door. Canis? I open my eyes and last night comes flooding back. The attack, Oliver saving me, Oliver actually being Orion, everything I learned last night quickly flashes through my mind. “Sure, I’ll be right down,” I reply. I sit up and stretch my arms out above my head. The sun is shining through the windows and I can hear birds singing outside. I hurriedly get ready and make the bed before heading downstairs. I’m eager to spend more time with Orion and Canis. I want to learn all about them and their people. I follow the sound of laughter to the kitchen where I find both of them. Orion is leaning against the counter and Canis is standing at the stove with an apron that says “Kiss the Cook”. Apparently I missed something funny because they both are still laughing. They look so normal. You would never know just by looking at them that they are ancient Star beings. “Good morning,” I say to both of them. “Good morning,” they reply in unison. “How did you sleep?” Orion adds. “Really well. I haven’t slept like that in a long time.” Since my parents died, I found it hard to fall asleep at night and even harder to stay asleep. “I’m glad,” he says, giving me a smile. I smile back and look at what Canis is cooking. “What are you making?” I ask him. Whatever it is, it smells really good. “Eggs Benedict,” he says with a smile. “Wow, you really know how to cook.” I’m surprised. My first impression of him was of a college frat boy. It’s true what Orion said about there being more to him. Last night he was kind and didn’t seem at all like a jerk. They are more similar than I thought. I can see why they are friends. “Canis traveled the world learning about different foods and cooking styles. I had to try every single dish he learned after each trip. I think he was trying to kill me.” Orion says with a laugh. “Hey, if I didn’t feed you, you would starve,” Canis says defensively. Canis leans over and whispers to me. “He only knows how to cook if it involves sticks, fire, and mud.” I try and suppress my smile but it’s no use. Orion chucks a towel at Canis but he’s smiling too. Once the food is done we all sit down to eat. Like the soup, it’s delicious and when they offer more I accept. Canis goes upstairs and leaves us to clean up. I just start clearing the dishes when my phone rings. It’s Stacy. “It’s my friend,” I say. “She’s probably wondering where I am. What do I tell her?” I look to Orion for help. “Tell her I invited you out to breakfast this morning.” I nod and answer the phone. “Hey Stace, what’s up?” Try and sound normal. “I just swung by your place but you weren’t there.” She sounds worried. “Yeah sorry. Or-Oliver asked me to go to breakfast with him so that’s where I am.” That was close, I almost said Orion. I have to be more careful. “Are you serious?” The worry is gone, replaced with excitement. “Okay, have fun, and tell me all about it later, love ya!” “Love ya too.” I hang up and look at Orion who nods good job at me. I didn’t technically lie but a part of me feels bad for keeping the truth from Stacy. This isn’t something I can tell someone, even my bestfriend, about though. I’m glad we will be going separate ways in a few days; it will be easier to keep it from her. Although after everything that happened I don’t know if my road trip plans are still an option. “Everything okay?” Orion asks. “Yeah, just thinking,” I reply. I start picking up the last of the dishes but Orion stops me. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it.” He takes the dish from me and picks up the rest. I follow him into the kitchen where he starts doing the dishes. He’s wearing a long sleeve shirt today and when he rolls up the sleeves I can see the black veins on his arm. “How’s your arm?” I ask, worried. It doesn’t look any different than it did last night but that doesn’t mean anything. “It’s fine.” His words seem strained though. “Does it hurt?” “No.” I wonder if he’s telling the truth. “Alright.” Although I’m worried, I don’t want to push him. Neither Canis nor Orion know what Alex did to him and I hope he isn’t hiding the effects for some reason. I stand there watching him load the dishwasher, carefully observing to see if he gives any sign of pain. If he is in pain I can’t tell. He finishes doing the dishes and turns towards me. He stares intently at me for a long time. “What is it?” Embarrassed, I look away. Do I have something on my face or did he know I was watching him? He walks over to me and stops right in front of me. He pushes the sleeve of his hurt arm up more and I gasp. The black veins have spread. Last night they went from his wrist and stopped about an inch from his elbow, now they cover his elbow. “Orion,” I say softly, gently touching his forearm. The black veins run under his skin but I can’t feel them. It’s like they are embedded deep in his arm. I look up into his face and for the first time since I met him, I see fear in his eyes. “Don’t tell Canis,” he pleads. He’s normally so reserved; I wonder how much he hides from the rest of the world. I put my arms around him and hug him. “I won’t,” I promise. At first he just stands there but slowly I feel his arms wrap around me as he returns the hug. He’s warm and strong. A sense of power radiates from him but he’s gentle as he hugs me. I get a sense that these arms would protect me from any force in the world if they had to. Suddenly he’s gone and I’m standing there alone. He’s on the other side of the kitchen pulling his sleeves down. His face is back to normal and his posture is relaxed like nothing ever happened. I look at him confused then I hear Canis come into the kitchen. Did he hear Canis approaching and that’s why the sudden change? I copy his nonchalant attitude and turn around just in time to catch a ball that Canis throws at me. “What is this?” I ask him, confused. “It’s a ball of course” he says teasingly. “Come on. It’s time you saw what I can do.” He walks out of the kitchen and I look at Orion for an explanation. He just follows Canis without even giving me a glance. Is he avoiding me because of earlier? I try not to feel hurt as I follow them. When I get outside, Orion is standing on the porch and Canis is in the driveway. I decide to join Canis instead of standing with Orion. I don’t know if he is acting cold or if he is upset about opening up to me but I can play the game too. Canis is radiating excitement as I walk towards him. It makes me a little nervous to see him so eager. I stop a few feet in front of him. “Okay, now what?” I ask, still holding the ball. “Just watch,” he says simply. I watch as Canis takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. When he opens them they are black and silver just like Orion’s last night. He smiles and jumps high into the air. He twists and it’s almost like he floats in the air for a second before he starts to fall. As he falls, his body changes and when he lands on the ground it’s no longer a man in front of me but a golden retriever. I stand there, shocked, as the dog prances happily towards me. “Canis?” I utter under my breath. The dog barks happily and runs around me before nudging the ball in my hand. I throw it and he chases after it. “Surprised?” Orion is suddenly standing beside me and I jump. He smiles as he looks at me, the coldness gone. “Honestly? I am but I really should have expected it considering his name.” Canis brings me back the ball and I throw it again. “He’s a show off. He doesn’t have to jump into the air. He was being dramatic.” He laughs. “He’s one of the reasons for the werewolf legend.” “You’re kidding me?” I say in surprise. Orion shakes his head and throws the ball for Canis when he comes back. He throws it much farther than I did and Canis speeds after it. He’s faster than a normal dog. “Canis, Canis Minor, and Lupus all can shift into some kind of canine shape. Lupus can’t hold his form for as long though,” he explains. “That’s amazing,” I whisper in awe. I always wondered if there was some truth to those kinds of things. “Wait,” something pops into my mind. “What about the other animal constellations? Can they change too?” “They can. Shapeshifter legends are all because of them.” Canis runs towards us still in dog form. I expect him stop but he keeps running right towards me. “No, stop!” I yell putting my hands up and closing my eyes as I prepare for him to jump on me. He jumps and knocks me to the ground. When I open my eyes, Canis, in human form, is crouched over me laughing. “That wasn’t funny.” I push him off and wipe off the dirt that’s all over me now. “I’m sorry,” he says but he’s still laughing and Orion is behind him trying not to smile. “But what do you think?” he asks excitedly. “It’s amazing. When you change it’s not like the movies at all. It’s so seamless and graceful.” “All of our changes are like that. Both the animal and non-animal changes are almost instantaneous. We call it Morphing,” Canis elaborates. “When you use your powers do you have to Morph?” Orion answers, “No, powers work in both forms. Most of our powers are catered to us specifically. All of us have kind of generic powers with specialized powers. For instance we all can Morph and Travel. You saw Morphing, whatever someone’s Morph is, it’s specific to them. Traveling is what Alexander was doing. Disappearing and reappearing. It seems like teleporting but we are actually moving really fast, the speed of light to be specific. Then there are specialized powers. Mine are combat, tracking life energies, and I can sense emotions.” “I have combat as well but my style is more primal than refined like Orion’s. Also I can communicate with canines and all my senses are extremely heightened,” Canis says. “We happen to be similar in our powers but there are so many different powers and abilities that is mind boggling.” I had no idea their powers would be so broad. I figured they all had the same powers but it’s actually pretty complex. “Do you have to remember everyone’s powers?” I ask. “We don’t necessarily have to but it just kind of happens over time. You learn their powers when you spend time with them. Just like you learn about your family or friends, eventually you just know,” Canis answers. “That makes sense.” I look between the both of them thoughtfully. “Are one of you stronger than the other?” “We’re pretty much even.” Orion looks over at Canis who nods in agreement. “Our strengths and weaknesses balance out in the end,” Canis adds. It seems like they really respect each other. My friendship with Stacy sometimes felt like a leader-follower situation but it’s not like that with these two. I thought maybe with their powers, it might be the same but it’s not. It’s nice to know they see each other as equals. “You guys really are amazing.” I stare at them in wonder. Orion looks at me with an expression I can’t read. “That’s enough questions for now. We need to focus on what we are going to do next.” Orion says seriously. “Agreed,” Canis nods. They both stand tall with their arms crossed. I’m struck by how commanding and stoic they can be. They almost have a regal air to them. I wonder if among their people they have a hierarchy, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were actually leaders. “She needs to be protected and we need to figure out what is happening to your arm,” Canis addresses Orion. “Yes but we can’t guard her and search for answers at the same time,” Orion replies. “We don’t know if she’s actually in any danger though.” “I don’t think we should really take that chance.” “What if we get someone else to look after her?” “I don’t think that’d be a good idea considering we don’t know how Alexander got his Traveling back. He could be working with someone.” “Well what if…” They go back and forth like this for a while, discussing what to do with me like I’m not here. I wish I could tell them I don’t need to be protected but the truth is I wouldn’t stand a chance if Alex came after me again. I don’t think of myself as a weak person but whatever he is, and if he is anything like what they are, I know I wouldn’t be able to defend myself, at least with the knowledge I have now. They are still discussing what to do when an idea comes to me. If they want to protect me themselves and they also need to look for answers then it’s simple. “Why don’t I just come with you?” I ask. They both go silent and stare at me. Canis looks at me thoughtfully but Orion looks completely shocked. Looking at him, I doubt what I just said. I really don’t know anything about where they have to look for answers or if I can even come along in the first place. I would probably just get in the way. “I mean, only if it would be easier.” I avoid Orion’s stare and look down at my feet. “You would want to go?” Orion asks incredulously. I continue to look at the ground, moving little pieces of gravel with my shoe as I answer. “Well, it seems like you guys want to watch me personally but you also need to go do things so if I just come along then it’s like killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. And I would really like to learn more about all this.” My heart beats fast as I wait for them to answer. If I’m being honest with myself a part of me wants to go because of Orion. I don’t know if it’s because I’m worried about him because of his arm or if it’s something else but when I think about going separate ways my heart feels heavy. “Then that’s what we’ll do,” he declares. I look up and he’s looking at Canis who is nodding his head in agreement. “Really?” I ask in surprise. “Yeah, it will work perfectly. When were you planning on leaving for your trip?” “In about a week but I can leave earlier.” I was only staying to see Stacy off to college but with the black veins on Orion’s arm spreading it would be best to leave as soon as possible. “Can you be ready to leave by tomorrow?” “I should be able to do that.” All I had to do was pack, take care of a couple house things, and say goodbye. “Then we’ll leave tomorrow afternoon. Until then, Canis will stay with you and I’ll get things ready on our end.” “I think it might be suspicious if I’m all of sudden leaving and a random guy is with me.” Stacy would definitely know something was up. “You won’t have to worry about that,” Canis says and Orion cracks a smile. I look at them in confusion. “What do you mean?” “How do you feel about dogs?” Orion laughs and tosses me the ball. Chapter 7 “Can you bring me those shoes over there?” I ask Canis. Canis, in dog form, trots happily over with my shoes. With our combined efforts, packing has gone by quickly. As soon as Orion dropped us off I got to work preparing to leave. First I took care of the house stuff then I told the Montgomerys I would be leaving early. I think back to earlier tonight. Canis and I had driven over for dinner where I told them that my plans had changed. “But why? I thought you were going to wait until after I left?” Stacy was distraught when I told her. “I know and I’m really sorry but there’s a festival in California that I really want to go to. I just heard about it and if I don’t leave now I’ll miss it,” I told them. Stacy was the only one who was upset at the news. Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery said they thought getting a head start was a great idea. John was okay with anything I planned especially now that I had Canis. When I had shown up with a dog John was ecstatic. “You got a dog?” He asked when he opened the door. He crouched down and petted Canis while Canis wagged his tail happily. “Yep. Thought it would be good to have a travel companion,” I told him. “What’s his name?” “Major.” At my words, Canis barked. “He seems to like it. Come on, Major.” John called to him and we went inside. Everyone had loved “Major” and they were happy I wouldn’t be traveling all by myself. We had all sat down for dinner, Canis laying at my feet, when I broke the news to them. “But there’s stuff we were gonna do,” Stacy grumbles unhappily. I feel bad for hurting Stacy like this but Orion’s life could be in danger and we have to start the search as soon as possible. It was important and even though I couldn’t tell Stacy the truth I needed her to know I wasn’t just ditching her. I love her like a sister and I didn’t want her to be hurt. “I know but I was thinking maybe I could-” I start to explain but Stacy cuts me off. “Just do what you want, it doesn’t matter anyway.” Stacy stands up and storms out of the dining room. “Stacy, wait!” I go to get up but John stops me. “I’ll talk to her,” he says. He leaves and it’s just me and their parents. “I’m sorry you guys. I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings.” “We know, dear,” Mrs. Montgomery says, “I don’t think she’s mad so much as she’s afraid of losing you.” “Losing me? Why would she think that?” If anything I’m afraid of losing her. She’s going off to college where she’ll make new friends and have new experiences. She’s moving on with her life and I’m staying behind. “I think she thinks you won’t come back. Stacy feels that this town and all of us are just a reminder of a life that you no longer have or want to be a part of. She’s just scared you’ll figure out that you would rather start completely fresh somewhere without her,” she explains. “But that’s not what I want at all,” I exclaim. “Are you sure?” she questions. “Of course I am.” But was that really the truth? I always planned on coming back but this trip was all about getting away. I wanted time away from the life and plans I had when my parents were alive. It wasn’t supposed to be a fresh start, just time to figure myself out. What if I wasn’t able to do that? Would I have wanted to leave everything behind for good? Was the reason I still hadn’t told Orion about my parents because deep down I planned on starting fresh? No, that can’t be it. I don’t want to leave everyone behind, I just want a break. I wouldn’t do that to Stacy and everyone else, that’s just not me. No matter how painful those memories might be I would deal with them, not run away. John comes back in the room and I look at him expectantly but he just shakes his head. I don’t want to leave town without fixing things with Stacy but I might have no choice. Maybe in the morning she’ll let me talk to her. “I think I’m going to head home. Thank you for dinner, it was really good.” I got up and everyone hugged me goodbye. It was harder leaving than I thought; I wouldn’t be seeing them for a while. After we said our goodbyes, Canis and I headed home. We started packing as soon as we got back and we were just finishing up. Canis can do so much in dog form it’s like he still has thumbs. He’s opened doors, drawers, gotten coats, makeup bags, zipped suitcases, and he even brought me a bottle of water out of the fridge. He’s so expressive that I can pretty much hold a normal conversation with him too. I didn’t know what all I would need on this trip so he helped me with picking a variety of clothes and gear. I only packed the essentials and the extra stuff he told me to. Orion was bringing camping gear just in case our search took us off the beaten path. It’s hard packing for every situation but if I needed anything I could buy it on the way. “I think that about does it,” I say to Canis. I take my bag downstairs and set it by the door. “Are you hungry?” Canis shakes his head no. “Is there anything else I need to do?” Another no. “Then I guess I should get some sleep?” This time he shakes his head yes. I head upstairs and get ready for bed. When I come back to my bedroom Canis is lying on the foot of my bed. “Oh come on, really?” It’s one thing for an actual dog to do it but he’s actually a person. Canis nods yes and gives me puppy dog eyes. I guess he should be in the room with me in case Alex pops in and I can’t let him sleep on the floor. “Alright, but you stay down there okay?” He nods and snuggles in to sleep. I get into bed and turn off the light. “You’re lucky you’re a cute dog,” I grumble. He lets out a couple yips that almost sound like laughter. Chapter 8 The next morning goes by quickly. I packed up some last minute things and called a few more people. Everything was all set except for one thing. I still hadn’t said goodbye to Stacy. I had sent her texts and called her a bunch of times but there was no reply. I called John and he said she was still in her room and hadn’t talked to any of them. I told him to tell her goodbye for me and he said he would. Finally, it was time to leave. My bags were in the car and all I had to do was go. I decided to walk through the house one more time. Canis padded along beside me as I went from room to room. Everything was all set but I felt like there was something I was missing. I saved my parents room for last. I had only been in here a handful of times since they died. Only if I absolutely had to, did I come into this room. I kept the door shut and things untouched the rest of the time. I open the door and walk in. The room smells stale with hints of mom’s perfume and dad’s cologne. I sit on the foot of the bed and take everything in. Family pictures plaster the walls. Books sit on the side tables with reading glasses on top of them. Dad’s briefcase is sitting on the chair in the corner. A picture of them in Ireland, where they met, sits on the dresser next to my mother’s jewelry box. I walk over and open it. Right on top is her locket and I pick it up. Inside are pictures of dad and me. She used to say everyone should have something that reminds them of what’s important, this was hers. I go over and get a ring box out of dad’s bedside table. A ring with mine and my mother’s names engraved on it sits inside. This was dad’s version of the locket. They would only wear them if they were going away. They said they didn’t need to if the real thing was right in front of them. I remove the ring and unclip the chain of the locket. I slide the ring on the chain before clipping it again. Locket and ring hang next to each other, reminders of the family I lost and what they held most dear. Canis sits looking intently around the room. He sees me looking at him and cocks his head in question. “It used to be my parents’ room,” I say to him. The explanation slips out on its own. Canis solemnly nods that he understands. I look at the ring and locket one more time before putting them in my pocket. I thought about wearing it but I wasn’t ready for that. I could barely look at it without having that suffocating feeling. Maybe one day I’ll be able to wear it and just be reminded of how much they love me but for now it will stay in my pocket until I can put it in my bag, out of sight. “I’m ready,” I tell myself and walk out of the room. I lock up the house and make my way to the car. I open the door and Canis hops in. I’m about to get in too when a car speeds into my driveway. Canis stiffens and sniffs the air before relaxing. It’s Stacy. She jumps out of her car and runs towards me. She flings her arms around me in a tight hug that I return. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Me too.” We let go of each other and we both have tears in our eyes. “You have to text me every day, okay?” “I will. And I’ll try and visit as much as I can.” “You better. I have to show you how we college kids party after all.” “Wouldn’t miss it.” Stacy stands there, weakly smiling. “I’ll be back, Stace, I promise.” She nods and hugs me again before walking to her car and backing out of my driveway. I start my car and back out. I wave to Stacy who’s watching me go from her car. She waves back and we wave goodbye until I turn the corner and she disappears from view. ------------------------------------------------- As I pull up to the house, Orion comes out to meet us. I park and he opens the door for Canis while I get out. Canis jumps out and when he lands he’s back to being human. “Ugh, I haven’t been in fur that long in years. I think the last time was when we got separated at that music festival and they took me to the pound.” He shakes and stretches out his arms. “The pound?” I ask, intrigued. “It was a dark time in my life, Ailey. A dark time,” he says dramatically. “Oh please, you were there two days and that was because they wouldn’t let me have you until I proved you were licensed,” Orion says, rolling his eyes and looking at me. “He wasn’t by the way and I had to have Pictor forge documents for me.” “Why were you even at a music festival as a dog?” I ask Canis. “We only had one ticket.” He shrugs and acts like it’s the most normal thing in the world. “We ready to hit the road?” “All set.” Orion takes my bags and puts them into his jeep. We’re leaving my car at their house and taking his jeep since it’s easier to take one car and I don’t know where we’re going. Canis tries to take the front seat but Orion stops him. “Nope, Ailey gets the front.” Canis grumbles but gets in the back. I look at Orion appreciatively and he nods you’re welcome. When everyone is buckled in we take off. “Where are we heading?” I ask after a while. It had been pretty much silent since we left and it was getting a bit awkward. “L.A.,” Orion answers. “We’re going to see the Zodiacs.” “The Zodiacs?” “Yeah. They all run a club down there. We’ll be able to ask if they’ve heard anything about Alexander and they can tell us where we can find some of the other Constellations. They might even have an idea about what’s happening to my arm.” “Will it be okay for me to be there?” “Of course. It’s a human club and even if it wasn’t, you’re with me and that’s all they’d need to know.” The way he says if makes me wonder again if he’s a high ranking Constellation. “So, Ailey,” Canis pipes up from the backseat, “I noticed you didn’t have any goodbyes for a boyfriend.