I stumbled out of Azazel’s hut. I couldn’t take the way she was looking at me. Even though we were in a dimly lit underground room, the lights hurt my eyes after the darkness of Azazel’s hut. Graham was still outside. He’d probably been listening to our entire conversation. I pulled the baseball cap back over my head so that I could hide behind it again.
“Jason?” said a female voice.
Someone was pushing past Graham. I turned in the direction of the movement.
Marlena appeared beside Graham. She was Hallam’s wife and the closest thing I’d ever had to a big sister. Her father had been a small-time car thief, and when I’d been on the run from the Sons, she’d been my contact for fake IDs and fraudulent credit cards. She was a wiry black woman with a British accent who was as comfortable with a shotgun as she was with flying under the radar. And she was pregnant. She stood in front of me, a huge grin on her face, one hand on her swelling belly. “It is you.” Her accent wasn’t nearly as muddled as Hallam’s. Of course, she’d grown up stateside, so I guess she’d gotten used to speaking differently than everyone else.
“Hello, Marlena,” I said, feeling sheepish.
She rushed to me, flinging her arms wide. “I’m so glad to see you.” She practically tackled me with her huge hug.
I hugged back. I had to admit it was nice that someone was happy to see me. Even if I didn’t deserve it. “I’m glad to see you too.” And I was. Marlena was like family. The closest thing I’d ever really had to real family.
She pulled back. “How have you been? It’s been ages.”
“I’ve been, you know, existing. How about you?” I gestured towards her belly. “You’re, I mean…”
She laughed, rubbing her enormous stomach. “This wasn’t planned. But it was a nice surprise. Hallam and I are excited. Well, worried and excited.” She shrugged. “The world’s gone to complete hell, but life keeps going on.”
I glanced back at Azazel’s hut, remembering how changed she was. “You’re right. It does.”
Marlena took my hand. She smiled up at me. “Walk with me, Jason. Let’s catch up.”
I didn’t protest, but I didn’t know where exactly we were going to walk to. The underground room wasn’t very large. I let Marlena lead me around the edge of the ramshackle huts. The earthen wall to one side of us, we walked the perimeter of the room. Dirty faces watched us, but no one approached. I could tell that I was a curiosity, but that people were wary of me. They had good reason to be.
As we walked, Marlena kept up a steady chatter. “I’ve been worried about you. Azazel and Hallam have too, I know it. Every time I’ve brought you up, they’ve gotten quiet, but I’ve seen it in their eyes. Hallam and I always felt responsible for the two of you. And you’ve always been special to me, Jason. There aren’t many people who knew me when I was a kid. I know you can take care of yourself, but not knowing where you’ve been all this time has been killing me. I kept thinking that something awful had happened to you. That you were trapped or hurt or worse.”
Guilt twisted in my stomach. All the time that I’d been gone, I’d never thought that my absence had caused anyone any pain. I’d only worried that my presence would cause pain. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m glad you’re okay. I know you must have had a good reason for staying away.”
I couldn’t look at her. “I needed…”
“To be alone?”
She stopped walking. Forced me to stop too. “Oh, Jason.” She put a hand on my cheek.
I ducked away from her touch and started walking again. “I did a lot of horrible things, Marlena. Maybe you don’t remember, but I can’t forget. They haunt me. I tried to go somewhere and be alone with it, but Kieran found me, and he’s looking for Chance. I only came here to make sure he was safe. Now that I know, I’ll—”
“Don’t you dare say you’ll leave again.”
“Hallam thinks I should.”
“What?” She turned away from me, scanning the room with her eyes as if she wanted to send her husband a reproachful look. Not seeing him, she turned back to me. “Did he say that to you?”
I nodded. “He thinks Azazel and I are bad for each other. He’s right.”
Marlena squeezed my shoulder. “That isn’t true. You need each other. You always have. She was good for you. I always thought so.”
I bit out a sardonic laugh. “I wasn’t good for her.”
