While my mood had definitely calmed down a bit, my extras had gotten themselves all stirred up in a frenzy. As though they had all been activated at once and refused to power down. It felt like they were prepared to fight off an entire ARMY of vampires right now if I gave them the nod. I could feel the heat, literally, radiating off of my arms. There was this sensation of something raw, something unstoppable, deep within me. And I almost didn't want it to go away. Imagine what it would be like to feel like this all the time...
Imagine what my life could have been like...if I felt like this from the very beginning.
As I made my way to the outskirts of the city, I would occasionally turn my head to look down one of the dark alleys to the left or right of me...and I would see a pair of glowing eyes staring back at me. Some of them were younger vampires, some were a bit older...but they way they reacted to my presence was different. Different from anything that I was used to anyway. They seemed to be in awe...but in a way that brought them more fear than admiration. Once they realized that I had noticed them...they would often slink back into the shadows, silently...cautiously. I couldn't quite explain why, though. I mean, I felt ok. There was nothing wrong with me, was there?
I turned down one of the main streets and tried to catch a glimpse of my reflection in the windows of a convenience store. I still looked like me. My eyes weren't glowing. No swirling shadows. I ran my tongue over my teeth, and made sure that my fangs weren't down. Nope. There was nothing necessarily 'off' about my appearance...so I wonder what it was that they were gawking at.
It feels like every time I figure out one thing about living in darkness...three more pop up to take its place, just for the sake of tossing me back into a world of confusion. No wonder we have to live for a full century before we're able to get a handle on it all.
I did everything I could to relax, and it was starting to work, for the most part...but I still felt a little bit jittery when I got to Jeremy's place. It was pretty dark and shabby looking from the outside, but I guess that was sort of the point, wasn't it? He was hiding an entire business in that place, after all.
It didn't take me much effort at all to hop the fence and land on the other side...but I had only taken a few steps forward when I heard a harmonizing set of deep guttural growls emerging from the blackest of shadows on either side of me. Two pair of large, glowing red eyes, blazed with a fury as the giant wolves stepped forward...boxing me in. Normally, it would have been enough to make me wet myself and run away as fast as my legs could carry me. But not tonight.
"Torsten. Grimm." I nodded, and they kept approaching me...their rumbling and snarling getting even louder as they got closer to me. "Come on now, guys...you remember me don't ya?" Now they were close enough to lunge forward and tear me to shreds if they really wanted to, but I merely put both of my hands out...slowly reaching for the tops of their heads. "Shhhhhhh...." I whispered. I was still being careful, especially when I saw long strings of angry saliva dripping from their teeth as they curled their lips back, ready to strike. "It's ok, boys. It's alright. Shhhh..."
Finally, I made contact, and as soon as I gave them both a little rub behind the ears, they're intimidating demeanor melted away. It was almost immediate, the both of them rubbing they heads against my open hands to demand more petting as they whimpered like a couple of sweet, playful, puppies. I really wasn't expecting THAT kind of welcome. I just wanted them to be calm enough to let me pass without ripping one of my limbs off and burying it in a hole somewhere in this empty lot.
"Alright, boys...take me to 'Daddy', will ya?" I said, and they were all too happy to escort me inside. Much to Jeremy's surprise, judging by the look on his face when he saw me entering his basement.
He wrinkled his brow. "Oh...so you two are just randomly deciding who gets to waltz right into the lab unannounced these days, huh? Is that it?" I gave Jeremy a smirk and rubbed them behind the ears again to let him know that we were all playing nice. He just facepalmed himself and shook his head. "Go on. Both of you. Outside. You're on punishment." Torsten and Grimm turned around to leave as Jeremy let out a heavy sigh. "Some security hounds YOU turned out to be. Goddamned wolves."
"Don't you go mistreating them, now. They're my bestest friends. Hehehe!"
"I've heard just about enough out of you, Blondie. Zip it!" He grumbled, but with a sly smirk of his own. Jeremy lifted up a nearby blanket to reveal one of his many corpses...this one still looked pretty...'fresh'. Ugh! How he can do this all night without being sick completely baffles me. "Just...about...done..." He said, a long clear hose sticking out of the man's neck and draining the last of his blood into a bag on the shelf beneath him. "There we go." Jeremy callously ripped the hose and needle out and coiled it on the shelf as well...just before swiping his finger across the corpse's open wound to scoop up some of the excess spillage and suck it right off of the tip. "Sweet. Pure gold." He turned to me and said, "You wanna taste?"
