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They were always at parties, or at the movies, or hanging out at someone's house, always in the midst of Aiden's friends, the Amoeba. Even when they were alone together he was very careful in how far he went, as if he was afraid to scare her off. This made her smile. Soon, baby, I'll let you know how scared I'm not, she thought.
Then one evening, when he took her home, Aiden had bad news. "I have to go on vacation with my parents." He flushed with embarrassment as he told her. "I thought I could get out of it," he said. "I'm too old to get dragged to the beach with Mommy and Daddy. But they went on and on, you know, about how I'll be in college soon and it's our last chance to have a family vacation together, blah, blah, blah." He smiled anxiously at her. "I'll miss you."
"And my birthday," Vivian said sulkily, then immediately felt bad because he looked so stricken. She kissed his cheek, letting her lips linger there as she whispered a kind of apology. "Never mind, bring me back a shell or something." She could feel his skin grow hot as he responded to the warm flutter of her breath.
"I'll be back just in time for the Fourth of July," he promised, slipping his arms around her. "We'll go see the fireworks at the park. I bet someone's having a party." Someone was always having a party.
Apparently there wasn't to be a birthday fuss this year. Vivian found presents from Rudy on the kitchen table with a note explaining he would be out late and, after tossing her own contribution down, Esmé went off humming to talk on the phone for hours. Thanks for sticking around to see: if I like it, Vivian thought as she unwrapped a silky blouse. Once her birthdays had been celebrated by all the pack.
At eight that evening the doorbell rang. "Go answer it," Esmé called from upstairs. "It's my date."
Great, Vivian thought. She's leaving me alone on my birthday.
But when she opened the door the Five surged in. They swept her back to the living room with hugs and licks and love bites and cries of "Happy birthday!" Gregory carried a big paper bag stuffed with packages.
Esmé ran down the stairs, giggling. "A woman should have plenty of men around on her birthday," she declared.
The doorbell rang again and Esmé went to answer it this time. She came back with Gabriel.
Oh, I get it, Vivian thought. Bring your own date.
But Esmé looked surprised. She swept her hair back with long fingers and managed to undulate while standing still. "Gabriel." Her voice was suddenly husky. "Come to take me somewhere good." She crooned the last word.
"I came to wish Vivian happy birthday," he said.
"How nice," Esmé said, dropping the purr.
Great Moon, he's politicking, Vivian thought, like he has to win voted for leadership instead of win a fight. "Kissing babies?" she asked.
"I'd hardly call you a baby," he replied, looking her over with a grin.
Jerk, she thought.
Esmé ran to the kitchen and came back with a six-pack of Coke and two bags of chips, which she dumped on the coffee table. That was her idea of being a good hostess.
Rafe rolled his eyes when Vivian passed him a Coke. He took a big gulp; then, as soon as he thought Esmé and Gabriel weren't looking, he took a small flask from his back pocket and added an amber fluid to the can.
Gregory tipped the contents of the bag he carried onto the table beside the refreshments. "Presents," he declared unnecessarily, and settled his gangly frame upon the couch. Vivian noticed he was growing sideburns. He'd grow a small beard soon, she knew. He always copied Rafe.
While Esmé exclaimed over the tumbled pile of gifts, Ulf fidgeted and nudged till Rafe handed him the flask. Gabriel saw this time. He didn't say anything, but his lip rose in a snarl. Who died and made you God? Vivian thought. Rafe glowered back defiantly, but he put the flask away. Ulf pouted, his red locks falling around his face.
"Aren't you going to open your presents?" Finn asked.
Vivian gave in and picked up a parcel. Inside she found a scant, lacy slip. "Don't tell me," she said. "You went shoplifting at Victoria's Secret." The Five collapsed into hysterics, and Willem pushed another gift into her hands. Esmé and the boys howled with laughter as Vivian opened box after box of provocative gauzy underwear.
"Try them on," Willem urged as she held aloft another pair of frilly panties.
"Yeak, we wanna make sure they fit," said Finn, grabbing them from his twin.