Marlena didn’t say anything for a minute. We walked. Then she spoke up. “I’m not saying you didn’t go off the rails a little back then.” She sighed. “Maybe we all did. Hallam and I went out west. We took groups of witches. We did spells. We got in firefights. We forced the Order of the Fly on everyone. We were convinced we were right. You don’t have the monopoly on bad choices, you know.”
“I killed people. A lot of people.”
“I did too.” She set her lips in a grim line.
I shook my head. “It’s not the same. You weren’t there. You didn’t see Jasontown. The slaughter. The heads on sticks. When you close your eyes, you don’t smell the blood.”
“Like I said, Jason, the world went to hell.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It did. But I was in the driver’s seat.”
She squeezed my hand again. “Maybe you just needed us, and we weren’t there for you. After baby Jenna died, we were all devastated. We all processed the hurt differently. The way we reacted to what happened to Chance—”
“Marlena, it wasn’t your fault that I went nuts and shot him. I was a jealous wreck. There’s nothing anyone could have done for me. That’s on me.” It was all on me. I didn’t like it when people tried to take the blame for my screw-ups. I’d done things wrong. I knew it, and I wasn’t going to accept excuses.
“But we simply let you go. We didn’t even look for you. And when we saw you again…”
It was my turn to squeeze her shoulder. “Not your fault.”
“Things haunt me too, Jason.” Her voice was soft. “You can’t be sure that things wouldn’t have turned out differently if we’d looked after you better. I know you. I’ve known you since you were a snot-nosed brat, and I know what’s deep inside your heart. You’re not an evil person. You never have been.”
I turned away. “Then you don’t know me very well at all.”
“I do . You know who’s evil, Jason? Kieran and Eve are. They’re trying to steal your son. They’re killing people for sport. That’s what their ‘games’ are. Excuses to watch people die. That’s evil.”
I turned to her and looked deep into her eyes. It was important that she understand. “Once I convinced a town of dancing people to trample men to death. I made them enjoy it. I made them feel as though it was the right thing to do. I made them laugh and sing and play music while I made them kill. And then I made them love me for it. I am evil. You have no idea the things that I’ve done.”
She flinched. “But you aren’t doing those things anymore.”
“It doesn’t make up for anything really, though. The damage I’ve created is done.”
“You won’t do it again,” she said. “And that’s enough. I think you need to get your powers back. I don’t think Kieran and Eve are supposed to have them. I think you and Azazel would do a better job.”
I was too stunned to speak. My jaw went slack. My eyes went wide. I couldn’t believe she’d said something so completely idiotic.
She kept going. “I’m going to have a baby, Jason. I don’t want to raise him underneath the metro station. I’ve been talking to Agnes, when our witches channel her, and she says there’s a way for you to get your power back. If you did, we wouldn’t need to hide anymore. Everything would be okay. You and Azazel wouldn’t be as cruel and insane as Kieran and Eve.”
“No,” I whispered. “We’d be ten times worse.” I stalked away from her. I didn’t know what to say. She had no right to ask me to do that. And she was completely wrong to trust me. It made me angry at her somehow. Angry and bewildered. And it hurt me to know that she was begging me for help, and I couldn’t help her.
I gathered up my big trash bag of magic leaves and headed for the exit. I was no good to anyone here. I didn’t know where I’d go, but I wouldn’t stay here. Azazel had kissed me. She’d yelled at me too, but I knew how this story went. We’d fight, we’d kiss, and before we knew it, we’d be back to our old screwed-up relationship. That was the last thing she needed. If I disappeared permanently, maybe she could be happy with someone else. Someone less screwed up. And it would be easier for Marlena to let go of her silly dream of Azazel and me taking over the world again if I wasn’t around. Overall, it was better for everyone if I got the heck out of there, so I’d go.
I slung the bag over my shoulder as I approached the guards at the opening to the cavernous room.
Graham stepped into my path. “Hold up,” he said. “Where are you going?”
I set the bag down on the ground. “Away. Somewhere where I can’t hurt anyone any worse than I already have.”
He stifled a smirk. “Well aren’t you the poster child for guilty brooding.”