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” I retort, turning to look at him. “I was just wondering if there was anyone special in your life.” He leans forward and puts his arms on the back of the seat. “No, I don’t have a boyfriend.” I blush slightly and I turn to look out the window. “Any candidates?” He inquires casually. “Why are you asking me this?” These are not the kind of questions I want to be asked, especially with Orion sitting right there. “Just making conversation is all,” he says with a shrug. He removes his arms and sits back again. “Maybe you’ll get one on this trip. I’m open for anything.” “What?” I exclaim. I can’t help but blush even more. “Leave her alone, Canis,” Orion says, glaring at him in the rearview mirror. “What? She’s nice, pretty, and knows all about us. Anyone would be lucky to have her affections.” “Don’t you already have a girlfriend?” I accuse, remembering the blonde from the party. “Definitely not,” he scoffs. “So that girl at the party?” “Just a friend.” “Uh huh, a friend,” I say, making quotation marks when I say friend. “Maybe I just haven’t found the right one yet,” he stares out the window and doesn’t say anymore. This is the first time I’ve seen hints of the Canis I met the night of the party and I’m surprised. He’d been so nice up until now. We drive on in silence. Miles pass quickly by with the radio the only sound in the car. I think about reading the book I brought but it’s in my bag in the back. I turn to ask Canis if he’ll hand it to me but he’s fast asleep. I turn back around and continue to watch the passing landscape. “Sorry about him,” Orion says suddenly. “Huh?” I turn to look at him. “Canis. He can be a bit of a dog sometimes.” Orion looks at me expectantly. “Is that supposed to be a joke?” I laugh. “It was terrible, I know.” He laughs too and I feel more at ease. “Why is he? Like that I mean.” I hope I’m not crossing a line by asking. “Long ago someone broke his heart. She was one of us. He loved her a lot but he caught her cheating on him with a human. After that he vowed to not get attached to someone like that again. He acts the way he does to keep people away.” “What was the girl at the party then?” “Someone not looking for attachments either. You may think he’s a shallow guy but truly he’s not. He wants someone to love him but he’s afraid to get hurt again.” “Do hookups really make him feel better?” “No but it distracts him from the pain in his heart. I think he could find someone who would love him completely if he just stopped putting walls around himself.” I look at Canis sleeping in the back. His face is peaceful. I think back to how kind he was the night I was attacked and I know Orion is right. That’s the real Canis, not the one from a little while ago. I hope one day he can open his heart again. He deserves to be loved. “Thank you for telling me.” He nods his head in acknowledgement and we go back to driving in silence. After a while I ask the question that’s been swimming around my head. “Orion?” “Yeah?” “What is Alex?” Orion goes quiet. I watch the trees blur past the window. Minutes go by before he starts to explain. “After the war, we weren’t the same people. We were disconnected and we didn’t have the spirit to fight and protect anymore. Instead of banding together and working to protect you we split up and started living our own lives. Some of us built industries and made a living for ourselves. Some of us, like me, roamed from place to place, living on the money we had saved for thousands of years. We would save someone if we happened upon them but besides that we kept to ourselves. This went on for a while until a group of Singulars started killing humans. They said if they couldn’t rule you then they’d just kill you. We realized that something had to be done or we would always be fighting each other. The war made us reluctant to kill them but they also couldn’t be left to kill as they pleased. So we had Draco figure out a way to take away their powers. We didn’t know what would happen when we did though. It wasn’t like we could test it out; it just had to be done.” “Who do you mean when you say “we”,” I ask when he pauses. “Mostly I mean just us in general, the Constellations and Singulars because there were and still are good Singulars but the Constellations were never reckless enough to try anything like the Singulars. I think it’s because they were weaker than us and resented us for it. The decision to take away powers as punishment was made by the Elite though.” “The Elite?” “They are the 13 most powerful Constellations. They act as our leaders you could say. Any major decisions go through them. I’m one of them, so is Canis.” “Really?” I knew they had to be important people among the Constellations. He nods. “We’ve been through a lot together. Like I was saying, we the Elite, made the decision to take away the powers of those who purposely harmed humans. The Elite was also in charge of determining guilt and we sentenced this group to lose their powers. We didn’t really understand what that meant though. We thought it would just make them human. Draco thought that if we used pieces of a special comet; we could overload their power and use it all before it had time to recharge. That’s not what happened though. When we tried to do it the process ripped their souls and turned them into something else. It turned them into Black Holes. It is the worst thing I’ve ever seen. They scream as their soul tears and their star explodes. Their star becomes a black hole and their appearance changes. Their hair turns black and so do their eyes. The only power that remains is their immortality. Although if they get hurt they can no longer heal so they have to be careful. Needless to say it’s a punishment few thought harming humans was worth. After word spread the killings stopped and over the years it’s only had to be done a couple dozen times. Mostly to those who thought they could hide and get away with it.” “So Alex is one of these Black Holes? Why does he have the power to Travel?” The black hair and eyes, attacking me, he fits the description perfectly. “Yes he is and I have no idea. The last time I saw him he was completely powerless.” His eyes are sad when he says this. I remember what Alex said that day at the café. “You were friends, weren’t you?” It’s more of a statement than a question. It all makes sense. Alex talking about how they went way back, how sad Orion looked when they were fighting, they were friends before Alex was turned into a Black Hole. “We were. Very close friends just like Canis and I are. In the war he chose our side and we fought alongside each other. “ “So what happened?” “He came home one day and found his wife and little girl murdered in their kitchen.” “That’s horrible,” I whisper and Orion nods his head. “I saw it. It was truly horrible,” he continues. “Alexander found the man responsible and killed him the next day.” “He was different though.” Orion turns and stares at me. “Yeah he should have let the police handle it but it wasn’t like he was killing humans for fun.” He continues to stare at me and I worry I offended him but then he gives a small smile. “That’s exactly what I thought. He broke the rules but under the circumstances and the fact that he had always been on our side, I was able to convince the Elite to give him a second chance. I think everyone knew they would have done the same thing if it had happened to them.” “So then how did he end up a Black Hole?” “Something broke in Alexander when he found his family. I saw him that night and when I looked into his eyes, it wasn’t Alexander looking back. After the Elite let him go he disappeared. I couldn’t find him anywhere. Then one day there was a knock on my door. It was Canis. They had found Alexander in a warehouse filled with dead bodies. When they questioned him, he admitted to killing every single one. When they asked why, he would just say: “I needed to figure it out.” There was nothing I could do. The Elite found him guilty and he was turned into a Black Hole.” “I’m so sorry Orion. I can’t imagine what that must have been like.” He’s quiet for another minute. “That was the last I saw of him until the other day.” “Do you think your arm has anything to do with what he needed to figure out?” “I think so but I just can’t figure out how.” “We’ll figure it out, I know we will.” Orion smiles at me. “We?” “Yes, we. I’m part of Team Constellation now and I’m just as invested in getting you better as Canis. I don’t want you to think I’m just using you guys. I know you only brought me along because you feel you have to protect me but I want to help. I’m going to do all I can to make sure you get better.” I make sure he sees the determination in my eyes. I’m a part of this now and I want to see it through no matter what. I may not have their powers but I’m determined to help. “I didn’t bring you because I had to,” he says. He returns my gaze for a moment before turning back to the road, too quick for me to decipher the look on his face. After a while Orion pulls off the highway and takes us to a diner. “Thought we could use some food,” he says, smiling at me. He turns and shakes Canis awake. “Mmm,” Canis sniffs the air. “Something smells good.” We all make our way into the diner where an older lady sits us at a booth in the back. She hands us menus and takes our drink orders before leaving us to look over the menus. The bacon cheeseburger sounds really good so I decide on that. Orion gets one too and Canis orders the chicken strips. We talk while we wait for our food. “Did you have a nice nap?” I ask Canis. “Yeah I was pretty tired.” “Did you not sleep well last night?” “I didn’t sleep. I was on guard duty remember?” “Oh.” I didn’t realize he hadn’t slept. “Don’t worry. I don’t need much sleep.” He smiles reassuringly at me but I still feel bad for being the reason he didn’t get any sleep. “I’m assuming there were no problems,” Orion puts in. “Nope. Smooth sailing all the way,” Canis winks at me. “That’s good,” Orion says. “How long will it take us to get to L.A.?” I ask. “We’ll stop for the night and get there tomorrow. We won’t get there until late but the Club doesn’t open until late anyway so it works out.” “Sounds good to me,” Canis says. Orion looks at me for my opinion. “Sounds good to me too,” I agree. I know whatever decision they make will be the best one. After all, this is their world we’re dealing with and I trust them. Our food comes and we stop talking. It’s actually pretty good and I quickly finish it. Canis grumbles at his chicken strips. “I make them better,” he says quietly. “Not everyone can achieve your level of greatness,” Orion says sarcastically. Canis glares at him and I crack up laughing. They are both sitting across from me in the booth. Orion just ignores Canis and keeps eating while Canis gives him the evil eye. Sometimes they act like siblings and it makes me smile. Sometimes I wish I had a sibling, someone to bicker with but know that they still have my back. When we’re all done we pay and go back to the car. Canis tries to cut me off but I beat him to the front seat which makes Orion laugh. Soon we’re back on the road to L.A. “There’s no room back here,” Canis complains. “You can have the front tomorrow,” I tell him. “Fine,” he whines. We drive until it gets dark. Orion takes us to a nice hotel that he had booked rooms at yesterday. We check in and Orion hands out the keys. He booked three rooms all next to each other and they give me the one in the middle. How he managed to get three rooms in a row is beyond me but I don’t complain. I’m happy to have my own room. With how protective they are I was worried I’d have to share a room with them. Orion tells me I can order anything from room service and if I need anything to just call. I tell him I will and we all separate for some much needed alone time. I decide to take a shower and then order something to eat. It feels good to wash off the day’s travels. I quickly dry off and change into shorts and a t-shirt. I order some soup and watch TV until it comes. I check the peephole before opening the door. A man brings in my food and I tip him before he leaves. I don’t want to risk spilling the soup on the sheets so I eat it at the table. It’s not as good as the soup Canis made but it’s better than anything I could make. I take the cart to the hallway when I’m done and crawl into bed. I watch some more TV until I start to feel tired. I set my alarm for the morning and doze off. Chapter 9 I’m sitting in the backseat of Orion’s car. Canis sits in the front and I regret making this deal with him yesterday. There really isn’t much room back here with all the bags. I’m reading my book as we speed along the highway towards Los Angeles. Senior year didn’t give me much down time for reading and I’ve missed it. I’m almost finished with this one and will need the next one in the series. I look up to ask Orion if we can stop at a bookstore. Before he can reply, a car cuts in front of us and he slams on the brakes but he’s going too fast. He swerves to avoid the car in front of us and we skid out of control. The car flips over and over before slamming into the divider. It happens so fast I don’t even have time to yell. Miraculously I’m unhurt and I look around for Orion and Canis. The front seat is empty. I call their names but no one answers. I manage to unbuckle my seatbelt and crawl out through a broken window. Glass is everywhere and it cuts my palms as I scramble to escape the car. I call for Orion but again he doesn’t answer. I look around and that’s when I see him, lying in the middle of the road. “Orion!” I run to him and notice he’s not breathing. “No no no no no.” I reach for my phone but it’s not in my pocket. I must have lost it in the crash somehow. I look for some kind of injury but I can’t find any. I don’t even see any blood. “Help! Somebody please help!” I desperately start CPR but he still isn’t breathing. I look around for Canis but I don’t see him anywhere. “Come on! Use your power and heal yourself,” I shout as I continue to perform CPR. “He can’t,” a haunting voice says behind me. I whip around and standing there is Alex. Did he do this? Did he cause the wreck? Alex moves and crouches on the other side of Orion. He picks up Orion’s arm before letting it drop lifelessly to the ground. “Yep. He’s dead alright.” “No. He can’t be dead. He can heal. He will heal!” I yell at Alex. Alex shakes his head sympathetically. “How can he heal if he has no power?” Alex stalks towards me. I try and get away but he grabs me by the shoulders, his cold black eyes staring into mine. “What do you mean? Where did his power go?” I manage to ask. I’m scared of Alex but I’m even more scared for Orion. “You should know, Ailey. After all, you are the one who took it.” He holds up a mirror in front of my face. “You took it all.” I start to ask what he means but then I see my reflection. I look just like myself except for one thing. My eyes are black and silver. I wake up in my hotel room. Someone is shaking me by the shoulders and it takes me a minute to realize who it is. My eyes finally focus and Orion’s worried face looks down on me. I’m so happy he’s okay that I sit up and hug him tightly. It was all just a dream. “Ailey?” I hear the surprise in his voice. Embarrassed, I quickly let go of him. “Sorry,” I stammer, not looking at his face. “Are you okay? I sensed your fear and came in worried you were in danger but no one else was here. It seemed you were having a bad dream.” That’s right, he can sense emotions. That must have been how he knew I was in trouble when Alex attacked me. It also explains all the times he seemed to be in tuned with how I felt. “I’m sorry. It was just a nightmare.” It was all over a stupid dream and I worried him for nothing. “Do you want to talk about it?” I turn on the light and turn back to look at him to tell him I’m okay but I stop when I see him in the light. Orion is standing there shirtless. He looks like a walking gym membership ad. He’s the perfect example of lean muscle. His muscles are defined but not excessively large like a lot of guys nowadays. His naked upper half wasn’t what first caught my attention though. It was his lower half, where a pair of pajama pants hang off his hips. Pajama pants with cartoon moose on them. “You’re wearing moose pajama pants.” I look from the pants to his face. Each moose has a different facial expression and outfit. There’s even a doctor moose dressed in a lab coat carrying a clipboard. Orion tilts his head at me. “Yeah, why?” “I did not expect that.” “What did you expect?” “To be honest? Plaid.” He smiles. “I have those too.” That makes me laugh. He’s surprised me again. Orion, the Hunter, wears moose pajama pants and looks cute in them. “Do you want to talk about your dream?” Orion asks again. The dream had actually completely slipped my mind. Orion is good at making me forget unpleasant things. “No, I’m okay. Thank you though.” Assured that I’m okay, he turns to leave. As he does, I catch a glimpse of his back. “Wait, you have a tattoo?” He smiles and turns so I can fully see his back. On it is a tattoo that spans the length and width of his back. I recognize it as the Orion constellation. I lean forward to look closer and it starts to light up and twinkle. It looks like someone put the stars right on his back. “It’s beautiful,” I say out loud before I can stop myself. He looks at me over his shoulder, his eyes black and silver. As his eyes turn back to green the tattoo stops glowing and it looks just like a plain tattoo. He turns back to fully face me. “The Elite all have them. It’s special and is linked to my powers.” I shake my head. “You never cease to amaze me.” “Neither do you.” “What do you mean?” “You’re handling everything so well. The attack, the Stars, coming with us, most people would have run for the hills. I honestly thought you would have by now.” “I told you, I’m dedicated to this. I’m not going anywhere.” He stares at me for a long time. I don’t really mind. I’ve gotten used to his long stares. He does it when he’s thinking. He’s one of those people who thinks everything through before acting. I don’t think he likes making mistakes. “How’s your arm?” I look at the veins and they’ve spread again. They reach half way up his arm now. “They’ve started to ache a bit. Not really painful but I can feel them move under my skin.” “I think you should tell Canis.” “I will. I just don’t want him to worry. He worries enough as it is.” “It isn’t fair to keep it from him. He’d want to know.” “I know. You’re right.” This time is isn’t me he stares at but at his arm. At the black veins twisting up his arm, spreading who knows what, through his body. I look at his eyes and there’s that hint of fear again. The fear of someone who’s seen everything, come face to face with the unknown. “Orion?” I speak, breaking him out of his thought process. “Yeah?” “You should get some sleep.” He stares at me but only for a moment. “I suppose you’re right.” His eyes start to turn black and silver. “Goodnight, Ailey.” “Goodnight, Orion.” As soon as I say his name, he vanishes. Chapter 10 We’re almost to L.A. when Orion wakes me. I didn’t get a wink of sleep after Orion left and when we regrouped to leave in the morning Orion didn’t look like he had either. Canis was full of energy and gave us weird looks when he saw the bags under our eyes but he offered to drive and Orion gave him the keys. I barely made it two hours on the road before I fell asleep in the backseat of the car. I rub the sleep from my eyes and sit up. Orion hands me a bottle of water and a paper bag. “You missed lunch,” he says while giving me a smile. He isn’t acting weird about last night so I take that as a good sign. I thank him and eat the sandwich and chips that were in the bag. “You know you sure can snore,” Canis says while I munch on my food. “I don’t snore,” I say, glaring at him. Stacy teased me about the same thing though when we were younger. Mortified that I was snoring and drooling in the back seat the whole way I turn to Orion. “Do I?” “Not even a wheeze,” he says but Canis gives him a look and Orion turns to look out the window, suppressing a smile. Great, that doesn’t help put my mind at ease at all. “We should be in L.A. in a few hours. We’ll check into the hotel then head to the club,” Orion informs me. “I can’t believe I slept the whole way.” Sure I barely got a couple hours of sleep between the nightmare and talking to Orion but still I don’t normally sleep entire days away. “You were tired,” he says and I wonder what kinds of emotions he sensed from me last night. “Plus it’s good you are well rested for tonight. You won’t want to miss anything.” “You weren’t the only one sawing logs,” Canis says. “He slept almost as long as you did.” Orion just shrugs. I’m glad he got some sleep. With his arm who knows what kind of symptoms will start showing up, he needs to rest and keep his strength up. ------------------------------------------------- I was in my hotel room changing into clothes more suitable for the clubbing scene when I heard them fighting. I moved closer to the wall so I could hear more clearly. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Canis demanded. “I didn’t think it would help the situation,” Orion replied. “You always do this!” “Do what?” “Pull this lone wolf crap. I’m sick of it. For once in your life can you just stop pretending you’re fine?” “I am fine.” “No, you aren’t. That’s evidence right there.” There was a long silence before Canis talked again. “Is there anything else you need to tell me?” “No.” “After all these years you’re still trying to protect me.” “Old habits die hard.” “Just like us.” That had been the end of it. When I went out to meet them there was no hint of coldness from either of them. They were the same as always. It would take more than a secret to create a rift between them. As we left the hotel Orion gave me a ring. It was an elegant silver band with a black and silver gemstone. The gemstone reminded me of their eyes when they use their powers. “What’s this?” I asked. Orion held out his hand where a thinker silver band with an inset band of the same gemstone rests on his middle finger. I had never noticed it before. “This marks you as one of us. It will get you into all the places we can go in the club but the humans can’t. You shouldn’t need it but with the ring if we get separated you’ll still be able to get through security and you won’t have to worry about getting thrown out.” He explained. “Oh okay,” I slipped the ring on my middle finger like Orion’s. “Do you always wear these?” “No, it’s just easier to move about in the club with them.” So that’s why I haven’t seen the ring on him before. Now we are standing in front of the Zodiacs’ club. Oddly it’s actually called The Zodiac. Pretty obvious but maybe that’s what they were going for. People are lined up for a block to get into the club. Orion leads us straight to the front and flashes his ring at the bouncer, who lets us right in. I don’t know what I expected the club to look like but this sure wasn’t it. From what I can see the club has three different sections that flow together. You have the bar, a lounge area, and the dance floor. The bar is made out of some kind of polished metal that makes it look like a mirror and has a sleek modern design to it. All the barstools are clear and have blue lights running through them that make them glow. The couches in the lounge area are silver and people are draped all over them. The dance floor is lighted up and strobes flash in time to the music. All around silvers, blues, and greens flash, tying the colors of the club together. I think the best part is the ceiling though. Somehow they managed to make it look like the night sky. 3D stars and galaxies twinkle and swirl in constant patterns. These are some major special effects. Orion sees me admiring the ceiling and leans down to talk in my ear so I can hear him. “It’s part of their powers,” he yells over the music. “They are doing this?” I yell back. He nods and I’m even more amazed than I was to begin with. No wonder it looks so lifelike. The club is packed and I stick close to Orion as he pushes his way through the crowd. Canis follows behind me. We make it to the far corner where another bouncer stands guarding a door. This time all three of us show our rings and he pushes a button next to the door. A green light turns on above the door and the door opens. Once we are inside, the door closes and I can’t hear the music anymore. In front of us is a staircase that we ascend. At the top is a hallway with another door at the end. We make our way down the hall and Orion opens the door without knocking. The room screams fancy. One whole wall is a window overlooking the club. The rest of the walls are decorated with paintings that look like they should be in a museum. There’s a small bar in the corner and in the center of the room there’s a circular couch that’s cut in half so that there are two openings to access it. Scattered about the room are twelve people. Six guys dressed in suits of varying styles and colors and six girls in dresses of varying styles and colors. They all look to be in their mid-twenties. Power permeates the room. “Orion and Canis,” says a man with golden hair. He walks over, grabs my hand, and kisses it. “Who is your lovely companion?” “Ailey, meet Leo,” Orion introduces us. “It’s nice to meet you,” I say politely. Leo smiles brightly and kisses my hand one more time before letting it go. “The pleasure is all mine.” He moves to my side and puts his arm around my shoulders, ushering me away from Orion and closer to the center of the room. “Please, allow me introduce you to everyone.” As he led me around the room, I picked out little aspects of each one to help me remember who they were. Taurus was easy to remember because he actually looked like a bull. His upper half was wide and muscular but his waist and legs oddly small for the rest of his body. Aries had short curly hair that I used to remind me of the curled ram’s horns. He also bobbed his head a lot when he talked. Cancer had long lean legs like a crab. Sagittarius was easy because she had an arrow tattoo along her collar bone. Pisces was a little difficult but I noticed his eyes shifted color like fish scales when the light hit them. Aquarius had long blue hair that spilled over her shoulders like water. Capricorn kept tapping his foot on the ground and I immediately thought of how my uncle’s goats would jump around, stamping the ground with their hooves. Virgo was dressed all in white; she even had white lipstick on. Libra always had his head tilted to one side like weights were attached to his earlobes. Scorpio had long pointed nails that clicked together like pinchers. After going all around the room, I thought for sure I had met everyone but Leo’s eyes continued to search the room. “Where did,” he starts to say when a voice right next to my ear makes me jump. “Hello,” it says. I turn and a man is standing so close to my face I can see the blue flecks in his grey eyes. “Ah,” Leo says, “and there’s Gemini.” “Hello,” I say to Gemini. He stares intently at my face then grabs my hand. He holds up my hand and looks at the ring Orion gave me. “You must be special if you have this ring,” he says. “Well, I,” his sudden appearance and contact make me struggle to form words. Libra, who was sitting with Scorpio wrapped around him, pushes her off from his lap and takes my hand from Gemini. “Star rings are only for those like us and the ones they are closest to,” he says. “She has a ring?” Virgo asks excitedly. She pushes her way between the men and grabs my hand. “Who gave it to you? Oh they must love you. I just love love. Please tell me everything.” Suddenly I’m surrounded by more of the Zodiacs asking questions about who gave it to me, how long had we been together, why was I here, was Orion or Canis the one who gave me the ring? They all crowded around me and yanked my hand around trying to get my attention. I can’t think of what to say and I’m getting nervous being surrounded by so many people. Sensing my discomfort, Orion reaches through the group and pulls me out. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t touch her without her permission,” he says sternly. The Zodiacs turn and stare at us. Uncomfortable with their stares I move closer to Orion. Taurus speaks from his place by the window, “There’s your answer.” The rest of the Zodiacs murmur their agreement. All except Leo, he glares at Orion with annoyance. What is going on? Is this all over because I’m wearing one of their rings? Orion made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal. Maybe it’s a bigger thing than he made it out to be. “I gave her the ring so she could get through here without me if need be. That is all.” Orion looks angry for some reason. “Then you won’t mind if she sits by me.” Leo grabs my arm and starts to pull me towards the couch. Orion grabs his hand and pulls it off of me. Orion gets right in Leo face and whispers, “Maybe you should ask her if she wants to sit with you.” The other Zodiacs back up, giving the two ample room. “Men,” Sagittarius scoffs. “Oh come on, you love a good fight just as much as the rest of us,” Aquarius says to her. “Especially over love,” Virgo swoons, looking at the two men admiringly. “How much you wanna bet Leo wipes the floor with him?” Aries says to Taurus. “Don’t be so quick to count him out,” Libra muses. “After all, he is an Elite.” Just as their eyes start turning color, Canis steps in. “Why don’t we take a few moments and cool off. We came here for information, not to start a fight.” Canis places a hand on both of their shoulders and their eyes return to normal. Orion steps back and I breathe a sigh of relief. “Can’t fight your own battles, Orion? Have to have the dog save your ass?” Leo sneers in disgust. “You know very well I would win. Or have you forgotten Egypt?” Orion says defiantly. Leo lunges at Orion but Gemini holds him back, except now there’s two of him. The two Gemini each hold an arm while Leo spits words at Orion. “You bastard! I loved that monument!” “You’re the one who broke it. Not me.” Orion shrugs. I’ve never seen him like this, it’s like he wants to fight Leo. “Only because you threw me into it!” Leo continues to try and break out of Gemini’s grasp. One of the Gemini whispers something in his ear and Leo looks over at me with golden eyes that match his golden hair. Something passes over his face and he nods his head and Gemini lets him go. He straightens his suit and composes himself. Canis nods to Gemini in thanks, he nods back before becoming one person again. So like Canis Morphs into a canine, Gemini Morphs into two people, that explains why Gemini is called the Twins. “You said you came for information. How can we help you?” Leo speaks to Canis. While Canis explains the situation I walk up to Orion. “Are you okay?” I whisper to him. Everyone is listening to Canis so no one is paying us any attention. “Why wouldn’t I be?” He says curtly. “I’ve just never seen you get so upset, even when Alex-” He interrupts me. “Just drop it.” He storms over to Canis without even looking at me. I try to ignore the hurt I feel at him brushing me off but I can’t. His moods shift from open to distant in a blink of an eye. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with him. I didn’t ask for any of this but sometimes it feels like it’s all my fault. The reason Orion got hurt was because he was saving me and then I wanted to come along on this trip but all I do is follow them around uselessly. Cancer walks over to me with the grace that would make any dancer jealous. “Maybe you should go to the main floor,” she says. There’s no malice in her voice, just a look in her eyes that suggests she knows something that I don’t. Feeling hurt and angry at Orion, and myself, I decide to take her advice and go down to the club. “The ring will get you anything you want from the bar, free of charge,” she adds as I turn to leave. I nod that I understand. The bouncer nods at me and I make my way to the bar. I decide to try this ring out. The list of drinks is extensive and I have no clue what to order. I recognize the normal drink names but there’s also drinks named with star themes. Each of the Zodiacs have a drink named after them, there’s something called a Star Slinger, and there’s even one called a Black Hole. I flash my ring at the bartender and he comes over right away. “What can I get you?” the bartender asks me. “Is there anything that will make me forget that last four days?” I ask, half serious. The bartender laughs and makes me something that glows blue. I’ve never been a drinker, at parties I rarely drank a beer let alone something stronger, but something about the club’s atmosphere makes me want to drink and dance. I tentatively take a sip and start choking. It burns and tastes like what bleach smells like. “What is this?” I sputter. “Probably best you don’t know,” he says with a smile. “Is it safe to drink?” I ask, suspicious that he may be trying to kill me. His only reply is another laugh and he goes to help other customers. “Well, here goes nothing.” I take another sip and it goes down better. Maybe it just takes some getting used to. I look up at the VIP area but the wall is just mirrors. They must be two way mirrors. It’s kind of creepy knowing they can see the whole club and no one knows. I finish my drink and order another one. My phone buzzes with a text message. It’s Orion asking where I am. I put my phone back without responding. Maybe it’s what happened or maybe it’s the drinks talking but I don’t feel like being a follower anymore. I’m going do what I want to do and right now that’s drink and dance. I finish my drink and move to the dance floor. I join the mass of dancing bodies and move with the beat. I’m lost in the music and atmosphere when I feel hands on my waist. I turn around to give whatever creep is touching me a piece of my mind but when I see who it is I hesitate. “May I dance with you?” Leo yells so I can hear him over the music. I nod and place my hands on his shoulders, a part of me wanting to rebel against my safe nature, the drinks making me braver than I normally am. He smiles and guides me with his hands to the beat of the music. “Your boyfriend is looking for you,” he informs me. “He’s not my boyfriend,” I say, a bit annoyed that everyone seems to think so. “Happy to hear it. Not that I don’t enjoy a challenge.” “What do you mean?” “There’s something unique about you, Ailey. Something special.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The only thing special about me is my apparent ability to get into crappy situations. “I sensed it as soon as you walked through that door. I watched the wonder on your face as you looked at the ceiling and I knew I had to meet you. Then those two brought you right to me. Sounds like fate doesn’t it?” “I really don’t know about fate.” He seems sincere but the way he acted with Orion makes me think he’s just trying to push buttons. I’m in no mood to be a piece in a game. “I like you and I’m a man of action. I go after what I want and I don’t beat around the bush. And what I want, Ailey, is you.” The softness in his eyes makes me rethink my previous impression of him. “Leo I’m flattered but-” he puts his finger up to stop me. “Don’t say anything. Just let me give you something.” He gently takes my hand and kisses my wrist. Warmth radiates across my skin and when he removes his lips there’s a phone number and a tiny lion glowing where his lips touched my skin. Surprised, I look up at Leo who smiles. “It will go away by morning so remember to put it into your phone. You can call me anytime for anything.” I’m stunned by his gentle words and the glowing tattoo on my wrist. After a moment it stops glowing and turns black. My mind is a little fuzzy from the drinks and all I can manage is a nod for a reply. Leo goes to say more but suddenly looks over to the side of the club. I follow his gaze to find Orion and Canis standing there watching us. “Looks like they are waiting for you.” Leo kisses me on the cheek and I feel heat creep into my face. “I hope to hear from you soon.” He drops his hands from my waist and I make my way over to Orion and Canis. “Ready to go?” Canis asks. Orion doesn’t look at me. “Yeah.” I follow them and we weave through the crowd towards the door. I look back to see if Leo is still on the dance floor but he’s gone. I turn and follow Canis out of the club; leaving the music and lights behind me. Chapter 11 The next morning Canis updates me on what they learned from the Zodiacs. Apparently a few months ago a Singular showed up at the club with the same black veins Orion has, looking for help. He said he had been attacked and when he used his powers to defend himself the man grabbed his arm and he passed out. When he woke up the black veins were there. The person who attacked him wore a mask and he didn’t know who it was. The Zodiacs started researching into for him but couldn’t uncover anything. When they tried to get a hold of him to tell him, they couldn’t reach him. No one could find him. He had just disappeared without a trace. After this, the Zodiacs started looking into his disappearance. They didn’t find him but they found out that other Singulars had been disappearing. No one had realized it because they were mostly loners that only came around every few years. In every case they all just one day disappeared and no one has seen them since. There was no evidence of foul play so the Zodiacs hadn’t reported the disappearances to the Elite. With Orion’s attack it was pretty clear Alex was behind everything but we still didn’t know what he was doing. Only one Singular for sure had the same black veins and he disappeared not long after getting them. “Since Alexander is a Black Hole, our best bet is to find Draco and see if he knows anything. He was the one who came up with the process so if anyone knows how Alexander is doing what he is doing, it would be him,” Canis says. Orion hasn’t spoken a word all morning. Canis told the whole story and he just sat there eating and avoiding eye contact. “Is that where we are going next?” If Orion doesn’t kick me out of the group that is. “Yes and no. We need Draco but we also need to alert the Elite to what’s going on. It will be faster if I search for Draco alone. You guys can go ahead and convene with the Elite and hopefully I will meet you there with Draco.” So Orion and I were going to be alone and he hadn’t spoken one word to me since last night. Sounds like fun. “Are you sure I shouldn’t come with you?” I ask Canis, trying to avoid an awkward situation with Orion. “I mean the Elite seem really important, they probably don’t want a human around at such a time.” Maybe I can make it seem like I’m just nervous about meeting the Elite. Canis nervously scratches his head. He and Orion really are similar. “The thing is, humans can’t Travel and I need to be able to Travel.” Oh, so that’s it. I would just slow him down. “Then isn’t me being here slowing everything down? Instead of driving you guys could be Traveling.” Again I feel like an inconvenience. Maybe I should just go my own way. I’ve obviously pissed off Orion and my humanness is just slowing them down and wasting possible precious time. “Traveling takes a lot of power and we thought it would be best if Orion didn’t use that much until we know the effects of what Alexander did. Orion would be traveling normally anyway so don’t feel like you’re a problem,” Canis says kindly. I know he’s trying to make me feel better but it’s not working. Last night showed me that I am completely clueless with the Star stuff. All I do is add extra baggage and time. “Either way,” I say, looking at my plate, “I think I’ll go home. I’m not worried about Alex and this isn’t my world. You guys will be able to do what you need to do without explaining things to me or worrying about me. I’ll fly back tonight and I’ll be out of your hair.” “No.” Shocked, I look up and Orion is staring into my eyes. He hasn’t said a word and now he decides to speak? “No?” “You’re going with me to meet with the Elite,” he commands. “Look I know I owe you my life but you can’t just-” I try to tell him he can’t order me around but I don’t get far before he cuts me off. “Didn’t you tell me you were invested in all this?” He uses my own words against me. “Yes but-” “Does your definition of invested mean you are going to run when things get tough?” “That’s not it!” “Then what is it?” He stares at me like he’s daring me to come up with a good enough reason to leave. I can’t tell him I want to leave because I feel like he doesn’t want me here. That just makes me sound whiny and then he’d know I want him to want me here. He just doesn’t want me to leave because he feels obligated to protect me. “Nothing.” I’ll never come up with anything that will make him let me go. I’ll just have to go along until he feels he’s fulfilled his duty of protection. “Then that’s settled. You’re coming with me and we’ll meet up with Canis later. Go get packed. We leave for the airport in two hours.” “Yes sir,” I respond sarcastically. Canis gives me a sympathetic look as I leave to do as Orion says. ------------------------------------------------- Canis is saying goodbye as we load up the car to go to the airport. He hugs me and tells me to be safe and not to let Orion get me down. I hug him back and I promise him I will. The “be safe” part, I can’t promise the Orion thing. He lets me go and says he’ll see me soon. I hope so because I’ve really grown to like him. I walk over to the car and Orion goes to say goodbye to Canis. “Be safe brother,” Orion says. “As you,” Canis responds. “Stay on guard. We don’t know what Alexander is planning.” “I will. Take care and don’t wear yourself too thin.” “I won’t.” They embrace and when they step apart they each have a hand over the other’s heart. “If the stars are aligned,” Orion says. “Then cross them,” Canis responds. Then they drop their hands and Orion gets into the car. I wave to Canis before doing the same. He starts the engine and we head to the airport. “Are you going to tell me where we’re going?” I ask him. “New York City,” he says. “I don’t have a flight booked.” “I took care of it.” “Okay. I’ll pay you back for the ticket.” So far he had paid for everything. Refusing to let me pay for my own hotel rooms and even my food, and I felt bad. “There’s no need.” “I have plenty of money. You don’t have to keep paying for everything.” “I said there’s no need.” I bite my lip to keep from huffing in frustration. He’s so stubborn. Sure he’s rich but I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself financially. At least paying for myself would make me feel like less of a burden. ------------------------------------------------- When we get to the airport Orion checks us in and we get our boarding passes. While we wait to go through security something occurs to me. “Oliver?” I whisper to him. I use his alias in case anyone overhears. He turns and looks at me. “What about your arm?” He is wearing a long sleeved shirt but if he needed to roll the sleeves up and security saw, I’m pretty sure they would have him quarantined faster than he could say flash those black and silver eyes. “Don’t worry about it,” he answers. That’s easier said than done. Is he just winging it and hoping everything goes without a hitch? We make it to the front of the line and I go first. I don’t have any problems and I’m putting my shoes back on when I hear the x-ray machine beep. I look up and Orion is being waved out and stepped to the side. This is it; I’m going to be flying to New York alone. The TSA agent pats him down and I hold my breath when he feels Orion’s arm twice. “Can you roll up your sleeve please?” the agent asks. Orion obediently does as he’s told. Here we go, I think. But when he rolls up his sleeve his arm is wrapped in white bandaging. This is he plan? I think incredulously. “What are the bandages for?” the agent asks. “Ah man I got burned on the job. I’m a firefighter and I got caught under a beam during training and it burned through my suit by the time they got me out. A rookie mistake that they are going to hold over me for a long time.” He laughs. My jaw almost drops. Orion sounds like a completely different person. He voice is higher and it has a carefree sense to it. He sounds like he really is embarrassed he got himself into such a situation. “Are you safe to fly?” the agent asks less stern than a moment ago. “Oh yeah, I’m all good. Got a letter from my Doc and my badge in my bag if you wanna see?” The agent signals another agent who brings over Orion’s bag and they go through it. I think he’s bluffing but they pull out a piece of paper and a badge. Both the agents look over the paper and badge. “Okay, you’re clear. Thank you for your patience.” The agent hands his things back over to him. “No problem. Have a nice day,” Orion says cheerfully and walks over to me. “Let’s go.” His voice is back to normal and he just keeps walking, leaving me to speed walk to catch up. He doesn’t stop until we reach our gate. He sits down and I stare at him in astonishment. “What?” He avoids my gaze. “You could have told me your plan.” And that you are such a good actor. “You didn’t need to know.” “Where did you get the letter from?” I knew he had worked as a firefighter not too long ago so I knew where he had gotten the badge. “It’s a fake.” Guess that’s all I’m going to get out of him. We sit in silence waiting for our flight to board. I didn’t think to take my book out of the bag I checked. I groan internally at the thought of a six hour flight with nothing to do. Orion was obviously not going to be much for conversation. Maybe I’ll watch a movie. It isn’t long before we board. I lead the way to our seats since I have the middle. There’s an elderly woman seated by the window and she smiles as I take my seat. Orion silently takes the aisle seat and we wait for the plane to take off. Not wanting to crowd the lady, but also not wanting to anger Orion by invading his space, I try and keep my arms as close to my body as possible. People board the plane quickly and we take off. As soon as we are in the air, the lady puts an eye mask on and falls asleep against the window. Guess she won’t be much for conversation either. I drum my fingers on my leg waiting for the flight attendant to pass out the movie players. Finally she reaches us and I get out my wallet so I can pay for the player. “Movie player?” she asks cheerfully. “Yes please.” I go to hand her my card but Orion sticks out his. “I got it,” he says to me. The attendant goes to take his card. “No, I would like to pay for it please.” I continue holding out my card and she hesitates, unsure which card she would take. “I said I got it,” Orion repeats, giving me a look. “I said I’d like to pay for it.” I glare at him, refusing to back down. “Ailey,” he says like he’s speaking to a child. “Oliver,” I mimic his tone. “Should I come back?” the attendant asks, uncomfortable with the hostility between us. “No. I’m paying for it.” He looks away from me and hands her his card. “No, he isn’t.” I refuse to back down from this. “You’re making a scene.” He stares pointedly at me. Embarrassed, I look around. Some of the other passengers are staring at us. “Forget it. I don’t want one.” If he’s going to be a child about me paying then I’m going to be one too. “Yes, you do.” “No, I don’t.” I cross my arms and sit looking straight ahead. “Fine. I’ll get one for myself.” The attendant runs his card and hands him a player. She hurriedly moves on to the next aisle. “Here.” He tries to hand me the player but I don’t take it. After holding it in front of me for a minute he sighs, flips my tray down, and sets it there. Without making eye contact I take the player and slide it over to his. He slides it back. I slide it over again and put up my tray. “Geez you’re stubborn,” he huffs, exasperated. “That’s rich coming from you,” I say bitterly. “I am not stubborn.” “Ha. Yeah. You aren’t stubborn at all.” I roll my eyes at him. He doesn’t respond and we resume our silence. I’m embarrassed I acted the way I did but he just made me so angry. It’s like all my frustration