Big badd wolf, p.14
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       Big Badd Wolf, p.14

         Part #7 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
 
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  I bent over, hands on my thighs, gasping. "What are we stopping for?"

  Xavier was as out of breath as I was. "Running sprints up that," he said, gesturing at the hill.

  "What?" I gasped. "You're crazy."

  He nodded. "I am a little crazy, I suppose. Hill sprints are brutal but effective."

  "A four-mile run, hill sprints, and then a four mile run back?"

  He nodded, grinning at me. "I've done a few free weight sets with Bast already."

  I rebound my hair into a tight topknot and scrubbed sweat off my face. "Crazy fucker." I swung my arms and shook out my legs. "Let's do this, then."

  For the next fifteen minutes, we sprinted up the hill, walked gasping back down, rested a moment, and then sprinted back up, repeating until we were both holding stitches in our sides and pouring sweat.

  Xavier pointed at a fallen tree on the side of the road. "Let's rest before we run back."

  We sat down, breathing raggedly.

  After a few minutes of silence, I glanced at my brother. "What did you mean, before, that I was a victim of my own self-isolation?"

  He wiped sweat off his brow with the back of his wrist. "How honest would you like me to be?"

  I frowned at the question. "Um, very?"

  "Then you have to respond in kind." He met my gaze, his fierce jade eyes piercing. "No avoidance."

  I actually hesitated. "Xavier, I--"

  He flicked his gaze away, shaking his head. "See? You cannot even agree to that much."

  "Fine, Jesus. Just tell me what you meant."

  He picked up a twig at his feet and began peeling the bark off of it. "Ever since I was young, you have held yourself apart. As if you were...separate from the rest of us, somehow. You never entered conversations, never interacted with the rest of us. Canaan and Corin would play with me when I was little, and so would the others, but you...you never did. You just seemed...disinterested. In me, in all of us. As if whatever was going on in your head was more interesting to you than your own family."

  I fought the urge to respond defensively, and thought about what he was saying. "It wasn't like that."

  "I am only saying how it seemed to me. I cannot speak for our brothers, obviously, but they have all made similar comments at some point. None of us really...know you. You will not let us."

  The shell was coming out, the walls shooting up. "What do you want, my life story?"

  He quirked an eyebrow at me. "You only prove my point with your use of sarcasm as a defense."

  I growled, picking up a pebble and tossing it angrily at a tree trunk. "Asshole."

  He ducked his head, picking up another twig. "Am I an asshole because I am right, or because I said it at all?"

  "Use a contraction once in a while, man, shit." I flung another pebble. "Both."

  "The use of jargon and slang makes me feel uncomfortable. I prefer a more formal manner of speech."

  "Because you're uncomfortable with this conversation. You don't always talk like this."

  He nodded. "That much is true." He glanced at me. "Will you answer a question as truthfully as possible?"

  "I'll try."

  "What happened with Joss? Why did she leave?"

  "I don't know," I muttered, miserable and annoyed.

  "That is a lie."

  I sighed, and picked up a twig of my own, using it to chisel more pebbles out of the earth at my feet. "You're an annoying little shit, you know that?"

  "We are the same size, Lucian."

  "Latch onto the wrong thing, why don't you," I said, chuckling. "Joss left because that's what she does, okay? She leaves."

  Xavier's gaze was sharp. "I do not think that is the entire truth, Lucian."

  I eyed him sideways, and then tossed several pebbles as hard as I could, hitting a tree trunk about six feet away. "Goddammit, Xavier. Can't you let it go?"

  "Why is it so hard to tell me what happened?"

  "She left because of me, okay? She left because--because things got fucked up. She and I are both a mess, and it was never going to work between us."

  "You cannot know that for certain. I think unless you try, you will never know what could work." He snapped the twig into halves, and then quarters. "But I think you are too trapped in your own self-isolation that you refuse to see possibilities."

  "There you go again with the self-isolation bullshit."

  "It's not bullshit, it's the truth!" For a moment, he lapsed into informality. "You isolate yourself. For some reason, you feel as if you are separate from us, and thus keep yourself held apart, alone. You perpetuate the myth of the lone wolf within yourself."