"Ewww, no!" I winced.
"Hehehe, wuss." He said, and sealed the bag tight before putting it in a nearby cooler. "How many months has it been already, Justin? You're still squeamish about this stuff?"
"You'd think that would be a good thing, dude."
"Not for us, it isn't. You've gotta learn to shave some of those daylight habits of yours and adapt to the darkness. Otherwise, it's just gonna keep bugging ya." Jeremy covered up the cadaver and unlocked the wheels on the table to head towards the giant freezer in the back. I followed behind him, but at a safe distance from that thing. "What's going on with you, anyway? Your vibration is way off."
"It...it is?" I asked.
"By a lot, yes. A great deal of it doesn't even feel like 'you', to be honest. Have you been sucking more extras during your little vacation, or what?"
"I'd like to lie to you and say that I know how any of this stuff works, but what good would it do?" I mumbled.
Jeremy pushed the body to the back of the fridge and locked the wheels down again, wiping his hands off on a towel as he came back out. "Well, there's definitely something different about you. If I wasn't looking directly at you, I'd swear there was an entirely different entity in the room with me right now."
"Someone other than me?"
"Someone with you. You're only supposed to have one stable vibration...it feels like you've got two. It's a bit freaky, actually." He said, and began to wash his hands in a nearby sink. "You might wanna have somebody check you out for that kind of weirdness." He was drying his hands when he asked, "You haven't been fighting a bunch of people recently, have you? Vamps with high level extras added to the mix?"
With a slight grin, I told him, "I ran into a couple of assholes on the way over here. Turns out out that I didn't have to throw a single punch. Looks like these punks are starting to understand that I'm not the one to play around with, huh?"
"Oh?" He snickered. "So we're Johnny Badass now, are we?"
"Damn straight! They knew they were going to get their asses handed to them if they even tried tangling with me."
Jeremy couldn't help but to laugh. "Please stop."
"The whole vampire warrior act. You're not a warrior, Justin. It's just not in your DNA, you know?" He said. "You're more like a five year old with a samurai sword. Potentially dangerous...but easily taken down by anybody with a hint of common sense."
"Gee, thanks for the confidence boost, Jeremy." I said sarcastically.
"See? One little comment and you already got your feelings bruised. Let it go, dude. You're still a kid. Just be a kid. Enjoy it. Not being a ruthless son of a bitch is something to be celebrated, not ashamed of." He told me. "Aren't you proud of that?"
Leaning against one of his counters, I said, "It's not like I want to turn into some sort of a psychopath or anything. I just...I've never been strong enough to really 'fight' anybody before. I've never been strong enough to protect myself and the people I care about. And when I feel all of this power...all of this intense energy...building up inside of me...it feels good." Jeremy gave me an endearing look, and I added, "That doesn't make me a bad person, does it? I don't want to hurt innocent people...just the ones that deserve it. The ones who pick on me and take advantage for not being strong. That's all."
Jeremy was quickly doing some extra clean up around his morgue as he kept talking. "The moment you start thinking that anybody deserves to be hurt...your innocence goes right out the window, kid. Doesn't make you much of a judge of character, now does it?" He said. "And hurting other people, telling lies, seeking revenge, shouting insults or trying to humiliate somebody else? That's not strength. That's fear. Fear and insecurity. No matter how you mask it, it's a sad sight to see in people. Quite pathetic. Say, can you put these in the sink over there for me?" He handed me a tray of bloodstained tools, and I couldn't get them out of my hands fast enough. Yuck. "People with true strength don't have to take pleasure in threatening anybody else. Just remember, it's the scared little cornered animals that bark and hiss and rattle and put on some big theatrical show to prove they're dangerous. But lions? Lions don't have that problem. No need to roar and snarl and puff out their chest to 'prove' to you that they're scary. They simply wait for you to find out the hard way." Then adding, "Without throwing a single punch." He smiled and playfully took a few jabs at my stomach to get me to smile too. He was in an awfully good mood tonight.