just came out all at once. Who does he think he is that he can pretty much ignore me all day and still act the gentleman when it comes to buying things? He has no right to not let me pay for my own things. I sit there thinking all the things I can’t say out loud. “I’m sorry,” he says suddenly. “Huh?” I almost give myself whiplash turning to look at him. “I’ve been a jerk and I’m sorry.” His green eyes are soft and sincere. “Yeah. You have. Why?” I’m not quite ready to let go of my anger. He hesitates but eventually answers. “I was angry over what happened last night.” He keeps his voice down so others don’t hear and I do the same. “What are you talking about?” Was he talking about the fight with Leo? Why would he take that out on me? “You don’t know this but Leo and I have never been on the best of terms. I let my temper get the best of me last night and I shouldn’t have snapped at you.” I didn’t expect him to apologize to me. I didn’t even think he knew that he had upset me. “Why don’t you guys get along?” “I can’t stand him. Never have. He’s arrogant and acts like he’s entitled to anything and everything. He doesn’t appreciate things and then when he just dragged you off I lost it. He shouldn’t have treated you like an object.” I’m taken aback by his words. “You were,” I pause, “looking out for me?” He shrugs. “Not that you needed it. I saw you two on the dance floor.” He doesn’t look at me but I can hear the hurt in his voice. Is it because he doesn’t like Leo or is there more to it? I didn’t do anything wrong so why do I feel so guilty? “I’m sorry.” “Why? You can dance with whoever you want to. Even let them Brand you if that’s what you want,” he says bitterly. “Brand me?” I ask, confused. He points at my wrist. “What he did to your wrist. We call it Branding, although kissing is not required to do it,” he says with disgust. “Oh. I didn’t know.” I rub my wrist where the Brand was. When I got back to the hotel I saved the number but the Brand was gone when I woke up this morning just like Leo said it would. “You’re lucky it wasn’t permanent,” Orion says quietly. “Permanent?” “Depending on how much power is used, it can be temporary or permanent like the one on my back.” “That’s a Brand?” He nods. So Brands were their version of tattoos. There’s so much I don’t know about them. I guess I’m lucky Leo didn’t make it permanent but would he really have done that? He seemed nice enough, forward, but nice. I think back on last night and I certainly wasn’t drunk enough for it to impair my impression of the situation. Thinking about last night I remember something that I wanted to do. I reach into my purse and grab the ring Orion gave me. “Here,” I set it on his tray, “thought I’d give it back since we won’t be going to the club anytime soon.” From how the Zodiacs reacted it seemed pretty important and I didn’t feel comfortable hanging on to it. He picks it up and holds it in the palm of his hand. “You don’t want it?” His voice holds a hint of sadness that surprises me. “I don’t think it means what you said it means and I don’t feel comfortable wearing it not knowing,” I answer truthfully. The Zodiacs said whoever gave it to me must love me but last I checked Orion sure didn’t love me. It seems to me that it’s more than just a pass to the Star VIP club. “It’s true it does make it easier to identify us to the club staff but we don’t need them. We all know each other so they are more symbolic than functional.” “What do they symbolize?” “A bond. Only an Elite can make them and only an Elite can give one. They are reserved for Stars. Rarely does a human have one. There’s usually a special reason if they do.” “So why did you give one to me?” “Isn’t it obvious?” he asks. And then he stares at me. He stares at me like you stare at a puzzle that’s taken you too long to solve. A puzzle that keeps you awake at night, going over all the possible answers, only to come up with nothing. It’s funny because that’s how I see him. He’s a puzzle that I can’t solve, one that I keep having to hit the hint button only to get obscure clues like: “This number could be a 7 but maybe it’s a 2.” I stare back at him. Two puzzles trying to solve each other, only I think he’s getting better hints than I am. I try to find the answers in his eyes. There has to be something there that can tell me why he flip flops between closed off and open. Something that will tell me exactly what he means when he says: “Isn’t it obvious?” Someone bumps into Orion as they walk by and puzzle time is over. He turns and assures the girl, who keeps apologizing, that it’s alright. It’s probably for the best. I was never good at puzzles anyway. Time ticks on in silence, both of us lost in our own thoughts. I know I told myself I wouldn’t fall for him but as time goes by, I’m realizing that maybe it’s too late. I think it may have been too late that night on the porch. I’ve always been a strong believer in love at first sight. My parents had been the main reason for that. When I was younger, they’d tell me the story of how they met. Mom and Dad had both been part of a study abroad program. They went to different schools but the program was a partner program where five schools sent their best students to learn foreign law. The program would start in Ireland and then bounce around to a few more countries before ending the semester back in the States. Dad had wanted to get a head start on the other students and got there early, little did he know, Mom had the same idea. Dad was sitting in the library, reading through court cases, when Mom walks in carrying a stack of legal books. Dad jumped out of his seat to offer her a hand but ended up jumping right into her and sent her and the books tumbling to the floor. Dad was embarrassed, Mom was embarrassed, but they called it there romance movie moment. They bonded over their mutual embarrassment and early starts to the program. Then they fell in love before the program even started. Dad used to tease Mom that he loved her first because he saw her first. It’s funny that that would be a competition between them; who loved who first. A lot of people believe love at first sight is just that, love at first sight, but I think it’s different. I don’t think you know you love them at that moment. I think it’s afterwards, after you love them and you try and pinpoint the exact moment when you knew they had your heart, that’s when you know its love at first sight. When you can’t find a moment where they weren’t on your mind, when you didn’t hope you would see them again, when the only time you know for sure you didn’t love them was before you met them, that’s when you know it’s love at first sight. The moment when two overachievers sat, embarrassed, on a library floor or when two outsiders sat, peacefully, on a porch swing. It’s not in that moment, but when you think back that you know for sure, I love this person. “Ailey?” Orion taps me on the arm. “Huh?” Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t hear what he said. I look over and see that the flight attendant came back, this time with the food cart. “Do you want anything to eat?” “Sure.” This time there’s no arguing over him paying. I’m too busy trying to solve the puzzle. I wish I got better hints. He passes me a sandwich and a pop. I eat it slowly while I contemplate the hints I’ve gotten so far. Hint: He asked you out to lunch. Answer: He’s interested in you. Hint: He watched over you incase Alex came for you. Answer: He worries about you. Hint: He took you on this trip. Answer: He wanted you to come. Hint: He gave you the ring. Answer: He has feelings for you. I know the answer I have come up with but that’s the thing about puzzles; you can be so sure about the answer but when you plug it in, it’s still wrong. The answer could be very different if I look at it a different way. Hint: He asked you out to lunch. Answer: He wanted to get to know a stranger better. Hint: He watched over you incase Alex came for you. Answer: It’s his job. Hint: He took you on this trip. Answer: Again, it’s his job to watch out for you. Hint: He gave you the ring. Answer: I can easily get into the VIP area. See? Damn puzzles. I stare at the Star ring sitting on his tray. I know what I want the answer to be. The question is, do I take the chance my heart screams at me to take or listen to my mind’s whispered warnings. Orion notices me staring at his tray. “Do you want the player?” Hints in his voice? Not a chance. “No, I’m okay.” I pick at the hem of my shirt in frustration. He looks at his tray, trying to figure out what it is I want. The only other thing is the ring. Some emotion flashes across his face but it’s gone before I can tell what it is. “Do you want the ring back?” Yes. No. I want you to want me to want it back. I think hard about my answer. A lot rides on my answer. If the puzzle he’s trying to solve is the same as mine then is he looking for hints too? What will my answer tell him? “Yeah, I want it back.” “I’m glad.” He smiles and hands me the ring. I breathe an imaginary sigh of relief. I take it and put it on. Hint: He wants you to wear the ring. Answer: He likes you. “It goes on the middle one, right?” I wiggle my fingers for him to see. “That’s right.” He smiles and it looks like the happy unhindered smiles he used to always have when we first met. I love it when he smiles like that. We slip into a companionable silence for a while. Eventually the older lady next to us wakes up and we talk for the rest of the flight. Chapter 12 By the time we got to the hotel I was exhausted. After waiting for our luggage, getting the rental car, and driving through the city to our hotel, all I wanted was to take a shower and curl up in bed. It seemed the universe had other ideas though. Orion was currently in an argument with the manager over a mistake they made with our rooms. An employee had given our rooms to someone else and Orion was none too happy about it. Tired of standing I sat in the lobby while Orion sorted everything out. After what seemed like forever Orion finally came back but he still didn’t look pleased. “So what’d he say?” I really hoped we didn’t have to find a new hotel. “Good news is that they are giving us a discount for the problem.” He picked up my bag and we headed for an elevator. “And the bad news?” “They could only give us one room.” “What?” Shocked that we would be staying in the same hotel room I was no longer sleepy but nervous. “Don’t worry, there are two beds.” I would hope so. Thinking about staying in the same room with him, I start to sweat. I really need to calm down. It was just a hotel room. Everything was going to be fine. “Are you okay? You don’t look so good.” Orion stares at me. “I’m fine.” I avoid his gaze by staring at my shoes. The elevator door opens and we walk down the hallway to the room. He holds the door open for me and I enter the room. The room is huge. There’s two king sized beds, a couch with a coffee table, a kitchenette, and a huge bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub and glass shower. There’s even a balcony with sliding doors. I’ve never stayed in someplace so fancy. “Wow,” I whisper in awe, checking out all the features. “Pretty nice, huh?” Orion sets our bags on the beds and walks over to the balcony. “Come over here. I want to show you something.” I follow him out onto the balcony and the view takes my breath away. The city stretches out around us. New York City is alive with lights and sounds. We are close to the top of the hotel but it’s only one of many tall buildings. I’ve never really been a city girl but I can definitely see the appeal, especially with a view like this. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Orion stares out at the city. “It is,” I agree. “I’m not a fan of the city as you’ve probably figured out by now but there’s something about them at night. It’s the lights. I don’t know what it is, maybe because it seems so alive.” He was right, I had known from the beginning he was more jungle than concrete jungle. I look at him out of the corner of my eye. “I never felt lonely in the city.” He looks at me thoughtfully as I continue. “My aunt lives in San Francisco. I stayed the summer with her one year and the lights, they keep you company, make you feel like someone is there. No matter what time it is, there are always lights on in the city. Someone is always awake. Not like a small town. Small towns can get pretty lonely. Does that make sense?” There were times I couldn’t sleep growing up and I’d sit, looking out the window, feeling like I was the only person in the whole wide world. “It makes perfect sense.” We stand there a little while longer staring out into the city but soon my exhaustion comes back. “I think I’m going to take a shower and go to bed.” “Alright.” I leave him on the balcony and go take a shower. When I come back he’s already in bed. He’s faced away from me so I can’t tell if he’s asleep or not. I tip toe to my bed and turn off the light. As soon as my head hits the pillow I fall asleep. ------------------------------------------------- A noise wakes me up. I look at the clock and it’s almost four in the morning. I look over to Orion’s bed but he isn’t there. I look around the room but I don’t see him. Then I hear the noise again. It sounds like singing. I look over and the sliding door leading to the balcony is open a little bit. Orion is standing outside, his dark outline a contrast against the lights of the city. He’s singing a song I don’t recognize. He’s very quiet but I can still make out the words. Come and hear the tale I have to tell It’s a tale of a man, a man with snow white hair He roamed the earth, in search of someone fair Lonely he wandered and sadly he wondered If he was meant to find someone fair Roaming the waters, alone but never scared He found a girl, a girl with golden hair She took his hand, showing him she cared The girl, the girl, the girl who was fair Together they wandered, never to wonder If they would find their someone fair Then one night they woke to screaming air Torn apart from their someone fair Now sadly they wander, alone and not a pair Yes I’ll tell you the tale Of the man with snow white hair His voice is hauntingly beautiful. I lie there listening to him sing, wondering at the meaning behind the song. Soon my eyes start to close and I’m fast asleep. Chapter 13 Orion is up and walking around when I wake up in the morning. “Oh good, you’re up.” He orders room service and breakfast arrives just as I’m finishing getting ready. As soon as we’re done eating we’re out the door and heading for the car. He seems to be in a hurry. Traffic is crazy but Orion handles city driving like a pro. He zips in and out of lanes, taking short cuts, until finally arriving at our destination. It’s not an extremely tall building but it’s taller than most. The architecture is modern and screams wealthy business. Fancy expensive cars fill the parking lot and I’m careful not to hit one when I get out of the car. Orion strolls right through the front doors and to the elevators. We ride it all the way to the top floor. When we step out I notice the top floor is one giant room with floor to ceiling windows that open out to a terrace on one side. It looks more like a penthouse than an office space. There’s a girl, probably around sixteen years old, sitting at a desk in the corner. She hastily walks over when she sees us. She’s short and petite with sandy blonde hair. She’s wearing a flowery sundress that, even when she comes to a stop in front of us, billows around her legs. “Orion, it’s been so long,” she says and gives him a hug. He hugs her back and she lets him go. About to introduce myself, I’m surprised when she also embraces me. “I’m Vela,” she says cheerfully when she releases me. “Hi, I’m Ailey,” I smile at her. She has a light air about her that I like. “That’s such a pretty name,” she gushes. “Thanks, so is yours.” I definitely like Vela, she seems so happy. “Vela is the youngest of the Ship Siblings,” Orion tells me. “Yep,” Vela confirms happily. “I’m also known as sails, which explains this.” She points to her dress that is still moving like it’s caught in a gentle breeze. “Your powers deal with wind then?” I find it easy to talk with her. “Yep, if it involves air I’m your gal.” She proudly stands tall, beaming at me. “Vela also can boost other Stars’ powers,” Orion adds. He smiles warmly. He seems happier than these last few days. I wonder if it’s Vela’s personality or something else. “It’s really not that big of a deal,” Vela blushes. “Don’t sell yourself short kid.” Orion ruffles her hair playfully. How they interact reminds me of John and Stacy. It makes me smile. “I’ll call Puppis and Carina,” Vela’s eyes change and a breeze blows past me and out an open window. “They should be here any min-” She’s interrupted by a shout. “Orion!” A man with the same sandy blond hair as Vela tackles Orion and they fall to the floor. I look at Vela to see if we should help but she just stands there giggling and watching the two roll around on the floor. Pretty soon Orion is laughing while he sits on the other man who’s lying on his stomach flailing his arms while Orion crushes him. “You win! You win!” The other man shouts between laughs. “You never learn, Puppis.” Orion stands and helps him up. Not only does Puppis have the same color hair as Vela but their features are similar. I can definitely see the family resemblance. He’s in shorts and a billowy shirt. He reminds me of a surfer. “I’ll get you one of these days,” Puppis promises. He touches his nose gingerly. “At least my nose is intact this time.” “Hey that was a total accident and you know it.” Orion lightly shoves his shoulder and Puppis shoves back. I watch in wonder. Orion seems so carefree. Is this what he is normally like when he isn’t saving me and fighting Alex? “Well would you look at what the cat dragged in.” A woman’s voice comes from behind me and I turn to see who it is. She’s older than the other two, early thirties maybe. She’s tall and looks just like Vela and Puppis. This must be Carina. She smiles and gives Orion a hug. “What are you doing here?” Her eyes look worried as she addresses him. “We need to call the Elite together,” he replies gravely. “What’s happened?” she asks. “Alexander is back and he can Travel. Also he did this.” Orion takes off his jacket, showing them his arm. The veins have reached his shoulder. Vela gasps quietly and covers her mouth in horror. “What is this?” Puppis comes closer to inspect the black veins. “I have no clue but he needed me to use my powers before he could do whatever it is he did.” Orion lets him inspect his arm. “Let me see.” Carina runs her fingers over the black veins. “Do they hurt?” “Sometimes but it’s more of an ache than a real pain.” “Well you’ve always had a high tolerance for pain.” Carina’s forehead wrinkles in concentration and her eyes change. A light like the one that came from Orion when he healed shines from her hand and she scans it over the black veins. When she’s done the light stops and her eyes change back. “I can’t sense anything from it. It’s like it’s not even there.” Vela must have seen the curiosity on my face because she leans over and whispers to me, “Carina is a really good healer. The most powerful of all of us actually. When someone is sick or hurt she can sense whatever it is. Every injury and sickness gives off certain vibes. Whatever those things are, they can’t be detected by her powers.” “Could she still heal him without knowing what they are?” I whisper back. “I don’t think so. If she isn’t sensing them then it isn’t reading as an injury. Her powers won’t work on it unless they detect a problem or something that’s not supposed to be there.” “They sure look like a problem to me,” I say more to myself than anyone else. “I agree.” Vela’s smile is gone, replaced with worry, the same worry that’s on my face. I go back to listening to Carina and Orion. “Canis has gone to find Draco. As soon as he locates him, they’ll join us,” Orion informs her. “That’s good. Since Draco is the expert on Black Holes hopefully he will have some answers.” Carina paces between the elevator and Orion. “Any idea on how long it will take to find Draco?” “Since Hydra left him he’s been off the grid but the Zodiacs said last they heard he was holed up in the Carpathian Mountains. Canis should be able to pick up his scent and locate him within a couple days.” “Let’s hope he finds him by the time the rest of the Elite get here. It will take about a day to reach everyone. Some of them are really far away and off the radar but Vela’s wind will find them. Should we tell them tomorrow evening for the meeting?” “I think so. The faster we can figure out what’s going on, the better.” “We’ll start contacting them immediately. Vela?” Carina turns to us. “I’m on it.” Vela goes and sits down on the couch. She closes her eyes, takes a few deep breaths and raises her arms to the side. Her pose and concentration reminds of the times I’ve seen people mediating on TV. Her eyes open and they’ve changed to the black and silver that indicates when they use their powers. Her hair whips around her face and strong winds blow through the room. Suddenly they shoot out from her, escaping through the open windows. The force makes me stagger but I regain my balance. None of the others even swayed at the force. Vela lowers her hands and her eyes turn back to normal. “Sorry Ailey. I had to put a lot of power behind those.” She comes back and stands by my side. “No worries.” I smile while straightening my hair. Carina walks over to me and extends her hand. “Sorry I didn’t introduce myself before we got down to business. I’m Carina, also known as keel, the oldest of the Ship Siblings. Vela told you about my healing powers. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I shake her hand. “Ailey. I totally understand. It’s nice to meet you.” Puppis comes over and introduces himself next. “I’m Puppis, the stern, middle child, and I have power over the currents and any water. Sorry. Should have said hi before I attacked this one.” Puppis nods towards Orion. “That’s alright,” I say with a laugh. These three are completely different than the Zodiacs. The Zodiacs were touchy and demanding. I felt like a new toy they had just gotten and wanted to play with. The Siblings are nice and they treat me like a person. They are kind and considerate like Canis and Orion. Orion acted completely different with the Zodiacs than with these three. The Zodiacs may be fellow Constellations but these three are friends. “May I ask a question?” I address the Siblings. “Go ahead,” Carina says. “Are all of you Elite as well?” They certainly seemed powerful enough to be. “Actually, I’m the only one who’s an Elite,” Carina says, “but all three of us are in charge of keeping track of the rest of the Elite and coordinating meetings if need be.” “Oh I see.” I wonder what kinds of powers the other Elite have. I’d only seen bits of Orion’s, Canis’s, and Carina’s powers, but from the sounds of it their powers go way beyond what I know of. Especially seeing what Vela did and her not even being an Elite. I feel a little uneasy about meeting the rest of them. Hopefully they are as nice as these guys. “Are you going to be at the meeting?” Puppis asks me. “Uh,” I look at Orion and he nods, “Guess I am. That’s okay I hope.” “That is more than okay.” Carina smiles at me and I smile back. She has a strong big sister personality and it’s nice. If I had a big sister I would want one like her. “So we’ll see you guys tomorrow night,” Orion says, coming to stand by my side. “See you then,” Carina says and they all bid us farewell as we get into the elevator. We make it back to the car and Orion drives us out of the parking lot. “I like them. They are really nice,” I say. Orion chuckles. “I’m glad. They are good people. We get along really well,” he says. “I saw that. You were really happy.” “I guess I was.” “Are you normally like that?” “Like what?” “You know, happy?” “I didn’t know I’ve been unhappy,” he laughs. “Well not unhappy per say but burdened, like you have a lot on your mind.” “I guess you’ve only really known me since things went bad. I can be an upbeat person; it’s just been a rough week.” “I know. I’m sorry. You’re problems seemed to have started when you met me.” I still blamed myself for getting him hurt. Alex used me to get to him. If I hadn’t come into the picture Orion would probably be off camping in some woods somewhere. “My problems started a long time ago and they have nothing to do with you.” Orion reaches over and squeezes my hand. He keeps it there a minute before taking it back to drive. “You don’t blame me for getting hurt?” “Alexander got me because I underestimated him. I should have known he wouldn’t have challenged me unless he thought he could get the upper hand. I would have beaten him if I wasn’t so careless. It was my own fault.” “Okay.” “So stop feeling guilty.” “I’m not,” I lie to him. “Yes you are. I can sense your emotions remember?” “That’s kind of cheating you know? You always know what I’m feeling.” “I prefer to think of it as protecting myself. I mean who knows? You could go into a blind rage and try to kill me. I’d like to have some warning, you know?” He smiles. “Pretty sure if that happened I wouldn’t do much damage.” I try not to smile as I roll my eyes at him. “I don’t know. You’re pretty fast and if you surprised me I think you could get a few hits in at least.” “Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I laugh. “You know Canis thinks you are one of those women who finds rich guys and murders them for their money,” he says seriously. “No he doesn’t. That’s ridiculous, even for Canis.” “No really, he thinks you are. That’s why he didn’t want you to go with him. He was afraid you’d murder him in his sleep,” he says with a straight face. “That’s not the reason!” “I know, I wouldn’t think he’d sacrifice me like that but I guess it’s every man for himself.” He shrugs. “You’re joking right?” “Does this look like my joking face?” He turns to me and his face is dead serious. “No? But I don’t think I’ve ever seen you’re joking face.” “It looks pretty much the same as my serious face.” “Then how do I know which is which?” “Guess you’d have to read my emotions.” “Haha.” I glare at him. “Uh oh,” he looks at me worriedly, “I’m sensing that blind rage coming on.” I laugh and shake my head. He’s trying to make me feel better and honestly it’s working. I wonder why he seems so much happier all of a sudden. “You seem different today,” I say before I can stop myself. “How so?” He looks at me thoughtfully. “You seem more carefree, happier.” He stares straight ahead for a while and I start to worry I ruined it but he eventually speaks. “I think I just realized that it was time to appreciate the things in life instead of watching them slip past.” He speaks softly and continues to stare at the road. Before I can ask what he means he turns and smiles at me. “How about we take a day off?” “A day off?” I ask, confused. “Yeah. I want to show you around the city. You haven’t gotten to do anything fun since you came with us and I think you deserve to have a day of fun.” “Really?” His suggestion catches me off guard. I assumed we’d just wait around in the hotel until the rest of the Elite were gathered. He nods at me. “What do you say?” “I’d love to,” I say excitedly. “Then we’ll start with lunch.” Chapter 14 The rest of the day is spent with Orion acting as my personal tour guide. Even though he says it’s been awhile since he was in the city, we never get lost and I wonder if he has some kind of direction power I don’t know about. We go to Central Park and watch as people hustle about. Joggers and bikers zip through and people on their lunch break sit and eat on the benches. Orion buys us lunch and we sit peacefully under the trees that are just starting to turn color for fall. A couple sits not too far from us playing with their daughter. She sits in the grass picking dandelions and braiding them together. When she’s done she walks over and puts it on her dad’s head. Laughing, the family takes pictures together and eventually leave the park; the dad still proudly wearing his flower crown. Afterwards, we go to the museum. Orion has me almost in tears laughing as he tells me the real stories behind some of the events and exhibits. He told me about how Greek mythology was built around them and their powers. They weren’t hiding their powers as much during that time and the humans saw them as gods and legends began to circulate and change over the years. He assured me that most of the stories were completely made up, especially the ones about him. He raved about how never has nor would he ever force himself on a woman and he has never forgiven Corvus for helping spark that story. The Loch Ness monster was actually Hydra in one of her forms. She had loved vacationing in the Loch but after pictures and news spread she hasn’t been able to return except in human form. When I asked if Bigfoot was one of them too he simply laughed. “Now why would you think we are behind every tall tale you humans come up with?” “Well, so far you have been,” I say in defense. “Stick around and maybe you’ll find out which ones are real and which ones aren’t,” he says winking at me. “So Bigfoot isn’t real?” “I didn’t say that.” “But you said?” I stammer in confusion. “Just because we aren’t behind Bigfoot, doesn’t mean it’s not real,” he says ominously. “So what is it?” I ask fearfully. John had always tortured Stacy and I with tales of Bigfoot when we went camping. Little me had been scared spitless but I grew out of it knowing it was just a story. Now I wonder if I really should have been watching out for him all these years. Orion looks around to see if anyone is listening then motions for me to come closer. I move closer and he leans down to whisper in my ear. His breath is hot on my ear and I don’t know if my heart is beating fast because of the conversation or how close he is to me. “Maybe you should ask the abominable snowman,” he says with a laugh. I jerk back to look at his face and he’s smiling from ear to ear. “That wasn’t funny!” I punch him in the arm. “You had me freaked out.” He knew I wasn’t seriously mad at him and he laughed again as we moved onto the next exhibit. When we got to the Egypt area he tells me another story. He gets a big grin on his face as he talks about how the Sphinx was actually constructed in honor of Leo. When Orion and Leo got into a fight over him bragging about it and exposing himself to the humans, Orion had thrown him into it thus breaking off the nose. “You’re kidding me? That’s what he was upset about when you brought up Egypt at the club?” I chuckle. “Yep. You should have seen his face. I wish Pictor had been there to paint a picture of it.” Orion joined me in laughing and the other visitors gave us weird looks before walking quickly passed us. I’m sure we looked really odd standing around the museum laughing at random things together but I didn’t care. I was seeing a side to Orion that I had only caught glimpses of before. He seemed to enjoy walking me through history from his point of view. I loved hearing him talk about history and seeing how things differed from what I knew. Things were so easy between us again. It was like when we first met except I felt closer to him now. After the museum we decided to go for a walk. The streets were crowded and I moved closer to Orion so we wouldn’t get separated. As I moved closer he looked down at me and grabbed my hand. Smiling, we walked hand in hand through the city. Orion pointed out things that had changed over the years. The coffee shop on the corner used to be a bowling alley. That skyrise used to be a vacant lot where Canis found a starving stray dog and gave it a home. The pastry shop I had just dragged Orion into used to be a night club. “Why did you want to come in here?” he asks, curious. “I saw the maple bar in the window. I have to try it, they are my favorite.” I walk to the counter and tell the guy behind it what I want. He puts it in a bag and I turn to Orion. “Do you want anything?” “No but I’ll pay for it.” He reaches for his wallet and I stop him. “I got this one.” I smile at him and take out my own wallet. He furrows his forehead and I can only imagine the internal battle going on in his mind. I pass my money to the guy while Orion stares at me. I get back my change and we leave the pastry shop. “That wasn’t so bad was it?” I ask him playfully. “I suppose not,” he says stiffly. “You’re very old fashioned,” I laugh. “Well, I’m very old,” he replies. That makes me laugh again and he takes my hand and leads me to a tiny playground where we sit and I eat my maple bar. I sigh as I take the first bite. It’s one of the best ones I’ve ever had. “Is it good?” He asks me with a smile. “Mmhmm,” I mumble with my mouth full. I shallow and hold it out for him. “Here. Try it.” “I’m okay.” He shakes his head. “Come on. You won’t regret it.” He thinks for a moment then takes a bite. “You’re right, it is really good,” he says after swallowing. “Right?” I take another bite and together we finish the maple bar. Kids run around on the playground; yelling as they chase each other. A boy sits feeding the pigeons bird seed from the bench across from us. Countless people march by on the sidewalk on their way to who knows where. Everything is so noisy but there’s also a strange rhythm to it. After a while we make our way back to the car. Orion takes me to a little pizza place for dinner. The restaurant is cozy with that old family business atmosphere and the food is delicious. I’m completely stuffed by the time we’re done. It’s dark when we leave and the city has changed. The crowds seem less rushed as they bustle about and signs light up the streets. “You have to see one more thing before we go back to the hotel.” Orion takes my hand and we walk along the street. It’s become natural to hold hands as we walk through the busy crowds. I don’t think he’s doing it just so he won’t lose me amongst the people. More hints I’ll have to use. We wind through streets and around corners before Orion finally stops. I look around and realize where we are. Advertisements flash across big screens. Billboards broadcast the latest Broadway shows. Cars and people race across the streets. It’s fast pace and bright. It’s Times Square. “Wow. It’s just like in the movies,” I say. “You can’t go to New York City without seeing Time Square.” “I can see why.” I was amazed at the amount of people bustling about. There has to be more people in Time Square than there are back home. We stand there for a bit but the night air is cold and I can’t suppress a shiver. “Here.” Orion takes off his jacket and puts it around my shoulders. “Won’t you be cold?” I worry even as I stick my arms through the sleeves. It’s big and warm and smells like him. “I’ll be fine. Ready to head back?” “Sure.” We walk back the way we came and weave through the crowds. Eventually they thin out and the streets become quieter. Orion’s jacket keeps me nice and warm as we make our way back to the car. “How’d you like the city?” Orion asks me. “I liked it. It’s like a totally different world. There are so many new things. Although I’ve never realized it before now but I don’t think I’m a city girl. I loved visiting all the cool places but I don’t think I could live here. It’s too busy and there are too many people.” “I’m glad to hear that city life hasn’t corrupted you. I could never live here either for the same reasons.” “Have you ever lived in a city?” “In the smaller ones, yeah, but the big ones never for longer than I had to. I get antsy being away from nature too long.” “You seem to be doing really good so far.” “That’s because I have such great company.” He smiles at me and I smile back. Today has been full of smiles. If only every day could be like this. As we turn another corner a voice pierces the quiet. “Please stop!” It sounds like a little girl. Orion’s head snaps to look in the direction the voice came from. A split second later he’s running. He still has my hand and I’m running as fast as I can to keep up with him. He sprints through alleys and crosses streets until finally the cries are crystal clear. He stops abruptly at the entrance to an alley and turns around to face me. “Stay here.” Then he turns the corner and disappears down the alleyway. I’m breathing so hard trying to catch my breath that I wouldn’t have been able to reply even if he’d waited for me to. I peek around the corner and see Orion walking up to a group of four men. They are standing in a circle around an old man and a little girl. The old man is lying on the ground while the girl stands over him in a protective stance. She’s trembling but her face is brave. As Orion draws closer the men turn and face him. Orion says something but it’s too low for me to make it out. Whatever it was the men must find it funny because they all laugh. One of the men waves his hand dismissively and turns back towards the two in the circle. That was a mistake. Orion grabs him by the collar and throws him into the wall. The other three rush forward to get at Orion. One guy swings at his head but Orion easily dodges it and sweeps the guy’s legs out from under him. The second guy tries to tackle him but Orion steps out of the way and the guy goes flying past into the wall the first guy went into. The third guy, seeing what just happened, tries to run away but Orion easily catches him and throws him against a dumpster. Orion glares at them and they scramble to get out of the alley. In their haste to escape they don’t even notice me standing there. Obviously if they can run away, Orion didn’t hurt them like he could have. I watch the guys disappear down the street and then go into the alley to check on the old man and girl. Orion is crouched down helping the old man up while the little girl helps from the other side. Hearing me approach she looks up suddenly and I see a flash a fear in her eyes. I realize it’s dark and I’m still wearing Orion’s huge coat. “It’s okay, I’m with him,” I say kindly, stepping into the light. The girl visibly relaxes. “Are you alright?” Orion asks the old man. “I’m fine, no permanent damage.” He stands shakily for a minute and the girl picks up a cane off the ground and brings it to him. “Thank you my dear.” “Can we see you home?” Orion asks. “Oh no you’ve done more than enough. It’s not too far, we should be fine.” “Can we at least get you a cab?” I can see in Orion’s face he wants to make sure they get home safe. “That would be very kind of you. I can’t thank you enough,” the old man says. We walk out of the alley and Orion hales a cab. Luckily cabs are everywhere in this city. Orion helps the old man into the cab. Before the girl gets in she throws her arms around Orion legs. “Thank you,” her tiny voice squeaks. Orion crouches down and hugs her back. “You were very brave protecting your grandfather like that. Don’t ever forget how strong you are.” Orion lets her go and she hops into the cab. Orion passes a few bills to the cab driver and says to take them wherever they need to go. The two wave as the cab drives off. We watch until they disappear around a corner. “That was really sweet what you said to her.” I turn towards Orion. “What do you mean?” He tilts his head to the side. “About her being brave and strong. I think a lot of people don’t think they have it in them but everyone does. A little girl had the courage to stand against four men to protect her grandpa. She was scared but she still stood her ground. I think sometimes people forget being scared doesn’t mean they aren’t brave.” Orion looks at me for a while then smiles. “She’s not the only one who’s brave. Come on. Let’s go.” He reaches for my hand and we start walking. “Are you sure you know where we are?” “Of course I do.” Just then we round a corner and there’s the car parked exactly where we left it. “Of course,” I sigh. ------------------------------------------------- “How about some dessert?” Orion tosses me the room service menu. “How about,” I scan the menu, “New York Style Cheesecake?” Orion gives me a look, trying to figure out if I’m making a joke or not. “Hey, when in Rome, right?” He smiles and orders a variety of desserts including the cheesecake. I give him a look and he shrugs. “Just in case the cheesecake isn’t good.” While we’re waiting we both take quick showers to wash off the activities of the day. Just as he walks out of the bathroom, room service knocks on the door. I make us some coffee in the kitchenette to go with dessert and we sit on the balcony to eat. We sit enjoying the night air and each other’s company. We end up sampling everything he ordered and putting the left overs in the fridge. When we’re done cleaning up I flop onto the bed. “I didn’t realize how much my feet hurt from walking until I stopped walking,” I groan. I hear Orion laugh and then I feel someone sit on the bed. I sit up and Orion is sitting on the edge of the bed smiling. “Was it worth it though?” “Very much so. I had a great day.” “I did too. I’ve never had so much fun in the city.” “Not even with Canis? Seems to me you guys party pretty hard.” I laugh. “Ailey,” Orion stares at me seriously. “Yeah?” I ask, nervous at his change of tone. He leans closer and his green eyes gaze into mine. My heart is racing. His hand comes up and gently touches the side of my face. “I want to kiss you now,” his voice is deep and my heart beats faster in response. “I want you to kiss me now too,” I manage to whisper. “Then I will.” And with that, his lips touch mine. I was expecting a reserved kiss; one that goes with his more restrained personality. It was anything but reserved. He let everything out with that kiss and held nothing back. It was filled with so much emotion that I had no doubts to what he felt for me. He tilted my head to deepen the kiss and I was lost in feelings and sensations. His lips were soft yet commanding and I let him lead the kiss. When we broke away we were both short of breath. I took a moment to collect myself and when I opened my eyes, black and silver ones stared back at me. “Your eyes,” I gasp. “Sorry,” he looks away and they start to fade. “No wait,” I turn his face back so he’s looking at me, “I want to see.” Surprised, he tilts his head and his eyes slowly start shining with power. For the first time I really get to study them. I didn’t notice it before but the silver parts are actually made up of tiny dots of silver amongst the black. I thought the silver and black just blended together but that’s not the case. The night sky stares back at me from those eyes. “They look just like stars,” I say in awe. I touch the side of his face. “They’re beautiful.” Orion closes his eyes and covers my hand with his. “I’m glad they don’t scare you anymore,” he sighs. “What are you talking about?” I don’t think I’ve been scared since the night Alex attacked me and I found out Oliver was actually Orion. “There’s always a tiny part of you that is apprehensive around us, especially when we use our powers. Just now was the first time there hasn’t been any trace of fear.” “I didn’t even realize. Even you and Canis?” He nods his head. “I’m sorry.” I think back to the times he’s used his powers around me. For the most part I felt a sense of curious awe but there was a part of me that was afraid of that power. Afraid of how powerful it actually was and what it could do. “Don’t be. It’s natural to fear the unknown and that’s what we are to you. It takes a while to adjust, I’m just glad you have. At least with me that is.” He smiles and kisses me again, this one not so intense. “You should get some sleep. Tomorrow we need to check in with the Siblings and see when the meeting is exactly. Then you get to be the first human to sit in on an Elite meeting.” He gets up from the bed. “The first?” I exclaim, feeling nervousness shoot through me. “Maybe it would be better if I just stayed here. I don’t want to cause any issues by being there.” “You won’t be. They won’t even ask you any questions. You can just sit and observe.” “Okay.” The nervousness weighs like a stone in my stomach. Orion taps me on the head. “Don’t be nervous. Everything will be fine.” “Okay, I’ll try.” I climb into bed and pull up the covers. My phone beeps and I remember that I haven’t texted Stacy yet today. I’d been so preoccupied with spending time with Orion that it completely slipped my mind. Quickly, I send her an update on my day and tell her I hoped she’s all packed for college. Every day we exchange stories about how our days went. She’s been busy spending time with her family before she leaves for college the day after tomorrow. Because I couldn’t tell her the truth, I made up stories about the places I went. Right now she thought I was on my way to see Lake Tahoe. Still, I enjoyed our short conversations. I didn’t expect her to reply because it was so late but I forgot about the time difference and I got a reply almost immediately. She was all packed except she still hadn’t picked which shoes to take yet. I wished her luck and said I’d talk to her tomorrow. “How’s your friend?” Orion asks. “She’s good. Eventually she’s going to ask to see pictures of where I’ve been and I’m going to be in trouble.” I laugh humorlessly. “We’ll figure something out.” He turns off the lights and walks over to my bed. He leans down and presses a gentle kiss on my forehead. “Goodnight, Ailey.” “Goodnight, Orion.” Finally, I think to myself, I solved the puzzle. Chapter 15 “Can I ask you something?” I stare at Orion’s face across the couch. He’s typing away on his phone, checking in with Canis and Vela to see how things are going on their end of things. Since I woke up this morning I’ve been waiting for him to say something about what happened between us but he hasn’t. He ordered us breakfast and we’ve just been lounging around the hotel room all morning. His silence about the events of yesterday is starting to irritate me. My confidence in my answer to the Orion puzzle has started to falter ever so slightly and dammit I’m pretty sure I’m in love with him. “Of course.” He sets his phone down and gives me his undivided attention. “I think we should talk about yesterday.” My voice falters a bit under his gaze but we need to talk about things otherwise I’m going to keep stressing about it. “What about it?” “You know. About the kiss and all that.” “What about it?” “What does it mean?” “What do you want it to mean?” he asks. He has that smile on again. The one that makes him look sweet and innocent but underneath I know he’s teasing me. “Orion, come on, this is serious. I want to know what it means. Does it mean we’re dating? Was it just a onetime thing? Is this serious or is it just a fling to you? Because I’ll have you know that I’m not okay with that. I don’t date for fun and I want to know what this means so I can be prepared. You’re a Constellation and that in itself is complicated and I don’t need to be stressing over what I am to you.” “Ailey,” he takes my hand and I stop my rambling and look into his eyes. “Yeah?” “I love you.” For a moment I think I misheard him. “What?” “I love you,” he says again. “I have since the night I met you. It just took me awhile to realize it.” “I don’t understand. You barely know me.” I know I’m being a hypocrite by saying it considering how I feel for him even though we’ve only known each other for a short time. “I don’t think that’s true. I know you are kind and care about everyone, even strangers. I know the thought of being a nuisance drives you crazy. I know you are independent and it makes you uncomfortable when someone takes care of you. I know there’s a deep sadness you keep bottled up. I know despite that sadness you are strong and your presence is like a cool breeze on a hot day, refreshing and calm. I know being around you makes me happy even though I don’t show it all the time. You make me feel like I don’t need to worry so much; like I can breathe even though I’m not in control. I know the thought of something happening to you scares me more than any battle. And I know that I don’t want anyone to feel about you the way I do.” “Orion,” I say softly, unable to say anymore due to the emotion welling up in my chest. “So yes, I may not know everything about you but I don’t need to in order to love you. Don’t pretend either because I know you love me too despite not knowing everything about me.” “How?” I ask, shocked, and then it hits me. “Your power.” He nods. “That really is cheating you know.” He just smiles. “I’m sorry I confused you but I didn’t know how to act. I’ve never dated anyone seriously, human or Star, and I’ve certainly never loved someone in that way. I didn’t know what I was feeling and then when the Zodiacs started asking you about the ring I realized the real reason I had given it to you. I was mad that Leo acted so familiar with you and I got angry. I hadn’t planned on falling in love with you and I felt out of control of my own emotions. I took my frustration out on you and that wasn’t fair of me. I’m sorry.” “Why me? “Why you?” “Yeah. After all the years you’ve lived, why do you love me?” “I don’t know. It would be simpler if there was some kind of reason beyond emotions but I’ve learned from observing over the years that love rarely makes sense or is simple. It just happens.” “So it’s not because I’m some kind of Star princess and I just don’t know it?” Orion laughs and takes my hand. “No, nothing like that. You’re just you and you is enough.” He kisses my forehead. “Are you good now or do you have more questions?” I smile. “Just one. Who do I introduce you as? Oliver? Orion? Boyfriend? Moose pj boy?” Orion laughs and pushes me back so I’m lying on the couch. He crouches above me. “You can introduce me as anything you want,” he whispers. He kisses the base of my throat and my heart rate increases again. He makes his way up my neck and my hands grip his biceps. His lips meet mine and the emotions I felt the first time we kissed come crashing over me again. Puzzle definitely solved. ------------------------------------------------- “Orion?” I whisper. I’m lying wrapped in his arms on the couch. I don’t want there to be anything in the way of our new relationship so I’ve decided to tell him. “What is it?” Sensing my sadness, he looks down at me and strokes my hair. “The sadness you talked about,” I stop, trying to decide if I should just say it out right or lead up to it. “What about it?” he urges me. I look at him and decide. “My parents died. Not long after I graduated.” There’s a long silence before he speaks. “I know that.” “What do you mean? You knew?” I sit up and stare at him in shock. How long has he known? “Did Canis tell you?” “Canis didn’t tell me. The night you were attacked, I went back to your house to see if I could pick up Alexander’s trail. Initially I thought they were out of town and that’s why they hadn’t been in the house with you but the house seemed empty and while I was looking around I found their room. People don’t leave everything when they go on vacation. I knew what had happened.” He rubs his thumb across the back of my hand, comforting me. “Why didn’t you say anything?” “You didn’t want to be treated differently, right?” “How did you-” He hit the nail right on the head. “I was the same way. When I lost friends in the war and then later Alexander, all I wanted was for people to stop treating me like I was fragile. It just reminded me of what I had lost. I thought since you hadn’t said anything to me then you probably wanted the same thing.” “It’s true. No one in town will even talk about my parents anymore. I felt like they were always watching me. The night I met you was the first time in a long time I was around someone who didn’t know about what had happened. It was refreshing knowing you didn’t know. I wasn’t ready for that to end. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” “I understand, and there’s no need to apologize. After all, I wasn’t really honest with you the first time we met either.” And just like he always does, he makes me feel better. “That’s true. Mister hi my name is Oliver and I’m just a normal guy who travels around the world with money I inherited.” We laugh. “My story could use some work, I know, but I like the name Oliver. Orion, Oliver, I think it works.” “Okay, I’ll give you that one. I’ll try to remember to use Oliver in public.” “That would be good. Nowadays I probably could go by Orion and play it off that my parents were space enthusiasts, but people remember those with unique names and it’s not good to be remembered in our situation.” “I suppose that’s true. Isn’t it hard lying though?” “You get used to it.” Would I have to get used to it too? I’d already been lying to Stacy and I knew I’d have to lie again if Orion and I stayed together. What would I say when it became obvious that he wasn’t aging? Thinking about how hard things would be in a few years I felt my chest tighten. My previous happiness was overshadowed with thoughts of how it would be impossible to stay together. I’d get old and he wouldn’t. I couldn’t just ignore that. “Hey, what’s wrong?” Orion’s worried voice cuts through my dark thoughts. “Oh, it’s nothing.” I shake it off and give him a smile. I could worry about those things later. Right now I just wanted to enjoy being together. “If you say so.” I could tell he didn’t believe me but he doesn’t press me and I’m glad. There are more important things to worry about. Chapter 16 “Oh good, you did come.” Vela hugs me when we step off the elevator. “I thought we might have scared you off.” “I don’t scare easy.” I smile at her. “We’re just waiting for a few others to get here and then the meeting will start. I thought maybe we could sit together if that’s okay.” “I’d love that.” I look over at Orion and he smiles. “Wonderful!” Vela claps her hands and goes to greet another person as they exit the elevator. I look around the penthouse and there must be about a dozen people scattered around the penthouse. Some of them stare in our direction and I move closer to Orion. He wraps his arm around my shoulder and kisses the top of my head. The ones who were staring look away, their unspoken questions answered. A scruffy middle aged man makes his way over to us and shakes Orion’s hand. “It’s good to see you, Orion. I hear you’re responsible for this little meeting, eh?” he says. “Hello, Bootes. Yes I am.” Orion’s tone is neutral as he replies. “Mind telling me why? Not that I don’t enjoy catching up but I was making a rather large investment in New Zealand when I got the summons.” “I’ll explain everything once everyone gets here.” “Fine, fine, but at least introduce me to your lady friend.” Bootes holds out his hand and I shake it. “You must be something because Orion has never brought a girl home before.” “I’m Ailey, it’s nice to meet you.” I smile politely and Bootes clicks his tongue. “Mighty pretty name. I’m Bootes as I’m sure you figured out. Tell me, how did you two meet?” “Maybe if you wait, you will find out,” Orion responds before I can speak. “You sure know how to keep the suspense going. Fine, I’ll wait.” Bootes walks away and I whisper to Orion, “A friend?” “Not really.” Before I can reply, his phone rings. He pulls it out and checks the screen. “It’s Canis. I’ll be right back.” He disappears into a room off of the kitchen. Why he didn’t answer it right here? Maybe he didn’t want the others overhearing his conversation. I wish he hadn’t left me with all these strangers though. I start to move towards Puppis, who’s laughing with another Star in the corner, when a short woman intercepts me. Despite her tiny physique, she has an air about her that stands out. Her long black hair hangs to her waist and her eyes are a crystal shade of blue. Her eyes shift constantly around the room, taking everything in. “Did you hear the music?” she asks. “The music?” I ask, perplexed. I don’t hear any music. “Music,” she says, advancing towards me. “I’m sorry but I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I step back, putting space between us. “Did you hear the music?” she repeats. “I’m sorry but I don’t hear any music.” Her persistence is starting to unnerve me. Her eyes stop their scanning and settle on my face. Her eyes switch to black and silver briefly before returning to ice blue. She quickly turns around. “You heard the music,” she says over her shoulder. I watch as she slowly walks to a couch and sits down. She pulls a blanket from the back of the couch and wraps it around herself. None of the other Stars move to talk to her. The noise of the elevator distracts me from the music lady. I look over and see Taurus, Virgo, and Leo being greeted by Vela. I make eye contact with Leo and before I can even blink he’s right in front of me. Startled by his Traveling, I stumble back into a table and knock over a lamp. Leo deftly catches the lamp before it hits the floor. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he says, returning the lamp to its place. “It’s okay, I just haven’t gotten used to how you guys move sometimes.” I take a deep breath and calm my heart rate. “I didn’t expect to see you here. Are you an Elite too?” “I wish,” he laughs. “Taurus and Virgo are. I just tagged along.” “I get the sense you like to be in on the action.” “You’d be right.” We stand next to each other and quietly observe the crowd. My eyes go back to the woman wrapped in the blanket on the couch. Our odd interaction is still on my mind. “Hey Leo, who is that girl on the couch?” I point her out to him. “That’s Lyra. She’s an odd one.” “Why is that?” “Her powers have to do with prophecy.” “So she can tell the future?” “In a way. The only time she can do it is when she plays music.” “Music,” I whisper. What did she mean earlier? “Yeah. It’s the only way she communicates as well. She can share her visions through music if she wants. She sticks to herself most the time. Occasionally she will ask about the music but that’s pretty much it.” “Is there a reason why?” “Probably has to do with her being mute before she got her powers.” “Why would her powers only allow her to speak a few words?” “There’s no reason they would. I think she can say more, she just chooses not to.” I watch Lyra sitting alone on the couch. You’d think someone who used to be mute would jump at the chance to talk. Despite sitting alone in a room full of people, she doesn’t strike me as someone who is lonely. She seems thoughtful, sitting there wrapped in a blanket. I notice that she’s drumming on her knee with her fingers. “Why are you interested in Lyra?” Leo asks, drawing me back to the conversation. “Just curious. She asked me if I’d heard the music.” “That could have just been her way of saying hi. It’s not everyday Orion gets a girlfriend.” I turn and look at him in surprise. How did he know? Leo smiles sadly. “You smell like him. I’d never mistake that unique mixture of dirt and leaves.” I turn away and look in the direction Orion went. “Yeah, I’m with Orion.” “He’s very lucky to have someone as special as you.” “Thank you.” Leo straightens the cuff links on his sleeves, I notice they are little lion heads, and starts to walk away. After a few steps he stops. Without turning around, he addresses me. “My offer still stands. If you ever need me, just call.” Without waiting for a reply, he goes and stands with Virgo and Taurus. My hair momentarily blows around and I turn to see Vela standing next to me. “It’s time.” She leads me by the arm over to a loveseat a little apart from the group where we sit down. Puppis comes over and sits with us, sandwiching me between the two of them. He smiles at me before giving his attention to Orion who has just come out of the room. He walks over and the other Elites settle in for the meeting. Some sit on the couches while others stand. A little girl, no more than ten years old, perches on the back of one of the couches. I’m debating asking Vela who she is when she whispers in my ear. “That’s Crux. Don’t let her age fool you, she’s not to be messed with,” she cautions. Crux, the Southern Cross. So she’s an Elite then. I look at the others and notice they are a variety of ages. Most look between twenty and forty with Crux as the exception. Since they don’t age, they all must have died at the ages they are now. It’s hard to imagine that at one time all these people died and came back. I look around at Orion, Vela, Leo, even Crux. They shouldn’t be alive but by a stroke of chance they are. It could have been someone else’s soul that got stuck but it was theirs. I wonder if any of them wishes their soul hadn’t been the one to get stuck. Wanting to think about something else, I lean over to Vela. “This is how they meet?” I ask her. I had imagined a dark room with chairs around a table but this is far from it. It seems more like a party than a meeting of powerful Star beings. “It’s not very grand but this is how it’s been for the last thousand years. Gatherings used to be more formal but things change with time.” I nod my understanding and turn to face Orion who just started addressing the Elites. “As you can see, Canis Major is not here,” he begins. “He is currently searching for Draco. We had hoped he would find him in time to be here but he hasn’t located him yet.” “Why is Draco needed?” A man interrupts. He’s dressed in cowboy boots and jeans with a plaid shirt. “Centaurus,” Vela whispers to me. Orion stares coolly at the group before speaking. “If you all give me a moment I will explain everything.” He waits but no one says anything more so he continues. “About a week ago Alexander showed up. He approached me while I ate lunch with Ailey,” he nods towards me, “who I had just recently met and acted aggressively; although no more than what is normally expected from a Black Hole. With our history though I decided to be cautious and watch over her just in case. Later that night he somehow slipped past me and made it into the house and attacked her. When I realized this, I Traveled into the house where I proceeded to deal with him without the use of my powers.” “I’m getting bored, Orion,” Crux flips her hair in annoyance as she speaks. “Boohoo Alexander beat up your girlfriend. What’s the point of this? We can’t punish him more than he’s already been.” Shocked at her blowing off the situation I look at Orion but his face is calm. “Since you seem so impatient I will speak plainly. Alexander has one if not all of his powers back.” The Elites erupt into a flurry of voices. “That’s impossible!” “How do you know this?” “What does this mean?” “Do they all have their powers back?” “This is bad for us.” “We’ll just have to kill them then.” Orion raises his voice to be heard over them. “That’s not all. He has a new power. One that I’ve never seen before.” The Elites quiet down and watch as Orion removes his shirt. A wave of silence hits the room when they see the veins which now span from his arm to his chest. “After making me use my powers, Alexander did this. It started on my forearm and it spreads every day. I’m still able to use my powers and it doesn’t hurt except for a slight ache every once in a while. I don’t think I need to tell you how serious the situation is. Whatever this is, it could be detrimental to us all.” The Elites sit in stunned silence. Even Crux looks concerned as she chews on her fingernail and looks at Orion. Carina breaks the silence. “I can’t sense anything from them either.” “So then it’s not harming him?” A girl with light brown hair and light brown eyes asks. “Don’t be stupid Auriga, of course it’s harming him,” Crux spits at her. “Wait, she may be right. If Carina doesn’t sense it then it doesn’t have a negative effect on his body,” Bootes comments. “Well, it’s certainly doing something,” Centaurus adds. “But what?” Bootes inquires. They go silent again as they think. “We should report that Orion is not the only case of this,” Virgo pipes up. Taurus adds, “A Singular came to us with the same thing only to disappear. We haven’t been able to find him.” “Other Singulars have apparently been going missing as well. I think it’s safe to assume that they had the veins too,” Orion adds. “Have bodies been found?” another Elite asks softly. This is the first time I’ve heard her speak. She reminds me of someone but I can’t put my finger on it. “None that match their descriptions,” Taurus responds. “Draco would really come in handy right about now,” Centaurus grumbles. “Canis Major is doing his best but as you all know Draco’s been off the grid for some time,” Orion says. “Eridanus, could you use the rivers to locate him?” Bootes asks a man wearing a green “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” t-shirt. I notice he isn’t wearing any shoes. “We want to find Draco, not Hydra. Draco was more inclined to take to the air than to the water,” Eridanus replies. “Aquila?” the same girl who asked about the bodies asks. The Elites turn to look at a woman in a gold dress. She has a graceful air about her and I notice a string of feathers around her neck. “I haven’t sensed him on the air currents but I will if he does choose to fly,” she says. “Guess we’ll just have to wait until he shows up then,” Crux says. “We can’t just wait around. We have to stop Alexander,” Carina declares. “How do you propose we do that?” Cruz sneers. “She’s right,” Bootes says, “even if we knew where he was, we can’t use our powers. Not unless we want to end up like Orion.” “We don’t know how it works. Maybe he can only infect one person at a time,” Aquila suggests. “Are you willing to take that chance?” Crux asks. “Why is he doing this? What does he hope to achieve?” Centaurus asks. “I don’t know. He didn’t give any reason before disappearing,” Orion informs them. He turns towards Lyra who’s still drumming on her knee. “Lyra, do you have anything that could help us?” Lyra’s hand freezes over her knee. She slowly shakes her head no before continuing the drumming. The other Elites don’t look surprised. I wonder how much control she has over her powers. It seems like she can’t control what she sees, otherwise she’d be able to at least give us Alex’s possible location in the future. Maybe her visions aren’t clear. “I think I know,” Auriga says. “How so?” Orion looks at her. “After we decided not to take action against Alexander when he took his revenge, he came to me. He wanted to know if it was possible to preserve a human body for an indefinite amount of time,” she explains. “Why?” Eridanus asks. “I assumed for his wife and child. Since I’ve traveled all over the world I’ve observed many ways of preserving the dead but I’m not an expert. I told him this and gave him a few ideas but he said none of them were what he was looking for. He seemed quite determined though.” “What did he mean an indefinite amount of time?” Virgo asks. The rest of Elite shrug but Orion looks troubled. Thinking that Alex was talking about keeping the bodies from decomposing, a thought comes to mind. “Could he want to bring them back?” I whisper to Vela. Apparently I wasn’t very quiet because Crux directed her next words towards me. “That’s impossible, human.” She spits the word human like it left a bad taste in her mouth. Not willing to be bullied by her I retort, “From the sounds of it, Alex getting his powers back was impossible before a week ago as well.” She glares at me and I hold her gaze. She might look like a little girl but she is anything but. “The girl has a point, Crux,” Centaurus says. Crux huffs and flips her hair before breaking eye contact. I wipe the nervous sweat off my hands. Outwardly I remain composed but I can’t believe I just challenged Crux like that. She could probably make ribbons out of me without blinking an eye but that doesn’t give her the right to treat people like garbage. Even her fellow Elites she treats maliciously. “You really showed her,” Vela whispers to me. I turn towards her and she is smiling widely at me. Something bumps my arm and I turn to see Puppis giving me a thumbs up. Orion is smiling proudly at me as well. Their support warms my heart and I feel at ease knowing they have my back. “Let’s assume that he actually found a way to bring them back. What would he need?” Bootes asks. “Their bodies,” Auriga answers. “And their souls,” Aquila adds. “How would he get their souls back?” Eridanus asks. “First he would have to find them, and who is the best soul tracker of all of us?” Centaurus asks. He looks at Orion. “I am,” Orion answers. The group all stare at him. “The black veins must have a connection with that then,” Carina pieces together. “Maybe they allow him to use your power?” “That would explain how he got his powers back,” Bootes exclaims. “He must be using them to access Stars’ powers.” “That must be it,” Centaurus rubs his temples. “Let’s just hope Draco knows how to get rid of them. Alexander cannot be allowed to resurrect his family. It goes against the laws of nature and who knows what kind of effects it would have.” A little hypocritical from someone who technically was brought back to life, if you ask me. “Also what’s the point of punishment if Black Holes can get their powers back?” Crux says. “Word gets out and all the Black Holes will be after us and I for one am not sharing my power with anybody.” “Agreed.” The Elite all nod together. “I think the best thing to do is wait until we find Draco, then we can fix Orion before going after Alexander,” Taurus proposes. Everyone agrees to wait until Draco can be found. Eridanus and Aquila decide to join Canis in the hunt while the rest stay in the city. After the meeting I’m waiting for Orion to finish talking with Centaurus when one of the Elite comes up to me. It’s the soft spoken girl that seemed strangely familiar. I realize that I wasn’t able to figure out her name during the meeting. “I wanted to introduce myself properly,” she starts. “I’m Canis Minor. Most people call me Mindy.” It hits me then that who she reminds me of, is Canis. The hair is the same color and they have similar facial features. Her eyes are a lighter brown than Canis’s though. “Oh it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I say, shaking her hand, “You and Canis must be related.” “He’s my brother,” she says with a smile. “They had mentioned you but I didn’t know you were actually related. You look a lot alike.” “It stops at looks I’m afraid,” she laughs. It’s quiet, like you’d expect to hear in a library. “Canis is much more the outgoing party type. I tend to stay close to home.” “I know what you mean. The first time I met him we were actually at a party.” Seems like forever ago now. “That’s my brother for you. Hope he was well behaved. He has a tendency to be bad mannered.” “Actually he was. I enjoyed the time we spent getting to know one another. He and Orion are so close; it’s odd Canis not being next to him.” “They’ve been together since the beginning. Even after most of us split up, they stuck together, never going far for very long. I think they hold each other together in a way.” She looks towards Orion thoughtfully. I think back on all the times I watched Orion and Canis together. “I think I know exactly what you mean.” Orion turns to look at us and he smiles. He says goodbye to Centaurus and walks over to us, giving Mindy a hug when he reaches us. “How’ve you been, Mindy? Jimmy still treating you right?” he asks. “Always,” she says with that quiet laugh again. “He just finished renovating the library for me. He said it would be easier moving our stuff into an actual library than to try and keep expanding ours.” “Jimmy?” I ask questioningly. “My husband,” she says. “We’ve been together five years now.” “Congratulations,” I say. “Is he, um, one of you?” I stumble awkwardly trying to be polite. “No, he’s human.” Orion had said relationships between Stars and humans weren’t uncommon but I didn’t expect to meet someone in one so soon. “Maybe you two will visit one day? I know Jimmy would love to talk to someone who’s in the same shoes he is.” She smiles at us. “I think that’s a great idea,” Orion says. He grabs my hand and squeezes it. I nod. “I’d like that.” They’ve been together for five years. It would be nice to see how they acted and maybe even ask their advice on some things. There are a lot of questions I still have on how a relationship like this works. “I should probably be getting my human home,” Orion says. Thank goodness because I’m exhausted. “Do you want to meet up with us tomorrow? See if we can get you more books to fill up the new space you have?” Mindy smiles and nods her head excitedly. “I’ll let Jimmy know it’s your fault when I bring home more books.” The three of us say goodbye to the Siblings and head down in the elevator. As we exit the elevator, we’re intercepted. Lyra stands in front of us with her arms wrapped tightly around her body. Her fingers drum on her arms this time and she stares intently at Orion. “The music,” she says to him. “Do I need to hear the music?” he asks. “The music,” she repeats. “Go ahead, we’ll listen,” he says but Lyra shakes her head. “Music,” she insists, stopping her drumming to point at Orion. It seems like she only wants him to hear the music. I look questioningly at Mindy and let go of Orion’s hand. “I’ll wait for you in the car,” I say. “You shouldn’t-” Orion starts to argue. “I can wait with her,” Mindy offers. “Thank you,” he says to her. Orion hands me the keys and we leave the two of them in the lobby. On our way to the car I ask Mindy what she thinks that was all about. “I’m not sure. Lyra’s powers are hard on her. It could be she just didn’t want to use a lot of it to show all three of us what she knows. Or maybe it’s something only Orion can know. Dealing with knowledge of the future is tricky business.” “During the meeting it didn’t seem like you were surprised she didn’t give any information.” “We weren’t. She rarely shares her music. I think the last time she did was before the war. She tried to warn us but many just wrote