"In your dreams, wolf-boy," said Vivian.
The smirk on Gabriel's face at her words made her seethe. She could put Finn down; he couldn't. What was he doing hanging out here anyway? He'd made his public appearance. Why didn't he leave?
She deliberately tried to make him feel he didn't belong by ignoring him and kissing all the Five thank you, despite their jeers and rude suggestions. Gregory put on some music--the hard pounding kind the Five loved--and she danced with them all except Gabriel. She was surprised to find she was having a good time.
Esmé glowed with contentment. She didn't even seem to be disappointed when Gabriel would only dance one dance with her. Instead she plied him hopefully with Jack Daniel's on the rocks.
Later, Vivian was rinsing some glasses in the sink when she felt someone behind her. Arms snaked around her. Hands came down over her breasts and squeezed rudely. She recognized the small spider tattoo on the right hand.
"Get off, Rafe," she said, continuing to swish hot water in the tumbler she held.
"Come on. You love it.
"I don't see you running," he said, and she felt his hot breath on her neck and his teeth testing her flesh.
Vivian put the glass on the counter. She twisted slowly around into his accommodating arms, face to face with his arrogant leer.
His grin widened. "I knew it."
She smiled back at him. Her hand traveled up his thigh and his eyes grew vacant with lust, his lips parted, waiting for hers.
That was when she grabbed his crotch and squeezed.
"Ahwooooooo!" he yanked at her wrist with both hands.
"Ah, come on. You love it," she said, gripping tighter.
Esmé called from the living room. "What's going on?"
Vivian glanced toward the door. She was startled to see Gabriel standing there. His eyes sparkled with laughter and his teeth gleamed white.
Vivian released Rafe. "Nothing, Mom. Just fooling around. Huh, Rafe?"
Rafe didn't say anything. He turned and sucked in a whimper of embarrassed rage when he saw Gabriel. He stalked out of the kitchen, his face clenched in anger.
"You can take care of yourself," Gabriel said, nodding in appreciation.
"And don't you forget it," Vivian answered. She caught the tangy whiff of his sweat as she swept by him, and felt a brief surge of fear mixed in with the heady tingle of sweet defiance. Maybe he would swat her for her insolence. Instead she heard a throaty chuckle.
She shouldn't have encouraged the Five. All the next week they were at the door or on the phone. She wouldn't run with them at night, but she finally gave up and spent some daylight time with them. Mostly they hung out and traded jokes with the bikers in front of Tooley's bar. Once they went to the mall, and the five cracked each other up menacing middle-school girls by wiggling long, long tongues at them. Vivian left in disgust.
The Five's continual bickering and jostling for rank got on her nerves. It was a relief to pick up the phone one day and hear Aiden's voice.
"Ready for fireworks?" he asked.
"Baby, are you?" she replied.
It was still light when Aiden arrived the next evening. He looked sleek and suntanned. Vivian wanted to bite the buttons off his skirt.
"I missed you," he said, and handed her a small, brightly wrapped package.
Vivian turned it over and over in her hands, admiring it as if it were a jewel. Was this the shell she had asked for? No one outside the pack had ever bought her a present. How exquisite and full of promise it was.
"You're supposed to open it," Aiden prompted gently.
"Oh, yeah." Vivian sliced through the tape with her nails and peeled off the paper, slowly savoring each crackle. Inside was a velvet box. "Ooooh!" She stroked its plushness, delayed a second more, then opened the box and found a sparkling silver pentagram on a silver chain.
Vivian was speechless for a moment; then she burst into laughter. He had given her silver.
When paired with wolf-kind blood, silver burned through the flesh like acid, doing more damage than even her people's amazing powers of healing could stop. That was why silver bullets were often fatal no matter where or how slight the wound. Silver was safe enough to wear as long as it didn't touch an open wound, but among her kind fights were common. Wolf-kind preferred to wear gold, just in case.
