Being Red: Chapter Ten

As the adrenaline wears off, I realize the damage control for tonight’s events is more complex than Kellan simply disposing of Valerie’s body. Timing is going to be a significant factor in our latest charade. I talk as we walk, Kellan for once unable to argue or torment me with his retorts as he trots silently along at my side. His current anatomy renders him incapable of speech, and I take full advantage.

“There is no way I can hide my injuries, and I need to be ahead of this so that I’m in control of the narrative,” I say, my body one big, aching bruise. “Your cleanup needs to be fast, more than it needs to be thorough.”

Kellan cocks his head to the side, ears pricked forward. Questions, I can handle, and I am happy for the lack of argument.

“I need to report this to Gregor tonight. I’ll give you as long as I can, but I won’t be able to stall for long,” I explain. My mind races to find a solution. “To make this believable, I’ll tell Gregor I was attacked but that my assailant got away. Don’t erase signs of the fight or all of the blood, but there can be no evidence of her death. The pool of blood will need to go. Along with signs of any other wolf being at the overlook.”

I turn to confirm Kellan understands, but he is already gone. Unbidden, a pang of fear tears through me. I tell myself it is because of his inhuman stealth rather than his silent abandonment in the same woods where I fought for my life. I refuse to admit that his presence imparted comfort and instead focus on my own next steps. By now I trust Kellan to do what is needed, and I must do the same.

Although I am trying to buy him time, I walk back to my car quickly, unable to linger in the trees that no longer grant me the respite they once did. I clutch my still-bloody key like a weapon again, even though I know firsthand it affords me little protection. When I reach my car, I unlock the door and lower myself into the driver’s seat with a sigh. I dig my phone from the glove compartment and check the screen before starting the engine. I have a couple messages from Hayden, but I ignore them.

I take the longest route back to the compound, and I drive just slow enough to hit every stoplight. I ease off the brakes and take my time pressing my foot into the gas pedal. If I had a grandmother, I imagine this is how she would drive, or perhaps she would have a lead foot and this is more how I would drive if she were riding in the front seat wearing her best holiday dress and holding a casserole we were taking to family dinner.

When I pull up and scan my key card to open the heavy gate, I forget all about grandmothers I am not even sure I ever had. The massive gate rolls to a stop to my right, and I know I can’t stall any longer. I take the most direct route to the building which houses Gregor’s office and select parking right up front. I know that even at this hour he will still be at his desk. I pretend it doesn’t pain me and walk briskly to his office. I know I must look a mess, but I refuse to show weakness.

I hear him speaking within, so I knock rather than entering without an invitation. Despite his insistence that an assassin should not wait or ask permission, I am sure he enjoys the knowledge that an unparalleled killer is ultimately subservient to him, little more than a tool for his use. He likes the sense of control. Until recently, this relationship always made me feel secure. But now I am not so sure. I am beginning to find it more oppressive, and comfort comes from a new source. I banish that notion quickly, turning my thoughts to the past.

Perhaps Gregor didn’t save me that night so much as abuse his position as savior. I was, after all, a young, naive girl who had no one else in the world to whom she could turn once her whole world shattered in a single night.

“Enter,” Gregor’s voice penetrates the door, jarring me from my memory.

I can only have stood here for the span of a minute or two, yet it feels like years have passed right before my eyes. Years that suddenly look much different from how I have always remembered them. I have no time to dwell on any of that now, so I steel myself and step over the threshold. I glance at the man sitting across from Gregor, catching the eyes of Thayer, another team leader with a similar role to mine but a record much less impressive.

“Red,” he says, nodding to me as he stands to leave.

I nod back. I don’t have it in me for pleasantries at the moment. Once the door closes behind him, I begin my report.

“We need to check our records for a were named Valerie, unknown last name. Claims to be Blake Anden’s mate,” I say.

I know what Gregor will say before he asks, “Was she not terminated?”

In other words, why was she not terminated.

“I was on a run near home when she attacked me,” I explain. “She shifted and fled after I stabbed her.”

I leave out that it was with my car key, hoping the lump it makes in my pocket is not as obvious as it seems to me at the moment.

Gregor contemplates as if gauging whether to believe me. Or perhaps it’s all in my head, for he says, “Good work, Red.” He smiles, his gaze scanning the visible damage on my face, and adds, “I’m sure you will relish hunting her down and repaying her for that.”

I make myself grin back. “I will.”

“I’ll have a team begin the search for you,” says Gregor, jotting a note with a pen that costs as much as my phone. “You took your usual route, I take it?”

My chest pangs with dread and my stomach turns into a heavy knot. He may already see through my lies. With eyes and ears everywhere, he could just be playing me. Or he might simply relish making another power play, pointing out that he knows where I run in a show of omnipotence meant to remind me of my place.

My mind is a jumble of frantic worries, but my voice is calm when I say, “I ran up to the overlook.”

Gregor’s fancy pen glides over the paper once more, and he merely says, “I’ll have them begin there, then.”

Oh.

I hold in my sigh of relief.

“Have them report to me when they find something,” I say. “I’d like to take care of her sooner rather than later.”

Gregor looks at me, and I wonder if it is pride shining in his eyes. I used to believe it was pride in me, his prodigy, but now I wonder if it has been hunger all along. I curse Kellan, first for making me doubt everything I’ve known for the majority of my life, and second for popping into my head in the first place.

“You’re dismissed,” Gregor says. “I need you ready to mobilize tomorrow. We’re getting close to another were.”