"I suppose..." I said softly.
And just as Jeremy took his last few items and put them in a drawer beside him, he said, "Well...I know you didn't come all this way tonight to chit chat with me, so...let's go give your little 'project' a peek, shall we?"
My heartbeat began to race as a rush of excitement flowed through me. "Yeah! Ok!"
"Wow...didn't know my company was that bad." He said, but I'm sure he knew that I was just anxious to see him again. "Follow me." He led me down the hall to his room, and I could already feel some nervous jitters fluttering around in my gut, as I never know what to expect with this kind of thing. "Richie seems to be maturing pretty rapidly for a newblood. Can't say that I've ever seen anything like it before. Then again, I've never dealt with the vampire childe of a Mimic before, so bear with me. This isn't actually a part of my usual practice."
"How much longer do you think it'll take? Until he wakes up, I mean."
"Well, judging by what I'm seeing so far...I'd say he'd be awake in about a week. A week and a half tops. Shouldn't be long." We reached the end of the hall, and he opened the door for me. "You're gonna get a kick out of this..."
I slowly stepped into the room, sort of peeking at Richie as I approached the bed...and as I got close enough to see him clearly, my eyes welled up with tears all over again, my heart heavy with a level of joy that I wasn't really prepared for at that moment. Oh wow! The first thing I noticed was that his chest was rising and falling peacefully. Rhythmically. He was breathing again. Some color had returned to his face, and his body wasn't as stiff and rigid as it was before. But more than anything...what really surprised me...
...Was that he had a full head of hair! Oh my God! Shiny strands of honey brown locks that were draped over his forehead and just covering the tops of his ears. I held in a gasp, my hands covering my mouth as tears began to drip from my eyes. "Look at his hair! Heh...there's...there's so much of it!" I sniffled.
"It stopped growing out a few days ago, but it looks like this is going to be his look from now on. If he wants it any shorter, he's going to have to get it cut after every sleep cycle. But, yeah...this is your best bud's new look for the next hundred years or so. I hope he likes it."
"It's beautiful." I whimpered. My hands began to fidget as I got even closer to the table. "Can I, like...?" Jeremy just nodded, and I reached out to run my fingers through it. I could barely even believe that it was real. I let my hand touch his cheek, which was still pretty cold, but warmer than it was before. Then I touched his shoulder...and then his arm. I leaned closer to hear him breathing softly, which made me smile. And then I laid my head on his chest...listening to the muffled pounding of his heartbeat. It was still a bit slow and irregular...but it was there. I could hear it. I'm really going to have my Richie back!
"You ok there, Junior?" Jeremy asked, and I was quick to wipe my eyes on the back of my hand.
"Yeah. I'm fine. It's just good to see him...doing so well."
He gave me a sideways glance and a nod. "Riiiiight." He said. "Pretending not to be so happy that you want to cry? I take it that's more of that 'strength' that you were gabbing about a few seconds ago."
"Leave me alone." I grinned. "So, he's ok? No problems?"
"There have been a few odd moments, here and there, but overall he seems just fine. Although, a few nights ago...he entered some temporary stage of absence that I can't quite explain. I've been monitoring it closely, but it might just be one of those awkward little biological glitches that happen during a crossover from time to time."
"Glitches? What do you mean?" I asked him.
"Well..." Jeremy looked down at his charts and printouts, "There were a few times in the past few days when his vitals just dropped down to almost zero. No rhyme, no reason...and then, a few minutes later they went back to normal. Can't say that I've ever seen anything like it before. It was like...the doors were locked, but nobody was home, if you catch my drift."
"And that's bad, right? I mean, that sounds bad..."
"Relax, Justin. Every vampire is different. These things happen from time to time..."
Suddenly, the entire bed that Richie was laying in began to tremble and shake, his body going into a series of violent seizures that caused him to spasm and curl up while he whimpered in pain. "What's happening???" I shouted. "What's going on? HELP him!!!"
"Justin! Calm down!" He told me, and he moved in to wipe Richie's forehead with a damp cloth and pull the covers further up to his neck. It took a few heart pounding moments of Richie writing in agony before he started to relax again...and it was at that moment, just for a few seconds...Richie opened his eyes.