  I frowned at him. "The fuck's that mean?"

  "You are smart enough to know what it means, Lucian. You just have to be honest enough with yourself to admit it."

  I stood up and paced away, Xavier's razor-sharp insights cut through me. He remained where he was, watching me, and eventually I sat back down on the log, breathing a long, resigned sigh.

  "You're awfully observant for a guy with zero social skills."

  He laughed good-naturedly. "You are not one to talk, Lucian. I may be awkward socially, but at least I try. You don't do even that, the majority of the time." He chose another twig. "You cannot avoid the issue by insulting me, you know."

  I groaned, and rubbed my face with my hands. "Goddammit. Why is this so hard?"

  "Because you are trapped in your own--"

  "Self-isolation," I said in unison with him. "I know, I know."

  "As with most things in life, I think the only way out, here, Lucian, is through."

  "When did you get so wise?" I asked.

  "By virtue of facing many challenges in a very short life."

  "I see." I met his gaze. "So what is it I'm supposed to be opening up with, here?"

  Xavier shrugged. "What happened with Joss and why she left, why you have always been so solitary and unwilling to connect with the rest of us, why you're so unhappy all the time...pick one."

  "It's all mixed up into one big mess," I said. "You really want to know all this bullshit?"

  He nodded. "Yes. Very much."

  I was silent for a long time. "I don't fit. I never have."

  "You do not fit where?"

  "Anywhere. With anyone. In this family. With you guys." I pinched the bridge of my nose. "I've always felt that way. It's why I am the way I am."

  "In what way do you feel you do not fit with us?"

  "Because I'm just...not like any of you. I'm not loud or big or cool like the older boys, I'm not a rock star like the twins, or a genius like you. I felt...shit, I don't know how to put it. I felt trapped in my own head. Lost in myself. A small person in a big world, and a useless addition in a big family."

  Xavier didn't answer right away. "Lucian...how can you not see your own value?"

  I laughed bitterly. "What value?"

  "You have always been effortlessly cool, simply because you are so...mysterious." He held my gaze. "You speak little, but when you do, what you say is worth listening to. You project an air of capability, as if you could do anything you decide to."

  "That's a nice observation, but--"

  "But nothing." He held my gaze. "Self-worth comes from within. It does not come from a talent, or a skill, or a calling. No one can give it to you."

  I nodded, and tore my gaze away. "That's my deep secret, I guess, what the whole lone wolf thing is meant to hide--that I don't..." It was so, so hard to say out loud. "That I'm intimidated by all of you guys, and always have been, and I got so caught up in feeling left out and feeling like I didn't fit that I..." I trailed off with a shake of my head.

  "You what? Say it."

  "I've always felt...extra." My voice dropped to a whisper. "Worthless."

  "It hurts me deeply to hear you say that." He pinned me with his gaze. "Because you are not."

  "Xavier--"

  "You are not worthless, Lucian." He twisted to sit facing me, straddling the log. "You are our family. Our brother. B
y blood, yes, but also by choice. We value you. We love you."

  I stood up and paced away, agitated, emotional. "Dammit, Xavier."

  He followed me. "Emotion is not weakness, Lucian." He went around to stand in front of me. "To have emotions is to be human."

  "It's fucking hard. It hurts."

  "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." Xavier glanced at me, waiting to see if I recognized the quote.

  "I've heard that before, but I don't know who it is," I admitted.

  "John Donne."

  "Huh. And how does that relate to me?"

  "Well I'd think the first part was pretty self-explanatory." In more familiar territory, Xavier loosened a little. "No man is an island, entire of itself. You're not alone, Luce--that's what it means. You cannot be alone. We are not meant to be alone all the time."

  "And the clod being washed away? What's that mean?"