His eyes are greedy, and I decide it must have always been hunger in his gaze. I don’t bother asking myself how I could have ever been so blind to reality. Years of living under Gregor’s tutelage conditioned me to see whatever he wanted. Only now do I question what exactly that may be.

“Understood,” I say with a curt nod.

I turn to go, but before my fingers reach the doorknob, Gregor clears his throat. I clench my eyes shut and release a silent breath before pivoting back around, wondering what he could possibly want now, if he has always enjoyed toying with me like this, and whether I am overreacting to what could be innocent phlegm in his throat.

“Hayden is worried for Henley and just isn’t sure how to express his feelings,” Gregor says as if his tough-love style of pseudo-parenting gives him any sort of expertise in that area. “Don’t let it come between you. I need your team united and strong.”

And there it is, I think. For once, it would be nice if he actually cared for me. But, no, that is not his way nor his priority. He just wants me to be the leader and forgive Hayden so that we can get back to work. He doesn’t care that my boyfriend hurt my feelings. All he cares about is his team leader getting along with her second so she can kill more werewolves.

“Understood,” I repeat, turning to push through the door before he can call me back a second time.

I walk tall and proud back to my car before collapsing in the seat, feeling like one aching mass. On the way home for the second time, I try to come up with reasons why Hayden and I are together in the first place. Proximity and mutual career seem like terrible reasons. He’s attractive, but so are other men. A particular male comes to mind, and I shove the thought away. Physical attraction alone does not make for a lasting relationship.

When I get home, my head hurts, and I am unprepared for the greeting awaiting me.

“What the hell, babe?” Hayden says when I finally push through the door. “Why didn’t you answer my texts? Gregor called and told me what happened.”

Of course he did. He probably wanted to ensure Hayden is playing nice too. Or maybe Hayden really does care for me after all. My mind goes back to his earlier announcement, his accusation that I can’t understand, and I speculate what I might be if his sister is his other half. Given everything that has happened, my emotions are too unstable for me to be sure of anything. My doubts will be a topic for careful review at another time. Right now, I am mentally and physically exhausted.

“I’m fine,” I say.

My mind goes instantly to Kellan and his interpretation of the phrase, but I banish the thought of his lean, muscular form. I brush past Hayden without further explanation, and I feel him follow close behind as I head to the bedroom to grab clean clothes.

“Your chin is black and blue already,” he says to my back.

“I’ve had worse.”

Gregor has done worse, I think.

I stalk to the bathroom, pretending I don’t notice Hayden tailing me, and strip off my grimey clothes. I’m too tired to shower, but I feel disgusting, so I wash with soap as fast as I can manage, the suds burning my raw fingers and any scrape I touch. Hayden hovers just outside the tub, and I try to ignore his presence and pent up energy. His shadow shifts against the curtain, backlit by the vanity lights.

I hear a sigh. Then, “Can I help?”

His tone is soft. I want to convince myself he truly cares for me. My heart yearns to believe it. I need Hayden. He has always been there for me, and I am not ready to let him go. Until this morning, I did not think he would ever let me down.

“Not really.” I want to tell him to go away. I want to confront him about this morning. I want things to go back to the way they were. All that takes effort. I don’t have the energy to fight right now, so I add, “I’m almost finished.”

To confirm my words, I shut off the water, wring out my hair one last time, and flick the curtain open. Hayden is ready with my towel. I accept it without comment, allowing him to drape it around my shoulders and rub my back dry.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly, his hands gently rubbing my biceps.

Part of me is overjoyed to be hearing the phrase I desire most from him, even though Hayden has not specified exactly what he is apologizing for. Another part of me, however, whispers a reminder that Gregor called, and an insidious thought worms into my mind. I am being manipulated, used by every single person in my life. Hayden. Gregor. Kellan. Everyone wants something from me. No one cares about me. They care about Red, the assassin. They just want what I make possible for them. Without me, they have nothing.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Gregor put Hayden up to this, made him apologize so that I will be happy and keep doing my job as I have been all these years. I’m not sure how to test the theory. I want to lie down and sleep to escape the pain in my body. I also want answers.

Hayden is oblivious to my inner dialogue as he wraps his arms around me, slowly sliding one hand up to my neck and pulling me in for a kiss. I kiss him back, searching for the love in his lips, his embrace. But my head isn’t in the right place.

“What am I to you?” I ask when he pauses for air.

Hayden pulls away from me to look into my eyes. “What do you mean?” he asks.

“This morning you said Henley is your other half,” I say. “So what am I, then?”

Hayden releases me to rub his hands over his face. “You know I didn’t mean it like that,” he says.

“How did you mean it?” I press.

His sigh is frustrated. “I just meant that Henley is very important to me. I didn’t mean that you aren’t.”

“Okay,” I say, remembering why I have no energy for this. I don’t want to argue or talk in circles, and this conversation is going nowhere.

I spin on my heel and proceed to brush my teeth and finish preparing for bed. As ready as I have the energy to be, I slip under the covers. Hayden follows me, content to move on with the night as if I didn’t ask him difficult questions and he didn’t choose to avoid voicing his feelings for me. Beneath the blankets, Hayden wraps his arm around me and tries to pull me close. I crave the nearness and physical show of affection that belies what his verbal communication and lack thereof imply. I want to accept his non-answers and offer forgiveness, but I shrug off his embrace. I can’t do this tonight, not when my heart still feels betrayed and confused. And not when I nearly lost my life.

My last thought before slipping into a restless sleep is that even a life lived by another’s design is still better than no life at all.

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