That was an insult. I could respond. After all, I guess I was supposed to see Graham as my competition for Azazel. I was supposed to get all macho and insult him back. Maybe I was supposed to get in a fistfight with him or something. But I’d done enough of that juvenile crap with Kieran. I knew now that acting that way would only hurt Azazel worse. And I didn’t want to hurt her. I’d never wanted to hurt her. So I only shrugged. “You gonna stop me?”
He raised his eyebrows, glancing from me to the garbage bag on the ground. “What’s in the bag?”
I opened it up and showed him. “Just these leaves. I guess you guys must be growing a bunch of them if all of you are living here without being under the influence of Kieran and Eve.”
His eyes widened. “Actually, no. Azazel had some years ago, but we couldn’t get them to grow. The only way we’re clear of Kieran and Eve’s mojo is from our witches blocking it magically.” He picked up the bag. “We’ve got to show these to Azazel. She’s going to be over the moon.”
I sighed. I was being dragged back into this, wasn’t I? “Just take some of them and let me go. You don’t need me. You need the leaves. I only need enough to get me to the next place I settle in and for a cutting to grow more.”
Graham rolled his eyes. “You’re a piece of work, you know that? With the way people talk about you around here, I half-expected you to sail in here and fix everything, like some kind of messiah.”
I flinched at the word. “I’m not any kind of messiah.”
“No. I get that. You’re a coward. You make messes and run from them.”
Okay, he was still doing the insult thing. It was getting harder to take the high road and not react. I glared at him.
“Do you have any idea what it will do to her if you run off again?” Graham asked.
I knew who he was talking about. I took a deep breath and let it out again, trying to steady myself. “She’ll get over it. I’m sure you’ll help her out with that.”
He shook his head. “Whatever. She’s had five years to get over you, and she hasn’t done it yet. I’m just a fuck buddy.” He hoisted the bag of leaves. “I’m going over there to show her these. You coming or not?”
He was taking all my leaves. I didn’t have much choice, did I? I couldn’t leave without them or I’d be Kieran’s bitch in a day. I rolled my eyes, but I followed him. When we got to Azazel’s hut, Graham pounded on the door.
“What?” came Azazel’s voice from inside. Shit. It sounded as though she’d been crying. Sure enough, when she came outside, her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. I avoided her gaze.
Graham showed her the bag. “Guess what Jason brought?” He opened it up to show her.
Her eyes got big. “Oh my God. You’ve still got some.”
She bounded over to me and hugged me. “That is freaking awesome!”
I was afraid to put my arms around her again, so I stood there stiffly, letting her hug me. When she noticed I wasn’t responding, I felt her stiffen as well. She pulled away. I stole a look at her face. She was stone again. Her scar pulsed angry and red against her skin. How had that happened? I had an urge to reach up and touch it, gently run my fingers over her brow. Of course, I didn’t.
She turned to Graham. “Get Hallam. We’ve got plans to make.”
It turned out that the reason Azazel had never moved on Kieran and Eve by dosing the water supply in Washington, D.C. was that she hadn’t had any of the herb that blocked the magic. Apparently, she’d taken it with her when she’d gone to Georgia and had a crop growing there. In Shiloh, she’d met up with Hallam and Marlena, and they were traveling with people who’d worked for the OF, including some witches who were able to block the magic. They’d taken the herbs with them when they relocated to D.C., but they’d been unable to grow anymore of the herbs, which meant that Azazel’s plan of attack against Kieran and Eve had been put on hold. She’d been looking for more leaves ever since, but had been unable to find them.
Now that the Resistance had some leaves, Azazel wanted to put the plan into action right away.
I asked her why, if they had such powerful witches, they couldn’t have the witches block the magic for all of D.C. She said the witches weren’t that powerful. They struggled to block Kieran and Eve’s powers from the small group that was the Resistance. According to Azazel, the herbs were the only way to get a large group of people out from under Kieran and Eve’s power.
Azazel sent a few people off with some of the herb to plant it in an area above ground. Apparently, they’d scouted it out as a place that wouldn’t be discovered before all their plants had died. Then she sat down with Graham, Hallam, me, and several other members of the Resistance to put together a plan for dosing the city. The sooner, the better, she said.