"J-J-Justin....?" He whispered, and then passed out again to go right back to sleep.
"Hey, look at that." Jeremy smiled. "He recognized you. He might come out of this even sooner than I thought." I think he could see the worry and concern on my face, and he attempted to put my mind at ease. "He's going to be fine, Justin. Like I said before...this one is a fighter. He's gonna be something 'special' once he wakes up and gets into the swing of things. I always have a good feeling about these things."
Speaking of which, I felt the need to ask, "Has...Trevor still been coming by here? To check up on Richie?"
"A few times. I'm still not quite sure what his interest is in your friend here, but...he's kind of made it his mission to see how he turns out."
That didn't sound like anything that I wanted to hear. "What did he say?"
"Not much." Jeremy told me. "You know how it is between us, Justin. Trevor asks me a bunch of questions that I refuse to answer...I ask Trevor a bunch of questions that he refuses to answer...and then we play nice until he's ready to go home. It really isn't much more than that."
"He's always scheming in one way or another. I don't want him to have anything to do with Richie, whatsoever, until I at least get the chance to warn him about what he's dealing with. Ok?" I said.
"No problem. It's not like I have a whole lot of info to give Trevor anyway. So your boy is safe here with me. You have my word." Jeremy turned a small knob next to Richie's bed to give him another dose of IV medicine to help him with his pain. "So...since you had to ask me about Trevor...I take it that you haven't been back to the lot yet."
Lowering my head slightly, I said, "No. Not yet. I'll go back, I just..." I stopped myself from saying much more. "Whatever. Taryn went back, though. He's waiting for me over there now. I promised him that I'd come home tonight, but...I don't know if I can."
"You really don't have anything to worry about, Justin. Deep down...you know that, right?"
"I don't know, Jeremy. I've done some bad things. Lot's of bad things. And I don't feel like I have any right to ask for forgiveness."
Jeremy said, "If you're thinking about Dylan...that wasn't your fault. You did everything you could. You didn't even know he was there..."
"That's no excuse. He didn't deserve what happened to him. I shouldn't have held back. I should have tapped into every last bit of energy that I had within me to protect the people I love. It's a mistake that I don't plan to ever have happen again. Next time...I don't care WHAT I become afterward...as long as my friends are safe. As long as...Taryn is safe."
Jeremy moved over to a chair and sat down. "Is that what this is all about? You're worried that you can't protect Taryn? You can''t protect Dylan? You couldn't protect Richie? Dude...nobody expects you to save the whole world all at once."
"I thought that was the whole point of me being what I am." I said, feeling the frustration growing inside of me. "Isn't that my purpose? Isn't that the whole reason that I crossed over in the first place? To save people? To maybe give them some stupid message that's supposed to turn it all around and set everybody on a better path?"
"I hate to burst your bubble, kid...but through all the struggle and strife, good times and bad, the world made it just fine without you for millions of years. Trust me, we'll be ok. You can't save anybody by force. And sometimes it's not about sending them a message. Sometimes...all you can do is live as an example, and show people what's possible for them, if only they're willing to follow your lead. That's all." He said. "Don't go around thinking that fighting makes you strong. Don't try to 'bully' people into thinking how you think, or believing what you believe. It doesn't work. It never works. The truest strength you'll ever have comes from discovering your own core values, and sticking to them, no matter what. It exists in the hearts of the people you've helped, in the circle of friends that you keep, and in the arms of the one you love." I honestly think that Jeremy and I had a tender moment there, but when he saw the grateful little twinkle in my eye, he was quick to break it up and stand up from his chair again. "But then again...what do I know?"
"Richie will be getting some extra attention over the next few days. So no worries, k? He'll be well taken care of."
"Thanks. But I just wanted to say..."
"Go home, Justin. Quit stalling. And I don't mean sliding in there just before dawn and everybody's going to bed. Spend some time with your family in darkness. Make amends, and set things right." He said. "Now, beat it. I've got a business to run."
I could have said more, but it probably would have made Jeremy much more uncomfortable if I did. So, instead, I simply patted him on the shoulder to give him some appreciation that he didn't have to block or fend off like he was swatting an angry swarm of killer bees. But I know he's capable of some sentimentality from time to time. I can feel it. And for now...that's enough.