her off. Add that to some of the more greedy Stars trying to use her to their own advantage and it’s no wonder she prefers to be alone.” “That’s sad. She shouldn’t be alone.” “I agree.” We reach the car and I turn towards Mindy. “Thanks for walking me but I think I’ll be-” “Look out!” Mindy shoves me to the ground as a dark figure leaps over the car. The figure misses me but lands on top of Mindy. They fall to the ground. The figure is covered head to toe in black clothing, a mask covering their face. The masked figure grabs Mindy’s head and slams it into the pavement. There’s a loud, sickening crunch. “Mindy!” I get up to help her but I’m grabbed from behind. “Let go of me!” I try to scream but whoever it is covers my mouth. I kick and struggle but the arms holding me are too strong. They start to drag me away and I’m helpless as I watch the other one keep slamming Mindy’s head against the asphalt. Blood coats the ground around her head and the only movement is from the figure as he lifts her head to bring it back down again. I’m turned around suddenly and thrown into a van. The one who grabbed me jumps in after me and covers my mouth again. The other one leaves Mindy and gets into the van before slamming the door. The van starts to move but I don’t stop fighting. I kick out at the other one’s face and connect with their nose. I feel it crack and I know I’ve broken their nose. I reach up and try to claw at the one holding me but Broken Nose recovers and pins my arms to my sides. The other one uses his free hand and injects something into my neck. I keep thrashing but soon I start to lose control over my limbs. My vision gets fuzzy and I lose consciousness. Chapter 17 I wake up strapped to a gurney. There’s an IV attached to my arm leading to what looks like a bag of blood. I look around the room and there’s lab equipment scattered around on metal tables. Standing next to one of the tables is a man. I try to suppress my panic when I notice the black hair. As if sensing my eyes on him he looks up at me. “Awake already?” he sneers as he walks towards me. Black eyes rake over me. I struggle against the straps but they don’t give even a little bit. He touches my face and I jerk away. “Don’t be rude now,” he purrs as he checks the bag attached to my IV. “What are you giving me?” I demand. “Alex’s blood.” He leans over me and smiles. “Why?” “I’m sure Alex wants to explain it to you.” He leans down to sniff my hair. “Mmm, you smell like sunshine.” I try and turn away but he grabs my chin. His fingers dig painfully into my skin. “I wonder how much of you Alex really needs,” he whispers in my ear. He lets go of my face and brings his face in front of mine. “After all, I deserve a reward for all my hard work.” My head being the only thing I can move, I slam my forehead into his nose as hard as I can. It hurts like hell but the howl of pain from him makes it worth it. “Dammit,” he yells. Blood pours from between his fingers as he holds his nose. Laughter draws my attention to the doorway. “I can see why Orion likes you so much,” Alex walks into the room and stands next to me. “Don’t feel bad Jack. She got one of the guys last night too.” He looks down at me. “What’s with you and noses?” “Wanna find out?” I challenge him. “Break my nose and I’ll let Jack show you how he got his name.” He laughs darkly. “Ailey, meet Jack the Ripper.” My face must have betrayed my surprise because he laughs again. “A mystery of history solved for ya. His actions were what got him a permanent membership to the Black Hole club.” He looks over at Jack. “Is she done?” “Yeah,” he replies while holding a towel to his nose. “Good.” Alex takes the IV out of my arm. “Why are you giving me your blood?” “Come on, I’ll show you.” He undoes the straps on my wrists and ankles. He offers me his hand and I reluctantly take it since I’m still feeling dizzy from whatever it is they gave me in the van. He helps me off the gurney and I follow him out of the room. We walk down a hallway lined with rooms. All the rooms have locks on the outside with little windows looking in. I look into one of them but it’s empty. “Where are we?” I ask Alex. “A mental hospital. You’ll see why.” He smiles over his shoulder at me. I know there’s no way I can outrun him so I decide to follow him. He takes me down another hallway and up a flight of stairs. About halfway down this hallway he stops in front of a door. He motions for me to come closer. Cautiously I move to stand next to him and look into the room. Unlike the other room, this one has furniture. It isn’t in very good shape though. The mattress is halfway off the bed and the nightstand is smashed in the corner. I start to ask what this is supposed to mean when a face appears in the window. I scream and jump back. The person in the room slams their hands against the door. I slowly move closer and see it’s a man but his eyes look crazed. He continues to pound on the door. “What is this?” I ask, staring at the man in the window. Alex motions to the next door and I look through the window. This one is neat but the walls are covered in red writing. There’s a woman frantically writing on the floor. Her hands are covered in red paint. She stands up and I notice cuts going up her arm and I realize it isn’t paint at all. “I don’t understand,” I whisper as I continue to watch in horror as the woman writes in her own blood. “These are some of my experiments. These humans received blood transfusions from me. The same blood that now runs through your veins. Drove them a bit batty I’m afraid.” “Why?” I continue to whisper. “I’ll spare you the long explanation but it has to do with the state of my soul. Humans have always been afraid of the dark and I’m a Black Hole, as dark as you can get. What do you think happens when that darkness starts coursing through your brain?” “So I’m going to be like them?” I don’t know what would be worse, death at the hands of Jack or this. “Eventually. Thought it would pay to have some insurance incase things don’t go the way I want them to. If Orion escapes with you, well, you won’t be you for very long.” “What is it you want?” I turn and yell at him. “At this moment? Orion’s powers.” He smiles innocently and I’m tempted to hit him. “Don’t you already have those?” “Who on earth told you that?” He laughs. I glare and refuse to answer. “I see the all mighty Elite still have no clue what is going on,” he leans down, putting his face in front of mine, “since it doesn’t matter, I’ll tell you. The black veins I put into Orion are actually absorbing his soul. When I call them back I will have his soul and in effect his powers.” “That’s impossible. Constellations’ and Singulars’ souls aren’t in their bodies.” Orion had told me and I believed him more than this lunatic in front of me. “Tell that to the nine Singulars who’s souls I’ve already absorbed.” He smiles and I can see joy in his black eyes. The joy of a child who got exactly what they wanted for Christmas. “Did Orion tell you about the tiny soul fragment that each Star has to connect them with their souls? Well, I take it, and when I do I take their connection to their souls and their powers, allowing me to harvest as many powers as I want. Pretty neat, huh?” “Not the word I’d use to describe it.” “Well, some can’t appreciate it like I do. Maybe you’d feel different if the soul I was about to steal was someone else’s.” “No matter whose soul it is, if it isn’t yours, you have no right to it.” “Agree to disagree,” he says with a shrug. “Any who, we’ll soon see what happens. I have a feeling things will play out within the next few days.” “How do you know he’ll even find me? I assume you didn’t just call him up and invite him over.” “Oh, he’ll find you. Despite my blood muddying your soul, he’ll come. He is Orion the Hunter after all, and you my dear, make excellent prey.” Chapter 18 It’s been two days since Alex told me his plans to get Orion’s powers. Afterwards he locked me in a room and I haven’t seen him since. Twice a day a Black Hole brings me something to eat. It’s a different one each time and they never say anything to me. Thankfully Jack hasn’t been one of them. I spend most of my time sleeping and looking out the window. I had hoped it would give me an idea as to where I was but all I could see were trees. Sitting on the bed, I recall Alex’s words. Not only is he going to steal Orion’s soul and powers but his blood is going to make me lose my mind. I think back through everything I’ve thought about and done, looking for any indication that I’ve changed, but I come up with nothing. I don’t feel different but I wonder if you notice when you lose your mind. Maybe it’s a gradual process or maybe it happens overnight, either way it’s always there, in the back of my mind. I’m starting to think maybe what will drive me crazy is waiting for me to go crazy. I’m picking at my nail polish when someone enters my room. Again, it’s a Black Hole I haven’t seen before. How many of them are there? This one looks about my age, maybe a little older. He’s tall but looks thinner than the other Black Holes I’ve seen. He keeps his head down, his hair covering his face, as he places the tray of food on my nightstand. As he turns to leave I catch a glimpse of his face. Bruises cover the right side of it, stretch down his neck, and disappear down the neckline of his shirt. I’ve seen bruises like that, everyone who went to my school had seen those bruises, on Matt Hanson. “Wait,” I call out without thinking. He freezes with his hand on the door but slowly turns to look at me. With the other Black Holes, their black eyes make it hard to tell what they are feeling but looking at his I know. He’s broken. Matt hadn’t been broken. His friends made sure of that. But this one before me has been broken a long time. “Uh, thank you,” I tell him. I want to help him but I don’t know how. He’s so quiet I almost don’t catch his words as he walks out the door, “You’re welcome.” Later that day, I’m looking out the window counting birds when I hear the door open. I turn around and am surprised when it’s the same Black Hole as this morning. That’s odd; I wonder why they sent the same one. Just like this morning, he keeps his head down as he quietly delivers my food. As he’s leaving I tell him thank you. Unlike this morning he doesn’t say anything as he leaves my room. ------------------------------------------------- The next morning I’m surprised again when he brings my food. He’s in such a hurry though he practically runs out of the room after setting my food down. I wonder what that was all about. I reach for my food but something is different this morning. Lying on the tray is also a deck of cards. Did he leave these for me? Bursting with excitement I quickly shuffle the cards and lay out a game of solitaire. I spend the rest of the day playing card games and building card houses. When he comes again in the evening I instantly thank him for the cards. He doesn’t say anything but he does nod his head at me. The next morning he brings me a book and this becomes our new routine. Every morning he brings me something new. They help keep my mind from dwelling on my situation. I start to look forward to seeing him every day. I know he is supposed to be my enemy but I feel like we are alike. The bruises and the look in his eyes make me think he is prisoner like I am, just a different kind. If Orion does end up finding me then I want to make sure he gets out too. Hopefully I haven’t lost all my marbles by then. On the seventh day of being here I wait patiently for him to come. I’m eager to see what he brings me today. Yesterday he brought me some paper that I made origami cranes out of. It was the only thing I could remember how to make besides paper airplanes. When he came in the evening I had given him one and it was the first time I had seen him smile. After seeing him smile, I decided to ask him his name. “Daniel,” he had said softly. I didn’t know if he knew my name or not so I said, “I’m Ailey.” After that he left, holding the little paper crane. The door opens and I don’t hold back the smile that appears on my face. It quickly dies though when I see that it isn’t Daniel. A woman Black Hole walks in holding my tray of food. She tosses it on the nightstand and starts to leave without giving me a second glance. “Excuse me, but-” I try and stop her but she whips around angrily. “Know your place, human,” she spits at me. I shut up and watch her leave. Where is Daniel? Is he busy or did he get in trouble for bringing me things? He didn’t act like it was a secret that he brought me things. He hadn’t hid them when he brought them to me. I try to occupy my mind by reading but I can’t focus. My mind keeps going back to Daniel. I feel so helpless. I’m worried about Daniel and there’s nothing I can do. I spend the rest of the day pacing around my room. Evening comes around and I sit, fidgeting on my bed. It was nearing the time they normally bring me dinner. The clock on the wall slowly ticks by. Finally, an hour past the normal time, my door opens and Daniel walks in. I sigh in relief. “There you are. I was worried about you.” He doesn’t look at me as he sets the food down. “Daniel?” He continues to ignore me and goes to leave the room. “Daniel, wait!” I stand up and grab his arm to stop him. That was a mistake. He flinches and I know immediately what a grabbed arm means to him. I let go and apologize. “It’s not your fault,” he whispers. He turns to face me and my heart breaks. A cut stretching across his face and over his nose has been stitched shut. Finger like bruises wrap around his neck and a bandage is peeking out from under his shirt. The bruises I saw the first day have been replaced with fresh ones. “Who did this to you?” I ask him. He just stands there looking at his feet. “Was it because of me?” He shakes his head no. “Does this happen a lot?” He goes back to looking at his feet. “You know you can trust me, right?” He shakes his head yes. “If you want to talk, I’m here. It’s not like I’m going anywhere you know.” I try to lighten the mood with a joke but he just keeps staring at his feet. “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He nods his head and goes to leave. “Good night.” I say to his retreading back. He doesn’t reply or look back as he leaves. Chapter 19 “Ailey, wake up. Ailey.” Someone is whispering and shaking my shoulder. I slowly open my eyes. It takes a while for them to focus in the dark. “Daniel?” Daniel stands over me looking panicked. He’s wearing a black coat and has another one in his hand. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” I sit up and he shoves the coat at me. “They’re coming,” he looks towards the door as he whispers. “What?” “Please come on!” I don’t understand what’s going on but his panic is enough to spur me into action. I get out of bed and put on the coat. I follow Daniel to the door and he checks to make sure the hallway is empty. He takes my hand and we slowly make our way out of the room and down the hallway. The hallway is pitch black but Daniel seems to know exactly where he’s going. We reach the stairs and carefully make our way down. Once we reach the bottom we turn left and head down another hallway. We reach a set of doors and I can see outside through the windows. Daniel goes to open them but they don’t budge. “No,” he whispers in defeat. Just then the lights turn on and I’m momentarily blinded. When I can see again I notice a figure at the end of the hallway. It’s Alex. “Tsk tsk Daniel. Don’t you know anything about loyalty?” Alex walks towards us. “The brat has anyways needed lessons in behaving,” a voice behind us says. Daniel flinches at the voice and I turn to see Jack closing in on us. “This was my plan,” Daniel says, looking at his feet. “Punish me.” “Daniel,” I exclaim, shocked at his words. “I’m sure Jack will punish you properly,” Alex stops in front of us. “Ailey hasn’t been the best bait though. Have someone bring Acheros. “No!” Daniel yells, looking up from his feet. “You can’t! It will kill her!” “It’s certainly the most probable outcome,” Alex laughs. “Take her.” Jack reaches for me but Daniel shoves him away. “Please don’t do this,” he pleads. Jack backhands Daniel across the face. “You ungrateful brat,” Jack grabs Daniel around the throat and shoves him into the wall. “How many times do I have to teach you a lesson?” Daniel claws at his hand as he struggles to breathe. I try to go to his aide but Alex grabs my arm and drags me down the hallway. His hand is like a vice and I can’t get loose. Behind me, Jack drags Daniel by the hair. They take us to the lab where I came to after being kidnapped. Alex tries to strap me to the gurney but I struggle with all my might. I don’t know what they’re going to do to me but I know it’s not good. Jack drops Daniel to the floor and helps Alex strap me down. A Black Hole stands off to the side, he says something to her and she scurries off. “What are you going to do to me?” Alex fiddles with a tray of scalpels, not paying me any attention. “Alexander!” I use his full name and his hand freezes over the tray. He turns and looks at me. “I’m going to make you one of my experiments,” he says coldly. Fear chills me to the bone and I struggle uselessly against the restraints. “You see, I want my family back,” he continues, “but bringing them back is the easy part. The hard part is keeping them. As humans they will eventually die and I’ll be left alone again. All these years I’ve searched for a way to make a human into a Star. That’s what I plan to do to you.” “Is that even possible?” I ask, bewildered. “In theory, yes, but the human body isn’t built to sustain multiple soul connections and if that wasn’t hard enough to deal with, your bodies aren’t adapted to having the abilities we have either. So far none of the test subjects have survived.” “So why try it on me if you think it will kill me? I thought you were using me to lure Orion here, I can’t do that if I’m dead.” “You poor thing,” Alex’s look of fake sympathy turns my stomach, “if he hasn’t come for you by now, he never will.” I try to argue but I can’t. I’ve been a prisoner here for a week. I didn’t think Alex was doing anything to hide where we were so why hadn’t they found me yet? I don’t know exactly how Orion’s soul tracking works but I can’t imagine it would take this long. “Aw, it isn’t so bad,” Alex says cheerfully. “On the bright side the chances of you surviving and going crazy are very slim.” I refuse to look at him as he mocks me. Daniel lies on the floor watching helplessly. I wish there was some way I could protect him from Jack but I don’t think I’ll be around much longer. The Black Hole Jack spoke to returns pushing someone in a wheelchair. He appears to be sedated. Jack takes him from the girl and dismisses her. He then wheels the man next to me. Jack moves away and Alex takes his place. “With my blood in you I can pass the soul to you instead of me. Now you have to admit that that is pretty neat.” I notice black veins on the man in the wheelchair. I can’t help but wonder who he is. What kind of person is he? Does he have a family? “What will happen to him?” I ask, still looking at the man in the wheelchair. Alex laughs. “You should be more worried about what will happen to you.” Alex takes ahold of the man’s forearm and the veins start to move. “Stop!” Alex turns around at the sound of Daniel’s voice only to be tackled to the floor by him. Daniel gets in a few punches before he’s ripped off by Jack. Jack throws him onto one of the tables, shattering glass vials and knocking over lab equipment. Before Daniel can scramble away, Jack drags him to the floor. Jack straddles him, holding his throat with one hand and a scalpel with the other. Daniel thrashes around trying to escape. As Jack runs the scalpel down his face, Daniel’s scream rips through the air. “Stop it!” I struggle against the straps binding me but it’s still useless, “Alex, make him stop!” “No.” He wipes blood from the corner of his mouth. “Do what you want with me but leave him alone!” Tears fall down my cheeks as I listen to Daniel’s screams. Alex turns his back to me. I scream at his back. “What do you think your family would say if they saw you now, huh? You think they’d condone what you’re doing? What you’ve done?” “Shut up!” Alex hits me and pain radiates across my face. He grabs the man’s arm again and the veins start to move towards his hand. Alex lifts his hand and the veins follow like little black snakes dancing through the air. He guides them over to me and when he touches my arm the black veins slide over my wrist. He lets go and they continue to work their way up my arm, transferring to me from man in the wheelchair. Then they start to sink into my skin and the pain starts. The pain is so intense I can barely breathe. I want to scream but I can’t. It feels like shards of ice are scraping through my veins. My skin feels like it’s trying to remove itself from my body. I feel like I’m being torn apart. I try to block it out. I focus on images of my parents, my friends, Orion, but the pain burns them away. All I can think about is the pain. For a brief moment I think I hear Orion’s voice but the pain washes it away. The only thing I’m able to hang onto is my name. I repeat it over and over again like a mantra. Ailey. Ailey. Ailey. Ailey. I feel something brush my hands and feet. Suddenly I get the sensation of falling then I feel arms around me. I fight against the pain and open my eyes. Orion is cradling me in his arms. I’m able to feel a moment of happiness that he came for me before the pain sweeps it away. He sets me on the floor and I curl into a ball. “What did you do to her?” I hear Orion ask. “Tried to make her one of us, sadly it looks like it’s killing her. It’s a shame; I was really hoping it would work this time.” “Why?” “Because either way it works to my advantage. If she lives then I’m one step closer to getting my family back, if she dies then you get to know how it feels to be too late to save those you care about.” “Don’t blame me for you not being able to protect your family.” “I don’t just blame you. I blame all of you. If you had kept doing your duty, the one we fought a war over, they would still be alive! You let humans just do as they please.” I don’t know if the pain is getting better or if I’m getting used to it but I’m able to speak. “Orion,” it’s a whisper but he hears me and leans closer while keeping an eye on Alex. I have to warn him. “Don’t let him touch you. He’s going to steal your-” a pain in my chest stops me from finishing. “Shh, it’s okay. Draco figured it all out.” He moves my hair out of my face. His gentle touch a sharp contrast to the pain I feel. “You found him?” I manage to get all the words out this time. “We did. Oh Ailey, I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner.” His eyes speak of the guilt he feels. “Buy me a maple bar and I’ll forgive you,” I try and smile but the pain has me curling into a ball again. “You’ll be okay. Just hang in there.” I nod weakly in response. He presses something into my hand and I feel the familiar shape of my mother’s locket and my father’s ring. I clench my fist tightly around them, thinking if maybe I just hold onto these I can hold on through the pain. “Touching,” Alex says, “but you’re sickeningly optimistic.” “I’m going to kill you over this.” Orion advances towards Alex. “Funny, I’ve been planning on killing you for years,” Alex responds. Orion Morphs and pulls his sword. Alex laughs and blue light radiates from his hands. There’s a moment of absolute calm before Orion launches himself at Alex. Alex makes a force field out of the blue light and blocks Orion’s attack. Orion Travels behind him but Alex manages to avoid the swing of his blade. They move around the room exchanging blows, each one blocking the other. I’ve never seen Orion use his full powers and I watch as the full force of who he is plays out before my eyes. This is the Orion that has lived thousands of years, the one who has survived countless battles, and it’s captivating. He moves with smooth, effortless grace. His sword and body all tightly in tuned with each other, every swing in sync with each breath. Orion lunges and I think he misses completely but as he’s passing Alex he slams the hilt of his sword into his face. There’s a loud crack and Orion swings his foot and connects with his chest. The force of the kick sends Alex flying through the wall and Orion jumps through after him. The sounds of fighting gradually get quieter. I try and crawl but the movement causes a sharp pain through my skull. I’ve never felt this much pain before. All I want is