And just like that, I was back in. I wasn’t leaving after all. I was part of the plan. I was part of the Resistance. I’d say it was like old times, but it wasn’t. Azazel and I had always been alone. We’d never worked with large groups or had any help. It had always been us against the world. But some things were the same. It was still me and Azazel up against something huge. And the odds were still against us.
I’d wanted to stay hidden, so that I wouldn’t destroy anything else. Now, here I was, an integral part of this scheme. Who would I let down? What would I mess up? Was there time to back out? But I remembered that Graham had called me a coward who ran from my messes. I didn’t want that to be true. For some reason, I wanted to prove myself.
We talked for hours, getting every aspect of the plan down, going over every possibility, planning for anything that could go wrong. At some point, some other members of the Resistance brought us food. It was boiled rice with some canned beans mixed in. The seasoning was bland. No one seemed to care much. They wolfed down their food and kept going over the plan.
By the time we were done, it was late. Azazel finally called it a night and said everyone should get some sleep. Everyone got up, stretching since we’d been sitting so long. One by one, they wandered off to their various poorly constructed huts. Finally, there was no one left but Graham, Azazel, and me. I didn’t have a hut, but I didn’t mind. I could sleep on the ground without any problem.
“Jason doesn’t have a place to stay,” said Azazel. She was talking to Graham, but she was staring right at me. “Why don’t you bunk down with me and let Jason stay at your place?”
Graham didn’t say anything.
I didn’t either. Was she trying to bait me by flaunting the fact that she was sleeping with another guy? Was this some kind of test? Or was she trying to hurt me? Because I couldn’t deny that it kind of hurt. I’d kissed her earlier. I knew it hadn’t meant anything, not really. But we’d been so close to each other, and the way she felt in my arms was too fresh in my mind.
“Why don’t you let him stay with you?” Graham said.
“What?” said Azazel.
“The walls around here are kind of thin,” said Graham. “I’m not sure how comfortable I feel being in the same bed with you after I heard you making out with him earlier today.”
“I can sleep on the ground,” I said. “It’s really fine.”
Azazel turned on Graham. “We’ve never made each other any kind of exclusive commitments, and you know that.”
Graham laughed under his breath. He pointed one finger at Azazel and one at me. “I’m not getting in the middle of this, okay? You want to make him jealous, pick someone else.”
“Graham, it’s not like that,” said Azazel.
“Sure it is,” he said. He crossed to her. He put a hand on her waist easily, as though she belonged to him. He pulled her close, and planted his lips on her forehead. “It was nice while it lasted.” Then he let her go and walked off.
But my stomach was in knots. Even the whole time Kieran was with Azazel, I didn’t think I’d ever actually witnessed them being intimate in any way. I’d never seen another man kiss Azazel. Even on the forehead. I felt a surge of possessiveness, hot like lava. I fought against it. She wasn’t mine. Any claim I’d had on her I’d forfeited when I’d walked away from her. I fought to keep my breath steady.
Azazel glowered at me. “I think I can find you a blanket if you’re sure you don’t mind sleeping out here.”
“Not at all,” I said.
She walked away for a few minutes. She returned with a pillow in a faded case and a frayed quilt. She handed them to me. “It’s been a long time, Jason. I can’t jump back into anything.”
“I’m not asking you to.”
Her face fell.
“Not because I don’t want…” I looked away from her and studied the pattern on the quilt. “I don’t deserve you. You said it yourself.”
Azazel wrapped her arms around herself. She looked young again, suddenly, like the sixteen-year-old girl I’d comforted after her parents had betrayed her. “Oh, who deserves anybody, anyway?”
Was that an invitation? Once upon a time, I remembered being so sure of myself. Cocky, even. But I’d been full of my power back then. It made me feel invincible. Actually, it made me literally invincible. To everyone except her. And even now, without any magical powers, I found that Azazel was the only one with the power to really hurt me. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the chance. “Look, everyone on earth has always said we were bad for each other.”
“And we’ve never listened to them,” she said.
“And look how well things have turned out,” I said.
She took a step back, hurt all over her face. “Right,” she said. She turned on her heel and left me in the darkness.
This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.