A legend told of the double-edged gift of Lady Moon, who gave them the ability to change, but also turned her light into the silver that could kill them if they abused the power. Aiden had given her a double-edged gift: the sign of her people made out of poison.
Aiden looked mystified by her laughter, then hurt. "You don't like it," he said.
I could wear it on our date, at least, she decided. That seemed safe enough. "Yes, I do like it," she said solemnly. "It's more perfect than I could ever tell you."
Because I, too, have a double edge, she thought. And you should run from me as fast as your legs can carry you.
They left Aiden's car outside her house; it would be hard to find a parking spot close to the middle-school field where the fireworks display was held. The Fourth of July festival had been going on all day, starting with the parade and continuing with clowns, competitions, races, and music. The best places to park had been claimed hours before.
"Let's go the back way," Vivian said. "It's quicker."
They cut through her yard and followed the river upstream. The sun was going down and the evening was golden. Vivian inhaled deeply, as if she could suck it all in and keep it forever. The rich bursts of odor released by a day of heat mixed with the salty exquisite smell of Aiden swelled her with happiness. As they crashed through the tufted grass to the border mowed alongside the river, Vivian felt the urge to run. "Come on," she cried, and took off full of the joy of breath, her limbs as strong as if she danced on the moon.
When she hurdled a wall to an alley behind some apartments he was a minute behind. She waited until he caught up. He vaulted over, using both arms, and she was sad he'd not leaped as she had, touching nothing but wind. Perhaps he couldn't. Immediately she wanted to give him flight wrapped up in a pretty box like his gift to her. Instead, she gave him a quick hard hug, which made him grunt, then laugh.
The alley led to a bridge. Vivian bounced across beside Aiden, eager to run again. His breathing was coarse, but he didn't complain. A drop of sweat hung at the tip of his nose. She darted her tongue and slurped it off.
"Yugh!" Aiden wiped his nose with the back of his hand, then grinned.
"You don't get enough exercise," Vivian said. "You should run more often."
Aiden rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right."
"No, come on. I'll teach you." She set off again at a steady, slower pace. He groaned behind her, but she heard him follow. As soon as they were in the baseball field she danced around him, giving him advice about breathing and stride. She jogged sedately for a while, enjoying the feel of him running at her side. His face was flushed, and he puffed a bit, but he would learn.
A sparkle crackled between the trees ahead and for a moment she thought the fireworks had started too soon, but it was only the setting sun caught in the school windows, broken up by leaves shimmied in a sudden evening breeze. She glanced behind. The western sky blazed vermilion as if it were drenched in the blood of night, and she choked back a howl of joy.
She had to run loose. She took off, driven by excitement into the arms of the dark.
The grass whipped her ankles; the dusk licked her face. If she ran fast enough she could climb invisible stairs right into the stars. She reached the twelve-foot chain-link fence at the back of the school and threw herself up. She swarmed over with barely a thought.
When Aiden caught up he rattled like chaos climbing the fence, and panted and scrambled and slid.
"When did you go to boot camp?" he managed to gasp when he dropped at her feet. He looked put out but not angry. "Jeez. I didn't know my sweetheart was the Amazon Queen."
Sweetheart. He'd called her his sweetheart. She'd been a main squeeze, an ol' lady, and a piece of tail, but she'd never been a sweetheart before. The word bubbled through her like champagne. She threw herself to the ground, giggling. "I'm exhausted," she lied.
He tried to gently wrestle her to her feet but she kept on sliding limply from his arms, and soon they were a giggling puppy tumble in the grass. His sweet wet kisses made her sure he wasn't angry, and he was out of breath again, but for reasons he couldn't complain about.
They walked into the gathering crowd tangled in each other's arms and hair, their lips unable to stay apart.
The Amoeba was down by the edge of the tarmac playground, spilling into the forbidden field where the fireworks were set up. Some of them called greetings when they saw Aiden and Vivian arrive. Kelly smiled tightly, her eyes shallow. She leaned back to her regular troupe of gigglers and said something for their ears alone. Vivian clicked her teeth in Kelly's direction, wrinkling her nose, and grinned wickedly when Aiden pulled her down with him to a tartan blanket and nuzzled her neck. Look at me, Kelly, Vivian gloated silently. I've got him. You don't. Too bad.