  "Well, that's what I love about poetry--its meaning is not fixed, it is not immutable. A number is a number, it is what it is and cannot be changed. A poem? Well, the meaning of a poem can be...twisted, you might say, to suit the moment. For example, John Donne was speaking of death, yes. 'Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.' Meaning, we are all connected. When someone dies, it affects everyone. We are all made less for the loss. But take it back to the concept of connection, Luce: when you feel you have no value, you subtract that meaning from us. We feel you have value--immense value. Disclaiming that makes futile the value we have placed on you."

  I stared at him. "Jesus, Xavier."

  He glanced at me, baffled. "What?"

  "You are something else, you know that?" I laughed, ducking my head. "What else does John Donne have to say about me?"

  Xavier thought for a moment. "Ah, I know." He paused, and then quoted. "But we know ourselves least; mere outward shows our minds so store, that our souls no more than our eyes disclose but form and color. Only he who knows himself, knows more."

  I laughed again. "And the explanation?"

  "We are each of us the poorest judges of ourselves. We cannot see ourselves from without, and so cannot judge our own worth."

  "Goddamn, dude." I sighed. "Maybe you're right."

  "Perhaps." He glanced at me. "But being right is meaningless if it doesn't push you into allowing yourself to become more. To connect. To claim your own worth and find your sense of self and meaning."

  I let silence fill the space, and realized he was right. I've been so lost and trapped in my own sense of isolation, as Xavier put it, that I've never let myself even see what I'm capable of. And if I don't force myself to change, I never will.

  And the only place to begin is by trusting Xavier.

  "Neither Joss nor I were willing to trust each other. We were always dancing around how we felt. And when she finally did admit the truth about certain things, it was...too late, I guess. She ran off."

  "And how do you feel?"

  "I..." I choked on my thoughts. "I feel...a lot for her."

  "It's a start," Xavier said. "But it's not everything."

  "I want...I want her here. I want a future. I want us." I admitted it, out loud, and it sent a shock of exhilaration through me. "I just don't know what that looks like, or how to get it. Or if it's possible."

  "Why wouldn't it be?"

  "Because she left! She's gone, and I have no idea where she is."

  Xavier eyed me thoughtfully. "And if you could find her...what then?"

  I ducked my head and sighed. "I'd tell her how I felt. I'd ask her for a chance to...to at least try."

  Xavier stood up. "Come on. Time to head back before our muscles cool off completely."

  "Just like that?"

  He shrugged. "There is not very much we can do much from here, is there?"

  "I guess not."

  The run back was more leisurely, an easy jog. Good thing, too, because my head was spinning, and my heart trying to germinate a seed of hope.

  When we got back, Tate was outside the studio, camera in hand, trying to bend down far enough to take a picture of a dandelion growing up in the gap between the squares of concrete. She was so hugely pregnant, however, that she couldn't get the right angle and she was getting frustrated.

  "Dammit." She straightened, and then rested the camera on her belly while she scrolled through the photos she'd taken, none of which seemed to suit her. "These are all shit."

  Xavier vanished into the bar, on a mission of some kind, leaving me with Tate.

  "Photography problems?" I asked.

  She sighed, shoving the camera at me. "More pregnancy problems. I want this photo of the dandelion, but I can't get the angle right. If I get down on the ground to get it, I'll never get up. In fact, to be honest, I couldn't even get down that far."

  I tapped the button to scroll through the last few photos--all of the dandelion from different angles. Something clicked in my head, and I glanced at her. "I see what you mean. Want me to try? I'm no photographer, but I think I see what you're going for."

  "Sure. Go for it."

  I slung the strap over my neck and got down on my belly on the sidewalk and snapped a photo. I adjusted the lens, snapped another. It needed to be closer, bigger--I shifted forward and zoomed in as far as the lens would allow, until the bright yellow center filled the viewfinder entirely, out of focus. The lens zoomed and whirred, and then the focus clarified, and I snapped several shots.

  Standing up, I handed the camera back to Tate. "See if any of those work."

  She took the camera and flipped through the shots I'd taken. And then did so again, more slowly, stopping on the last few. Eventually, she glanced up at me with an odd expression on her face. "Lucian...?"

  "Tate?"

