Chapter Five (Cont)

“Um…okay?” I’m not really sure what to make of her warning, because I’m not sure who she’s talking about, but before I can ask, Jackson and Cannon approach us, occasionally trading glares with one another.

“June,” Cannon acknowledges his wife, and June steps into his arms as he leaves Jackson’s side. “Let’s go.”

“Already?” June looks at me.

“Yes, unless you have some…unfinished business to attend to.” Cannon’s gaze slices through me.

“No, no, let’s go,” June says, and with a stiff bow to me and Jackson, she and Cannon leave the ballroom, talking in whispers to each other.

Well, they were nice, I think. I watch them until they exit into the parking lot, then I turn towards Jackson, who’s already looking down at me.

“Who are they?” I ask.

“Old family,” Jackson responds a bit distantly. His eyes are misty, just like June’s, but as they begin to focus on me, the mist fades and he clears his throat. “The ball isn’t the best place to talk about it, but in short terms, they don’t like me anymore.”

“I’ve picked up that much,” I murmur. “They seem betrayed by you.”

Jackson shrugs. “They think of it like that.” His gaze sweeps the nearly empty ballroom. “I see it more as a coping method.”

“Coping method?”

“Pain feeds anger,” he explains. “And anger can’t be held forever. It’s like a volcano. You simply can’t tell it to not explode. It’s going to regardless, and when it does, it’ll cover everything and everyone in its path, no matter if they’re innocent or not.” He sighs, a dejected, desponded sigh.

“And you were…?”

“I was the last bit they needed to explode,” he says. “And the first victim of their fury.” He gazes at the door for a few moments, then clicks his tongue, as though he’s forcing himself to pull away from whatever thought he’s been captured in.

“That sounds sad,” I think out loud. “But I understand it, in a way. It’s how sadness works.”

“It is,” Jackson hums. “But don’t worry about them. They’ve let their bitterness expand into every aspect of their lives and others lives. They’re good leaders, don’t get me wrong. They’re just…different, now.”

“Everybody changes through their experiences,” the words sound robotic coming from my mouth. “Good or bad, it’s the tools used to shape a person, I think. Experience is a lifeline.”

“Oh?” There’s a playful edge in Jackson’s voice, like a challenge but a question too.

I smile. “Yeah. Experience is something you can cut away from and drown, or you can hold it and go with the waves that come with it. And one day, you’ll reach that island, or boat, or safe zone, but I think you gotta be prepared to endure the ride that comes with it, you know?”

“That’s an interesting way to think about it,” Jackson says. He looks up briefly to nod at the workers standing around in the hallway and puts his arm around my shoulders, leading me out of the ballroom as the lights begin to flicker off. “Is that how you’ve always seen it?”

I laugh. “No, not really,” I say. “I’m not some enlightened, aged philosopher, Jackson. I’m still eighteen. I’ve got lots to learn.”

“But…the life line and experience…?”

“Oh, that’s just something I thought of in the shower,” I say, tucking some hair behind my ear. “It was a couple years ago, when I first started working for Alpha Banastre. I was in a rough patch and my life was in a downward spiral.” I tilt my head towards the moon and my chest suddenly feels lighter. “I wanted to call it quits.”

“Call what quits?”

“Everything. My job, my chores, my life.” I look down at the gravel beneath my feet, remembering how my heart shook just as rapidly as the rocks did. The memory is still pretty clear. Me in the shower. Alone. It was past midnight and my clothes lay in a torn heap on the ground. The water was cold – something I learned I’d have to get used to. My tears blended easily with the droplets, so much so I didn’t realize I had been crying until after I went to bed (if I could call a pile of rags on the ground a bed). The idea came so suddenly, right as the water switched off and the cool air slid around me, embracing me just as Jackson’s arms do now.

“What made you change your mind?” Jackson’s voice is soft. There’s no judgement or demand in his tone. He’s just curious, like a little boy looking for the candy jar.

“Crying,” I admit and the corner of my mouth quirks. “It was the feeling, you know? Realizing that salty water came out of my eyes and ran down my skin. They looked like little cars. Blobby, flimsy cars that just kept chugging down my skin, not realizing that they would soon fall off and splatter on the floor.” I chuckle. “But they made it back to the water, I realized. They made it back to their family. It made me want to keep chugging until the end. Besides, my skin wasn’t perfect.” I pull the sleeve of my dress up and show Jackson the little tannish-brown dents in my skin. “It was like going up and down a valley, I realized, but that didn’t stop the tears. They just kept going. So, that’s what I decided to do. I’d take what life threw at me and keep going. Because one day, I’d be just like those blobby cars. I’d find the end and I wouldn’t even feel it or realize it, because I just kept going.”