One of the guys handed Aiden a Coke. Aiden sipped, grimaced, and handed it to Vivian. "All yours if you want. I've got to drive later." Vivian took a swig. The Coke was laced with rum and sent a delicious fire rippling to her toes. She drank some more and held the bottle tight.
Every so often a tired-looking cop would walk by and tell them to get their butts back onto the yard, and the Amoeba would mutter and move blankets around and make a great show of activity and eventually not move an inch.
"Yo, buddy!" Aiden's best friend, Peter Quincey, arrived, pounding Aiden's back and calling greetings to everybody. Two of the gigglers peeled away from Kelly and fawned on him. Girls always wanted to touch him and hug him.
Then Bingo and Jem showed up, arguing loudly about which bands sucked. They soon got everyone involved.
"Hey, I've got to take a leak," said Aiden. "I better go now, before the fireworks start." He stood up after kissing her cheek.
"So what do you think of The Purge?" Jem asked her.
"Bunch of whiners," she answered. "They should be drowned to put them out of their misery."
One of the gigglers shrieked indignantly and Quince roared with laughter. This started a whole new round of the argument. The rum made Vivian feel lazy and indulgent. She actually agreed with Kelly once.
A firefly bumbled past Vivian on a mission of love and the brightness of its tail announced that night had arrived. As if everyone realized this at once, the crowd hushed in expectation. Men scurried around the field, making last-minute checks.
Aiden had been gone a long time.
In the sudden quiet, a chorus of howls echoed like a distant song in the trees beyond the portable toilets.
Bingo smirked. "Someone's having fun."
"Yeah," Vivian agreed, and the fine hair on her spine prickled. She stared grimly over the heads of the crowd. Aiden was out there alone. The blood in her veins turned cold. "I think I need to pee, too," she announced to no one in particular. She set her bottle down and hurried off in the same direction Aiden had gone.
She wove through the islands of families and friends stretched out with their coolers and hampers and kids, and tried not to step on the fingers and drinks that spread into the paths that led through the mess. Then she was out the other side.
She could smell the toilets before she even came close. They'd been used all day, and now the rank stench of chemicals mixed with urine and feces made a battlefield of the air. Her nose pinched in distaste as she skirted the metal booths stenciled with the word Port-o-let in luminous orange, looking for signs of Aiden, or of the Five.
Someone's cough echoed inside one of the putrid sarcophagi, but it was too deep to be Aiden's. The door of a toilet opened, then crashed shut behind a stranger. The rest of the toilets didn't seem occupied.
She heard faint movement in the woods. What if he'd decided that the toilets stank too badly and had gone to piss in the woods? She'd have thought it sensible any other night, but tonight, with the Five on the prowl . . .
Vivian slunk silently into the trees, her eyes wide and luminous. He'd better be safe, she thought. Without even thinking, she lengthened her nails, and the muscles of her limbs clenched with power.
The moon was only a sliver in the western sky. The woods were deep with shadows. Somewhere behind her was an eager crowd, waiting for the night to bloom with fire, but somehow their voices were muffled by the dark. Even the crickets held their breaths.
A staccato crackle came from the river--firecrackers. A dog barked far away. Sweat trickled from Vivian's armpits down past her breasts. She trod on tiptoes, her feet remembering paws.
There was a rustling off to her right. Someone was pushing between the rhododendron bushes. He hummed cheerfully. She almost breathed a sigh of relief, but then she recognized the voice.
He froze in the shadows. Something almost as big as he was was flung over his shoulder. He clutched it possessively.
Vivian placed the tune he'd been humming. It was an Oingo Boingo song. The words went walking with a dead man over my shoulder.
"What have you got there?" she demanded, fear fluttering in her belly.
Rafe's arms tightened around his load. "Nothing." He backed away a step.