  She pressed a button on the back of the digital Nikon, and then pivoted to stand beside me, showing me the photos I'd taken. "Look."

  She'd changed the display so the photograph appeared in black and white, but it was so close that it was nearly impossible to tell what it was at first. It was almost abstract, in a way.

  I blinked at her. "I took that?"

  She grinned. "Yeah, you did."

  I stared at the photo with an odd, unsettled, squirming kind of excitement bubbling up inside me. "It's weird...but kind of cool."

  Tate tilted her head and stared at me. "Kind of--Lucian...are you kidding me? It's amazing! Edit that in Photoshop, bring out the shadows and sharpen the contrast, blow it up, print on a big sheet of glossy photo paper...you could frame that and sell it."

  I snorted. "Oh, come on."

  She smacked my arm with the back of her hand. "Lucian, I'm serious! You think I don't know what I'm talking about?"

  I shrugged. "Your own photography, maybe." There was too much going on inside me, and I was falling back on avoidance and defensive distance. "That's just...I don't know."

  Tate smirked at me. "You liked it, didn't you?"

  I held a carefully blank expression. "A little, I guess."

  She stared me down until I looked away. "I see you, Lucian Badd." She grabbed my hand and tugged me toward the studio. "Come on. I want to show you something."

  I followed her upstairs to her and Corin's room, where they had a small desk set up against the wall, on which was a top-of-the-line iMac and an expensive-looking printer. I stood in the doorway while Tate waddled to the desk, slumped laboriously into the chair, booted up the computer, and plugged a cord into the camera, connecting it to the computer. She transferred the photo from the camera to the editing program, and I watched as she touched up the photo, not altering it, but improving it so carefully it wasn't obvious anything had been done, until the photo looked...almost professional. And then she pr
inted it out, stood up, and pointed at the photo sitting in the printer tray.

  "Grab that," she ordered, "but don't touch the glossy part, it's still damp."

  I followed her into the kitchen, carrying the photo on my fingertips. She gestured at the table, and I set it down; Tate slid a storage crate across the floor, flipped off the lid, and sat in a kitchen chair to dig through the crate, which was full photography supplies.

  I watched, fascinated, as she placed the 8x11 photo onto a pre-cut mat, and then fit the matted photo into a thin black frame. I thought she'd hand it to me, then, but she didn't.

  "Come on," she said, reaching for me. "Help me up."

  We saw Corin again as we passed through the studio; he was on the couch, bass guitar in hand, idly hammering out a riff. "Where you two goin'?"

  "The gallery," Tate said. "I have a point to prove."

  Corin set the bass aside, shut off the amp, and stood up. "Ooh, I love it when you prove points, especially when it's not to me. I'll tag along, if that's okay."

  The gallery? Eva's gallery? What point could she be trying to prove?

  We walked the couple of blocks to Eva's gallery, which also had a painting studio in the back, and found Eva at an easel with a brush in one hand and a palette in the other, wearing a long white button-down of Baxter's, the huge sleeves rolled up half a dozen times, the hem hanging to midthigh. She was painting a portrait of Bax, done in a single thick, dramatically swooping black line, a side profile that was almost abstract but also unmistakable as being Bax.

  Eva glanced up as we entered via the private side door that led directly into the studio. "Hey there, kids!"

  She scraped the paint off of her brush onto the palette and set both down on a nearby table, which was littered with tubes of oil paint in every hue imaginable, wiped her fingertips on her shirtfront, and glanced at the three of us in turn.

  "Lucian, hi," she said her smile fading. "Where's Joss?"

  Corin blew a raspberry. "You're wasting your breath, Eva. He won't say shit about shit."

  I glared at him, and turned to Eva. "She left Ketchikan," I said.

  "Why?"

  "Again, you're wasting your breath--" Corin started.

  Tate whacked Corin across the chest, hard. "Shut up, Cor."

  I swiveled to face him. "I get that I haven't been the most...communicative or open, as of late."

  "Or ever," he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

  "I had a long talk with Xavier today, and..." I sighed. "I'm going to work on being more..." I waved a hand, hunting for the right word.

 
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