I finish with a heavy sigh, and when I look up, Jackson’s looking down at me. His eyes are as clear as the night sky above us and his arm drops from around me and his hand comes up to cup my cheek. His palm is warm despite the air around us being chilly. My arms shake. I didn’t realize how cold it was before.

“What?” I ask, blinking. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Because you’re beautiful,” Jackson replies readily. “And intelligent and strong and amazing. I never would’ve been able to see the world the way you see it, Anvi. The way you think…it’s unexpected, sure, but just looking at you – you’ve been through a lot and yet you keep going?”

I shrug. “I told you. I see myself as a tiny blobby car going to join my family one day. Be it in the ocean or the shower floor, I’ll be there soon. Well,” I beam. “I guess I am there now.”

Jackson’s smiling too. “I’m happy you see me that way,” he says. “And I’m honored to be part of your ocean, or, er, shower floor.”

I blush. “Hey, it sounded good in my head, okay?” I plant my hands on my hips.

He laughs. “It did sound good,” he says. “It sounded perfect.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a keychain with more keys than I can count jingling from it. I look to my side. There’s a dark black care sitting beside me, but I’m not sure if it really is black or if it’s just hard to see its color because it’s night. I don’t know what brand it is either, but what really catches my eye is how shiny the vehicle is. It’s as if Jackson took it to the car wash every day!

“It’s my brother’s favorite,” he says as he’s unlocking it, reading my thoughts easily. “I personally don’t mind what car I drive, but he absolutely loves this car.” He steps back, sighing. “I don’t know why.”

“Maybe he just likes the brand? Or the aesthetic?” I suggest.

“Maybe,” Jackson agrees, and we don’t really dwell on that thought for too long. He helps me inside the shotgun seat and slips into the driver’s seat. We both buckle our seatbelts and soon, we’re off driving down the mountainous highway. The stars speed after us. They look like comets in the sky, flashing one after another towards the bottom of the mountain.

“So…how old is your brother?” I ask after the silence begins to get awkward.

“He’s eighteen,” Jackson replies. “So, your age, I suppose.”

“Is he still in school?”

“No. He graduated last month.”

Oh, so he’s younger, I think. “What’s his name?”

“Adonis.”

“Adonis?” I snort, then chuckle. “As in, the Greek God Adonis? The guy who was supposed to be the most handsome man on the planet? That Adonis?”

“Yeah, yeah, that Adonis,” Jackson grumbles, but even he’s smiling. “It doesn’t really suit him, in my opinion, but if you’re talking personality wise, then Adonis is definitely an arrogant prick in my side.”

I can’t help but laugh. “But he’s your brother?” I chortle.

“Yeah, but apart from blood we’re nothing alike,” Jackson scoffs. “If you ask me, I think have the brawns and brains between the two of us. He just has the ability to talk and do absolutely nothing.” He turns at the next exit and my ear pops. “He almost failed the SATs, you know? My parents got so pissed at him.” He snickered. “They took away his phone and everything so he would study.”

“It worked though,” I point out. “He did pass.”

Jackson rolls his eyes. “Just barely, he did,” he says. “But my parents were never sticklers on grades. As long as we tried, that was all that mattered to them.”

I nod. “My mom too. She just wanted me to enjoy life and be happy.” I frown. “My dad had different ideas, though.”

Jackson glances at me. “Parents don’t always agree on how to raise their kids,” he says, and I think he’s trying to cheer me up. “I know I got closer to my dad and distant from my mom during my teenage years. I’m twenty now, and I have a much better relationship with her, though it took me a while to understand her value.”

“Thanks,” I half-smile. I stare down at my splayed fingers against my thigh. “My dad and I were the same way. He and I were close when I was little, but my teenage years split us apart. We fought a lot. My mom sided with me and she and my dad fought. I used to think I was spoiled for fighting against him, because that’s what I learned in school – I went to a private religious school,” I clarify when I see Jackson eyeing me, confused.

He nods in understanding. “Ah, I see,” he mumbles.

I play with my nails. “Yeah, it was a stupid school.” I say. “I hated it. My dad never showed interest in anything I did. We weren’t of any high value in my pack, so money was pretty tight. He hated my ambition and the money it would cost. He belittled me and favored his nephews and nieces over me. He thought because I wanted to write that I would never go anywhere in life.”