"You shithead." She advanced on him. Her heart thumped with dread.
"It's mine," he growled. He slid his kill from his shoulder and let it crash into old, dead leaves. He crouched, ready for combat, in front of it.
Great Moon, I'm right, she thought. It's a body. Not Aiden, she begged. She'd kill Rafe if it was.
"I'll share if you're nice to me," he added, a new note of cunning in his voice.
"Show me," she coaxed. "I want to see if it's worth my time."
"Ha, you're lying, Viv," he spat. His eyes glittered and narrowed with malice. "Want to see if it's your meat-boy, Viv?"
The asshole was toying with her. She took another quick step forward but he blocked her, laughing.
She darted to the right, but Rafe was in front of her again.
"Does Vivi want her plaything?" he taunted, and she wanted to shove his pointy teeth down his throat.
She feinted to the left; then, before he could recover, hit him head-on and knocked him down. Distantly the crowd cheered with the first thunder of fireworks. She scrambled over Rafe as he thrashed, elbowing his neck, kneeing him in the stomach, and crawled into the bushes.
In an orange burst of light she saw brown eyes already glazed over with an opalescent sheen. Brown eyes in a furred face. A large dog with its throat torn open lay on the ground.
Rafe scrambled to his feet, laughing. "Had you going, didn't I?"
His laughter was echoed from the trees, and the rest of the Five slunk into the clearing--Finn, Willem, Gregory, and skittery Ulf. Their faces flickered with multicolored light for a moment, etching them with ghoulish shadows. Had they all been out there watching, laughing at her?
The gaping throat leered up at her, black and clotted.
"Smell yummy, Viv?" Rafe mocked. "Think you might like a little taste, since it's not your boyfriend?"
She spat a curse at him as she stood up. It was punctuated by another crash in the sky. She walked right up and knocked him flying with a cuff to the side of the face that left claw marks.
Willem gasped, and Ulf ran back to the bushes giggling hysterically.
Finn helped Rafe up while Gregory glanced back and forth between Vivian and Rafe, nervously licking his lips.
Rafe wiped the blood from his face with the back of his hand. "You think you're different from us," he snarled. "But you're not. We know who we are, Vivian. And we know what we want. We don't run away from it. You're sick, Vivian, if you think you can play human."
He snapped his fingers. "Ulf, get your ass back here and help Greg carry this." The Five fell in silently behind Rafe and followed him into the woods. Only Willem looked back.
"I'm so impressed," she yelled after them.
I know who I am, she thought. How dare he say I don't? I love being loup-garou. I adore the sweet change and the beauty it brings me in the night. When I hunt, I hunt wild prey by the laws of the Goddess. I don't kill pets for the fun of it.
A machine-gun rattle above made her look up to see shooting stars between the leaves. A warbling whistle came fast on its heels and a fountain of fire dripped red in the sky. I'm missing it, she thought.
She raced back to the Amoeba, winding through the color-bathed crowd. She found Aiden waiting, and her heart leaped at the sight of him.
"Where did you get to?" Aiden asked. He hugged her.
"I could say the same." She didn't hug back. Now he was safe she could be angry with him--for a moment anyway, until he struggled to make amends with kisses. Then, wrapped in his arms, she oohed and aahed with the faceless multitude around her, made one with them under the bursts of chrysanthemum light.
But danger lurked for the crowd out in the wood, and she prayed to the Moon that all who watched with her came home safe this night. The Five killed a human once. Did they still have the taste?
The thunder crescendoed. The night was full of whistles and the whoosh of man-made comets. Smoke singed the air and was sharp in her throat, and when she saw sparks falling, she remembered another night more than a year before. The fire was my fault, too, she thought. I should have told my father that Axel and the Five were running wild.
She buried her face in her human boy's shoulder and clung to him to suffocate her pain. He kissed her hair, and the tremor of his laughter vibrated through her chest. He was full of rushing blood and smiles and dreams--things her father would never have again.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, too soft for him to hear, but those she spoke to were all dead.
From the Paperback edition.