for it to end but it keeps scraping through my body. A hand touches my shoulder and I look up to see Daniel crouched over me. He’s covered in cuts and his shirt is soaked with blood. “Daniel,” my throat feels like sand paper. Silently he scoops me up in his arms and stands up. Despite his injuries and all the blood he’s lost, he manages to stay on his feet. He must be in a lot of pain but still he slowly makes his way out into the hallway. Sounds of fighting can be heard to the right and he takes me in the opposite direction. I wouldn’t have thought he had the strength to carry me but he never falters once, only stopping to rest against the wall occasionally. We almost make it to the corner when a huge dog blocks our path. Blood drips from its muzzle and its lips are pulled back in a snarl. Daniel tries to back away but the dog growls louder. I would think it’s a wolf if it didn’t look so dog like. It’s then I realize who it is. “Canis.” As I speak, Canis’s ears perk up but he doesn’t stop growling. “Friend,” I say, nodding towards Daniel. Canis seems to understand and he stops growling. He Morphs into his human form and takes my hand. “What’s wrong with her?” he asks Daniel. “Alex put a Singular’s soul into her,” he answers. “Is she going to be okay?” Canis worriedly rubs my hand. “I don’t know,” Daniel says while looking down at me. “Some have held out for days before but…” he doesn’t finish his sentence but Canis knows what he’s saying. Some have kept fighting for days but eventually they’ve all died. Canis gives me one final look before his face becomes unreadable. “You carry her and I’ll fight.” Daniel nods and Canis Morphs back into the wolfdog. Daniel follows closely behind him. “Where’d,” I take a moment, “Jack?” The last I saw him he was attacking Daniel but he had been gone when Daniel took me out of the lab. “I don’t know.” Something flashes in Daniel’s eyes but it’s gone a second later, replaced with determination. “I’m going to get you out of here,” he promises. I nod and close my eyes. I feel numb. I don’t know if that’s because my body is giving up or if it’s just another phase before more pain comes but I’m grateful for the reprieve. Canis leads us to a door which takes us outside. We exit out to what looks like a small yard on the side of the building. I can hear fighting coming from the direction we’re heading but Canis continues to lead us, sticking close to the building. As we round the corner, a battle unfolds before us. There must be about a dozen Stars fighting double that number of Black Holes. It seems like even though they are outnumbered, the Stars are doing a good job at fighting off the Black Holes. These Black Holes must have powers like Alex has otherwise they wouldn’t stand a chance against them. It hits me now that Daniel still must not have any powers; otherwise he probably would have used them or at least be healing. I wonder why because he seems to be the only Black Hole who doesn’t have some kind of power. Canis leaves us at the edge of the building and joins the fight. He weaves through the crowd, giving help to those who need it the most. Daniel gently sets me down on the grass and I lean against the wall to watch the battle. It’s dark but there’s enough light coming from the hospital that I can see. The Stars move so fast that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who. The only one I recognized is a girl with sandy blonde hair surrounded by a vortex of wind. Vela. I look for her siblings but I can’t see either of them. I watch two Black Holes team up against a man with silvery grey hair. He looks about fifty years old. The Black Holes flank him but he stands there calmly. One of them shoots lightening from his hands while the other causes the ground to ripple beneath him. The old man jumps into the air avoiding both attacks and lands lightly on his feet. As two more Black Holes join the fight, the old man is surrounded by flames. The flames curl around him and take the shape of a dragon. When the flames clear a real dragon with black and silver scales stands in the place of the man. He roars and the four Black Holes reel back in surprise. The dragon uses his wings to send gusts of wind shooting towards them at the same time breathing fire. The Black Holes disappear only to reappear behind him. He takes to the air to avoid another attack but one of the Black Holes flies after him and lands on his wing, breaking it. The wing crumbles and before it has time to heal, the Black Hole breaks the other one and the dragon crashes down. I look around and notice the Stars are taking a lot of damage. The Stars are trying to avoid direct contact and because of that they aren’t fighting as well as they should be. They must be afraid of getting the black veins. The only reason they haven’t lost yet is because they heal so fast. Just then a shrill whistle pierces the air. Daniel and I cover our ears and watch as everyone on the battlefield does the same. Then it stops and the shattering of glass rings through the night. Glass rains down and everyone turns to see someone fly through the window. They land hard on the ground and lie still. Two figures jump down from the window and I recognize them as Alex and Jack. My fears are confirmed when I hear Alex speak. “I really expected more from you, Orion. Being around humans so much has made you soft.” I watch as Orion struggles to his feet. Alex throws a punch towards his face but a gust of wind knocks him off balance. Vela stands in front of Orion, Puppis and Carina by her side. Canis appears next to them, lips pulled back in a fierce snarl. A smaller version of Canis stalks forward and I almost cry in relief when I realize it’s Mindy. She survived; it really is hard to kill a Star. Slowly, the Black Holes and Stars stand with their sides; two groups of celestial beings facing off with each other. The only sound is the wind blowing through the trees. Then, as if by some unspoken signal, they race forward and the battle begins again. Everything is chaos. I can’t see Orion or any of the others. It’s like looking at trees in a moving vehicle; they’re gone before you can focus. Trying to catch a glimpse of them I don’t notice the heat at first. My chest feels warm but when I touch it, it feels ice cold. I turn to Daniel. “Daniel I think something’s-” I start to tell him but my words turn into a scream as fire shoots through my body. I wither on the ground clutching at the grass as I scream. My bones feel like they are burning me from the inside out. Daniel tries to help me but reels back in pain when he touches my skin. I desperately scan the crowd for Orion, hoping he can do something to make this burning inside of me stop. I finally find him on the edge of the yard near the forest. He’s fighting off Jack and Alex but three more Black Holes are creeping behind him from the woods. I try to call out to him but it’s too late. The three attack at the same time, sending Orion’s sword flying, giving Alex an opening to grab Orion’s arm. I watch as Orion drops to his knees. Alex laughs as the veins on Orion start to wrap up Alex’s arm. “No!” My screams of pain turn into screams of despair. Suddenly I’m halfway to Orion and picking up his sword. As I pick up the sword I’m surprised by how light it is. I barely feel it in my hand. As I near Orion I see that Alex has almost absorbed all the black veins. Not knowing what else to do I swing the sword down, slicing through Alex’s arm. Alex falls to the ground clutching his severed limb and the remaining veins dissipate. As they disappear so does the sword in my hand. I turn and see Orion is lying on the ground, no longer in his Morphed form. I rush to him but his eyes are closed and he isn’t moving. My physical pain is gone but the pain that threatens to fill me as I look at Orion’s still form hurts just as bad. “Orion? Orion!” I shake him and yell but he doesn’t open his eyes. “Come on, Orion. Wake up!” My voice cracks and so does my heart. The suffocating feeling of loss sweeps over me again. “Please…” My tears gently fall on his face as I hold him. I never told him I loved him. He knew but I never actually said the words. I run my fingers through his hair. “Please don’t leave me,” I cry. “I can’t lose you too.” I touch my forehead to his and whisper, “Stay with me.” I sense the presence of people and look up to see a crowd of Black Holes and Stars staring at me. Their expressions range from horror to amazement. Alex staggers to his feet while cradling his arm. He must have healed because it’s no longer bleeding. His face looks like he’s seen a ghost. “I can’t believe it,” he stammers, “it worked. Jack! Look at her eyes!” His face breaks out in a huge grin and my blood starts to boil. How dare he smile after what he did to Orion? I gently shift Orion off my lap and lay him on ground before standing up. Slowly I advance towards Alex. He looks confused as he backs away from me. “You’re going to pay for all the misery you’ve caused.” Images of all the people he’s hurt play through my mind. The people in the hospital, Daniel, the man in the wheelchair, me, Orion, countless more have suffered because of him and he isn’t going to get away with it. “Now Ailey,” he says, putting his hand out in front of him, “we can talk about this. Maybe even make a deal?” I stop and he looks hopefully at me. I cock my head and laugh. He face falls and I’m suddenly in front of him, grabbing his shirt. His black eyes, the fear they once caused me gone, now fill with fear of their own. Cold spreads from my fingertips, creating a layer of ice across his chest. The temperature drops and his panicked breath fogs in the air. “I don’t want to make a deal,” I say under my breath. “Jack,” he yells over my shoulder. “Don’t just stand there, get her!” Arms grab me from behind but they release immediately. “Gah, she’s freezing!” Jack looks at his frostbitten arms like he can’t believe they are actually his. I stare over my shoulder at him. “Good. I wanted to talk to you too.” I slam my heel into Alex’s knee, shattering it, before throwing him to the side and lunging at Jack. I want to save Alex for last. I grab Jack’s wrist and jerk it to the side. It gives a satisfying crack as it breaks. My body acts on instinct as I land blow after blow. Between the cold, and my attacks, he doesn’t have time to react. As I knock him to the ground something hits me from behind. I go flying and land hard on my side. Pain laces through my ribs but quickly disappears. Frost covers the grass beneath me, twinkling in the moonlight. I look up to see Alex pointing his glowing blue hand at me. “Retreat,” he commands and every Black Hole disappears. I lay on the cold ground, my tears freezing before they can even fall. “Ailey?” A voice hesitantly calls my name. I look up and see Canis approaching me the way you’d approach a wild animal. “Canis,” I sit up, “I let them get away.” “It’s okay. We’ll find them.” His voice is calm and reassuring. “Okay.” All the fight has gone out of me. I’m so tired. All I want to do is go home. “Ailey, I know this is new to you but I need you to turn it off.” He motions around me. “We can’t get to you like this.” I notice then that he is standing a good five feet away from me, at the edge of the frosty grass. “I don’t know how.” Feeling defeated, I stare at the grass. “We could sedate her,” a female voice suggests. “We aren’t sedating her,” Canis sighs and sits down facing me. “Do you remember the day I Morphed?” I nod. “Remember how you said it looked seamless? Think about that. Think about how the sun feels on your skin. Imagine yourself getting warmer. Just close your eyes and let your body change. It will happen if you want it to.” I do as he says. I think about when I went to the beach with my parents, the cool ocean breeze and the sun heating my face, cold and warmth in perfect harmony. The warmth chasing away the chills from the wind. I think about how warm the arms of my parents were when they hugged me. I replay the memory over and over again until I feel hands touch my face. I open my eyes and Canis is wiping away the tears that are flowing down my face now that they aren’t freezing. “There. Not so hard is it?” He smiles warmly at me. “What am I?” Canis wraps his arms around me and I hang onto him like he’s a lifeline. “It doesn’t matter. You’re still Ailey. Before anything else, you are always Ailey.” He rubs my back and lets me cry until I can’t cry anymore. When I’m done he lets me go and helps me to my feet. The Stars have gathered a ways off giving us some privacy. As we get closer, one of them, who I recognize as Bootes, drags someone forward. “We captured a Black hole,” he announces. “He didn’t retreat with the others.” My eyes fall on the person whose neck he has his arm around. “Let him go!” I jet forward and tear his arm away from Daniel. Daniel gasps as he’s able to breathe normally again. I glare up at Bootes. “Wow, what’s going on?” Bootes backs away from me with his hands raised. “He’s her friend,” Canis tells him. He places his hand on my shoulder, “He didn’t know, Ailey.” “I know,” I sigh, cooling down. “Sorry Bootes. It’s been a long day.” “I understand,” he says, “Canis, Draco wants to move Orion now if that’s okay?” “I’ll be right there.” Canis nods. “Is he?” I can’t bring myself to say the words. “He’s alive,” Canis says, “but he hasn’t woken up. We’re going to take him to Draco’s house since Alexander doesn’t know where that is.” “Can I come?” “Of course.” “What about Daniel?” Daniel has been standing quietly behind me the whole time. Canis looks at him. “You trust him?” “I do.” “Then if he wants to come, he can.” “Thank you.” “I’ve sent Puppis to get a car. Wait here and I’ll be right back.” Canis walks off and leaves us to ourselves. “Are you okay?” I ask Daniel. His clothes are still covered in blood but it looks like he’s stopped bleeding. Still, he should be checked out by a doctor. “Are you?” he asks. “I don’t know yet,” I answer. We watch the Stars move about. We’re like them but also different, the both of us outsiders. “I’m glad you’re alive,” he says quietly. “I’m glad you are too.” I smile and he smiles back. We go back to waiting and I catch a glimpse of someone who could have prevented this whole thing. My body acting on instinct again, I Travel and grab Lyra by the shoulders. “Why didn’t you warn him?” I yell at her. I feel myself growing cold again. “You could have saved him!” She doesn’t answer, just keeps drumming her fingers. I start to shake her. “Answer me!” I start to send the cold through my fingers when her hands snap up and grab my head. Before I can react, Lyra’s eyes turn black and silver. Then I hear it. Every sound I’ve ever heard, blended together in perfect harmony. The music wraps around me, completely engulfing me, and in the music I see. I see Orion leaving a party and then I see myself. I see the hope he feels when he talks to me. I see him watching me walk away from lunch, feeling like he lost me. I see his anger as he protects me from Alex. I see his fear as he chooses to Morph in front of me, not knowing if he’ll lose me but definitely knowing he will if he doesn’t Morph. I see his shock when I take his hand after he tells me who he is. I see his trust in Canis to protect me as he lets me go. Then I see myself, asleep in the hotel room, as Lyra touches my head and tries to warn me with a dream. I see her leave. I see Orion’s panic as he comes into my room, afraid that I’m hurt. I see his jealousy as Leo puts his arm around me. I see his regret as he watches me leave the VIP room. I see his restraint as he watches me dance with Leo. I see his stubbornness as he refuses my request to leave. I see his guilt as he apologizes on the plane. I see his longing as he sings on the balcony. I see his joy as I meet the Ship Siblings. I see his happiness as he shows me around the city. I see his sense of duty as he rescues the girl and her grandfather. I see his delight as I return his kiss. I see his kindness as I come clean about my parents. I see his pride in me as I stand up against Crux. I see his unease as he lets me go with Mindy. Then I see him hear the music. I watch as he watches. He watches me get taken and he watches as he comes after me. He watches as he rushes to save me. He watches as Alex slices my throat and throws my body at his feet. I see his sorrow as he cries over my dead body. I watch as the music shows him me being taken again. This time Orion watches as he waits to come after me. He watches as he battles Alex. He watches as Alex rips him apart. I see his apology as I cry over his dead body. Orion stops the music and I see his decision. I see his constant distress as he waits to come after me. I see his distrust of Lyra’s music. I see his doubt of his own decision. I see his pleasure in hunting Alex at last. I see his anxiety when he finds me. I see his concern for my life. I see his belief that I will be okay. I see his strength as he battles Alex and Jack. I see his confidence as he keeps them away so I can get away. I see his dread as he falls through the window. I see his acceptance as Alex takes his soul. I see him turn when he hears me scream no. I see his relief as he sees I survived Alex’s experiment. I see his amazement as I swing his blade into Alex’s arm. Then I see his goodbye as his eyes close. The music ends and I crumble to the floor. I clutch at the grass and sob. I felt it all. Everything Orion felt since he met me, every emotion adding up to equal one thing, his love for me. His thoughts were always on me. As long as I survived, he was okay with dying. I scream at the sky. I scream at the stars that only remind me of the love of my life. I scream at Alex for taking him away from me. And I scream at myself. I scream because I couldn’t save him. My throat is raw and I feel hollow but still I scream and cry. I hear Lyra nearby. “You heard the music?” Yeah. I heard the music. Chapter 20 “Okay, that’s the last one,” Draco says after filling another vial with my blood. He removes the needle and I hop down from the table. “And you’re sure there’s no trace of Alex’s blood?” I had asked probably a hundred times but Draco never got irritated with me. “Still clean. I can run it again if you want.” His eyes sparkle kindly behind his glasses. “No, that’s okay.” “I know you worry but there wasn’t any of his blood in you when you got here and there’s not going to be. You’re healing must have gotten rid of it all as soon as you Merged.” That’s what he had started calling it, the Merge. All Stars could sense souls and Draco had confirmed that my soul and the Singular’s fragment Alex used in the transfer had woven together. I’m now connected to the star that houses his soul. Draco didn’t know what effects having two souls would have but he was determined to find out. That and why I had managed to survive the Merge in the first place. That’s what the blood was for. “Call me if you find out anything,” I say as I leave his lab. “Will do,” he calls after me. I run into Daniel as I’m leaving. “You ready to go?” he asks. “Almost. Just have to say goodbye.” “Okay, I’ll wait for you outside.” I watch him as he walks away. It’s been a month since we got to Draco’s house in the Carpathian Mountains. In that month Daniel has gradually opened up. He no longer walks with his head down. Good food and regular meals have enabled him to fill out. He’s still thin but not unhealthily so. Without the constant abuse from Jack he has flourished. When we first came here I was really worried about him. Carina had healed his wounds but she couldn’t heal the mental and emotional trauma. He wouldn’t leave me or talk to anyone but me and had horrible nightmares. Gradually he got better. He’s now comfortable going about the house by himself and the nightmares have gotten less frequent. I know he still isn’t 100% and he might never be but I’m proud that he tries every day. I make my way down the hall and up the stairs. I make sure I didn’t leave anything behind in the temporary room I shared with Daniel. I don’t know when I’ll be back and I don’t want to leave anything for Draco to clean up. After checking three time I’m satisfied everything is packed and clean. I turn off the light and enter the room across the hall. The drapes are open and sunlight spills into the room. Medical machines give off a steady beeping that I have grown used to over the last month. I stand next to the bed gazing at Orion’s unconscious form. He’s been in a coma ever since that night. The Stars had searched the mental hospital from top to bottom. The human “patients” had been given spots in nice hospitals around the world. As for the Singular, whose soul I now housed, he was dead. Daniel had confirmed that the Singulars that Alex took souls from always died. Draco said that since a soul was the life force of a person then removing one would definitely kill the person. Based on this, Draco said by cutting off Alex’s arm I stopped him from taking the entire soul fragment. We didn’t know if what he got was enough to use Orion’s powers but we knew what Orion had left was just enough to keep him alive. As long as he was alive there was hope of bringing him back. “Today’s the day.” I move the hair out of his eyes. It’s grown since I first met him. “I know what you would say. It’s too dangerous. I shouldn’t be doing it.” I take his hand. “But you’d do the same for me. That’s why I’m going to find Alex and I’m going to get your soul back. No matter how long or what it takes. I promise you, I’ll make you whole again.” I kiss his forehead and let go of his hand. “Plus you still owe me that maple bar.” I look once more at his face before leaving the room. I walk down the stairs and grab my backpack from the living room. I walk out the front door and see Daniel standing there with a backpack of his own. I stand beside him and take in the view of the mountains. “Ready?” he asks. “Ready.” I hold out my hand and he places his in mine. I take a deep breath and the next moment we’re standing in a place that I would know even with my eyes closed. The familiar scents of vanilla and lavender greet me. I reach up and touch the locket and ring hanging around my neck. I’m home. Epilogue Alex sits at a desk studying the latest documents that the man in front of him has brought. “There’s nothing here,” he accuses angrily. He shoves the documents into a drawer and slams it shut. “Be patient. It takes time to dig through all the paper work.” A man lounges comfortably in the chair across from Alex. He acts like he doesn’t have a care in the world, but even though he won’t admit it; Alex knows he is thrown by the turn of events. Alex stands up and walks over to the mini bar where he pours two drinks. He carries both over and hands one to the other man before making his way to the window. The large window overlooks the city below. The man gets up and joins him. “How’s the hand?” the man asks. “It’s stopped hurting. I still haven’t gotten used to the prosthetic though.” “You will eventually. It just takes time.” “At least I know the limits of my healing.” “Those powers weren’t designed for you. They will never work as well as yours did.” They stand in silence for a while looking at the city before the man speaks again. “I should be able to get the rest of the records by the end of the month. Hopefully they will have the answers to how Ailey survived the soul transfer.” “I hope so. If only I’d been able to capture her. She is way more powerful than I could have imagined. Acheros didn’t have the level of power she showed at the institute. It would be so much easier if I could study her.” “Has Jack not been able to locate her?” “No, still no sign of her. They can’t hide her forever though. Eventually we’ll find her.” “And then?” “Then I’ll have the answers I’ve been searching for and you will be one step closer to achieving your goal. As soon as I get my family back, we can start distribution.” “You know, when you came to me all those years ago I never would have thought we’d be so close.” “You doubted me?” “You’re saying you didn’t?” “I will admit it was a little touch and go there in the beginning but I ironed out the kinks.” “For which I am most grateful.” They clink their glasses together and the man finishes his off. He picks up his coat from the back of the chair and puts it on. “I got to get back. Let me know if you find her before I get the records would you?” “Will do.” As the man goes to leave, Alex calls out to him. “Oh and Leo?” The man turns around. “Yeah?” “Tell Gemini thanks for all the help too.” “Will do.” He smiles and walks out the door.


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