We’re off the mountain now and on the main road. Jackson’s quiet. I think he’s thinking about everything that I’ve said. My parents or my time with Alpha Banastre aren’t something that I’m afraid of speaking about. It’s my life. It’s what makes me, me. Yeah, I had a horrible relationship with my dad and yeah, I was abused by Alpha Banastre, but in retrospect, no matter how quiet and compliant they made me, they also made me stronger than I’ve ever felt before. I had a different perspective of life. Besides, they’re my past now. No matter how much I wish I could fix my relationship with my dad, no matter how much I wish I could’ve fought off Alpha Banastre, I know that I just have to move on and hope for the best. And with Jackson, I think I don’t have to hope anymore.

When we stop at a stoplight before the exit to enter the forest highway, I feel something warm encompassing my hand. I look down, then up at Jackson. He’s staring at me as though I’ve given him the sun, stars, and moon.

“What?” I feel my mouth go dry. “What is it?”

“I just…” he stops, huffing, and he smiles. “That sounds like a lot to go through at sixteen – you were sixteen, right?”

I nod. “Yeah, I was.” I run my thumb over the creases and calluses on his palm, memorizing their shape and texture as he continues to drive. “But I had school and writing to distract me. We maintained a relationship – a strained one nonetheless.” I swallow, and the memories sink into my brain again. The flames. The tears. The shouting. It’s so blurry now, but I can still see him. Yelling. Pleading. Begging me to go.

“Anvi?” Jackson fills the gap of my voice. The flames in my mind evaporate immediately and I’m brought back to reality just as the building in my head collapses.

“Huh?” I blink. “Oh, sorry, I must’ve zoned out.” I rub my eyes, and every time I press down on them, the flames return, sometimes pink, sometimes purple, sometimes red, and sometimes blue.

“It’s okay. We’re almost there anyway. You can get some sleep and we can talk more tomorrow, if you want?” His offer is tempting, I’ll admit, but I want to talk.

“No, I’m fine,” I say, and simultaneously yawn. Jackson raises his eyebrow, smirking, and I push his shoulder softly.

“Okay, I am a little tired, but can I finish my story first? You’ve been asking me about it all night, anyway?” I grin even though my heart squeezes a little.

“Is it something you want to talk about?” Jackson keeps his eyes on the road. “I mean, we have just met. I can understand if you want to wait to get to know me a little more.”

I open my mouth to say yes, but something holds me back. I really want to tell Jackson everything. It’s funny, because in a lot of books, it takes the protagonist ages to speak about what they’ve been through, but for me, talking about it is like my coping mechanism. It’s my way of letting the person understand what they’ve signed up for, I guess? At least, that’s what my therapist used to say. I was her open-book, she would tell me, and sometimes when I think about her, I still laugh about it.

But then another part of me warns me to wait a while. That part keeps thinking about what June said, back at the ball. That I should be wary of Jackson. I wanted to ignore her, but she looked so pained and tired and dead that her image ingrained itself into my mind and now I can’t forget it.

Jackson waits patiently for my answer, silent as ever. His eyes are slightly narrowed and his jaw is tight. I can see his knuckles on the steering wheel.

“I…actually want to wait a little more,” I finally decide. “You know, just get to know each other, and the pack itself? I don’t wanna start off on a bad note, anyway.”

He nods, understanding, and I guess he wasn’t thinking about anything else based on how quickly he responded.

“Of course,” he agrees. The forest, I realize, has closed in on us now, a canopy of black, and we slow to a stop at a dark, imposing gate which I have to assume is the entrance to his pack. Jackson breaks away from me for a moment to speak with the guard at the gate. The guard’s eyes catch mine, guarded and thoughtful, before he nods to Jackson and opens the gate. Jackson returns to his seat and buckles his seatbelt.

I lean back in my seat, and just when I’m about to turn to look out the window, Jackson takes my hand, drawing my eyes back up to his.

“Huh?” I squeak. He smiles, a roguish, dark smile that makes him look undeniably handsome and brings my hand up for a kiss. His lips are smooth and cold, soaking in the chilly air around us.

“Welcome home, Luna,” he says, his voice a breathy whisper, inviting and promising, and as my stomach tangles itself, my mind all delighted and flushed, I feel my heart soar. We’ve made it. We’re finally here.

Home.

~~~~~~~

Hey guys!

What do you think? Jackson and Anvi have finally made it to his pack, and Anvi has revealed her troubled relationship with her father to him, but what’s Jackson hiding? What did June mean? Will Anvi ever find out about Jackson’s past? And will Jackson learn the truth of Anvi’s relationship with Banastre and her parents?

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