I gave Richie one last hug, careful not to hurt him, as I'm not sure where he was sore and where he wasn't...and then I began to walk up the stairs. That's when Jeremy called out, "Hey, Justin? You're not invincible. Not by a long shot. But...for the record...I think you're a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for." I nodded, and he told me, "Maybe the others back at the lot...are stronger than you give them credit for too."
With that, I left Jeremy's shack, and made my way back to the lot. I was visibly trembling as I approached the gate, not knowing what to expect, but hoping for the best. I took a deep breath...and I allowed myself to be seen again, at long last.
It was no surprise that Gyro was the very first to catch sight of me at the lot's entrance. I actually saw little clouds of dust being kicked up around his feet as he raced over to hug me so tight and so fast that I had to balance myself to keep from being tackled to the ground! "SUPERMAN!!! You're home!!!" He squealed, his boyish voice getting everybody else to look up as well. "Where'd ya go? It's been forever!" He said, still making it a bit hard for me to breathe.
Taryn and Rain were sitting on the hood of an old car in the distance...but Taryn's smile could be seen from anywhere. I could tell that he was proud of me for keeping my word, but it still felt emotionally clumsy for me to be stepping back through that gate again. I saw Kid frantically tugging on Max's shirt, pointing in my direction. "Yeah, yeah! I SEE him, shrimp! What, you don't think I see him? Quit yanking on me!"
Gyro actually gave me enough room to get my arms unpinned from my sides and hug him back while he pressed his entire face into my chest. And then...just as I looked across the lot, my eyes connected to Bryson's...and after a brief hesitation, he simply gave me a silent nod of his own. The same one he usually gives us every night before bedtime. Just something to say, 'He's safe. Everybody's accounted for. Now I can rest.'
However, when I looked over at Doc, he didn't seem too eager to give me the same easy out. In fact, he avoided my eyes at first. And, sadly...closed his laptop and turned his wheelchair around to head to some other part of the lot. Perhaps I deserved that...after what I did.
Once Gyro let me go, I felt something brush up against my leg...and looked down to see Napolean wagging his tail, giving me a few licks as I knelt down to pet him. I guess I should have expected Dion to be standing right there behind me when I looked back over my shoulder.
I could see the look in his eyes. And I rose back up to a standing position, knowing that I was going to have to face this sooner or later. "Hey..." I said, barely above a whisper.
"Hey..." He said back to me. "I wasn't really sure that we'd see you again. At least...not any time soon."
"I don't think I was too sure myself." I said. And we both stood there in front of one another for an extended moment...not saying anything. Fully aware that the others were watching. And it was then that I saw Dion do something that I don't think I've ever seen him do before. He completely shut down his extra. All at once. His ability to suppress and free himself of all emotion in an instant was always in use, from the very first time that I met him. But, it was like I saw him practically 'break open', right there in front of me. Everything was stripped away, and he stood there, completely vulnerable...with tears pouring out of his eyes and his bottom lip quivering slightly. It choked me up to the point where I could hardly breathe. And, with a shaky voice, I said, "Dion...I'm sorry. I'm SO so sorry...I just..."
"You don't have anything to apologize for." He said.
"Hey...look at me, ok?" He sobbed. "It's ok. I swear, Justin...it's ok."
Weeping openly, I said, "I didn't want any of this. You believe me when I say I did everything I could, right?"
Dion nodded, sniffling. "It hurts..." He said. "It really...hurts..."
I guess what Jeremy told me was true. With all of the force and the fighting and the powers at my fingertips...I saw more strength, more raw courage, in Dion being able to let his guard down and truly expose his heart to me in this way...than in anyone else that I've ever known. And as I began to feel weak inside, I remembered what he once said to me, "I guess we're all hurting in our own ways. Did I get that right?"
And Dion and I both cried as we moved forward to give each other the most affectionate of embraces. Holding onto one another as the loss of one of our own overwhelmed our ability to stand, and we we were brought down to our knees.
I needed this. We both did. It was the only way to make this place feel like 'home' again.
And after all we've been through...we could both use a little bit of 'home' to remind us of who we are...and what we're fighting for.
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