the Neal special

God, I wish there was a plot twist here. Like surprise, there was actually a different creature in the area murdering people, and we caught it instead and Emily Glinwood is innocent, happy, healthy, totally fine.

That’s genuinely how I was expecting this thing to play out. I don’t know why that’s what I thought, I don’t consider myself like… a naturally optimistic person. But I thought we were gonna work a miracle. I really thought we were going to swoop in here and have some solution. That’s what we always do, we come into situations that everyone thought were helpless, and we fix them.

Not this time.

When we returned with the evidence we collected, Emily serenely accepted what we’d found. “Yes, I remember something like that,” she said. “I woke up thinking I’d been in surgery all night.”

Which is a thoroughly horrifying thing to say.

“Oh look at you all, so grave!” she added. “I’m killing people, for heavens sake! Don’t waste your grief of me!”

“It’s not your fault, Em,” Julian said.

She gave him an amused, gentle look. “Of course it is,” she said. “We’ve known for how many years this was coming? I’ve been preparing for this inevitability my whole life, and I still couldn’t prevent it.” She reached to cradle his scruffy cheek. “You are so sweet to be sad,” she said. “But I’ve let this go on too long already.”

“Let us take you somewhere,” Neal said. “To Palefish, or the Emporium. They’ll look after you until —”

“Until I’m too dangerous and too powerful to contain any longer? I can’t go to Palefish, there are children there. The Emporium’s balance is too precarious for a creature as powerful and devious as I will become. They couldn’t manage me. This is the only answer. We’ve always known that.”

Julian was wordlessly shaking his head.

“My choice,” she said, just to him. “Remember?”

And that was when I checked the fuck out. I tried to slip out quietly so no one would notice, but obviously I couldn’t leave the entire apartment without Neal noticing. He had the decency to at least wait a few minutes for me to collect myself before coming to check on me.

I was sitting against the wall facing the door, so he came and sat beside me.

“You okay?”

NO Neal, of course not. Of COURSE I wasn’t okay, jesus.

“Why do we have to be the ones to kill her?” I demanded, because it’s not like I don’t respect her decisions, like I’ve never been an out of control murderer on a downward spiral, and I don’t know what choices I’d make. But why in the FUCK is it our problem? Why is it Julian’s horrible god awful task?

Neal hesitated. “…I mean, Shiloh, that’s the job. You know that.”

“No,” I cried, for sure losing any grasp on my self control. “Bullshit. We’re supposed to save everyone! We go in, we find the creature, we remove the creature from dangerous circumstances and everyone gets to live happily ever after! It’s not our job to —” I stopped because I couldn’t say out loud what we were going to do. “This isn’t how fucking society is supposed to work!”

“Who else is gonna do it?”

“No one should have to do it,” I said. “There should be a system in place so that this shit never fucking happens.”

Neal’s expression softened. “Yeah, that would preferable.”

“She should never have been infected in the first place, much less be forced to call in some fucking freelance wild-life protective services to put her down like an animal! Why isn’t there a place she can go?”

But there was no answer to the question. Neal dragged me into a big hug let me cry it out.

We spent the next two days helping Emily get the rest of her affairs in order. We ate at her favorite restaurant, went kayaking, walked along the river, picnicked on the roof of the hospital.

And then, last night she had an episode. We were watching a movie, and she got up to make some popcorn and the next thing I know, there’s a scalpel slicing into the back of my head.

It was so sharp that tbh I didn’t really even understand what had happened for a second, I just felt a pinch and warm wet down the back of my neck and then suddenly the Hawthornes were in motion. They didn’t make a sound, they were suddenly just on the problem, Julian intercepting her, Neal stabbing her hard in the neck with a syringe of what I assumed had to be tranquilizer.

It took a second for the tranqs to set in, though, and in that time she shook Julian off like he was nothing, and I barely had time to throw up my hands between my face and the scalpel. It was sheer dumb luck that I managed to get out of there with slashed up fingers instead of a slashed up face before the tranqs set in and she crumpled, haphazard, down on the couch.

“Oh god, Shiloh, I’m sorry,” Julian said, lifting my hair to see the damage.

“I’m fine,” I lied, even though I was totally panicking. “It’s not deep.”

That turned out to be only partially true, as Neal discovered, pushing aside my hair to clean out the cuts. “This might need stitches,” he said.

But we couldn’t go the hospital. We’re still Big Time on the run. Which is how I ended up with my very first Neal Hawthorne special — which is just Neal’s annoying way of saying three stitches done with the local anesthetic we had in the med kit in the back of the car. Which is one thing, but to be honest, it’s my poor taped up fingers that are currently driving me crazy.

We were still in the middle of the stitches when Cara called. I had to pick up because Neal was still fiddling with needle and thread on the back of my head.

“Cara?”

“Hey,” she said. “Um, where are you?”

“Listen, is this an emergency?”

She hesitated.

“Because if it’s anything other than like, a huge emergency, I literally do not have time.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Do you remember Emily Glinwood?”

“That girl with the Hyde? The one Julian was so close with?”

“Yeah,” Neal said. “Well it’s gotten bad.”

Cara was quiet for a long moment. “Oh. Shit. Okay. Um… tell him I’m really sorry.”

“Yeah, I will,” Neal said.

“Is Shiloh okay?”

“I’m here,” I said. “I’m okay!”

“Hi baby,” she said.

“I’m stitching her up now,” Neal said dryly. “Got a little bit sliced open, but she’ll be fine.” He waited, but she didn’t say anything. “What’s up Cara?”

“Nothing,” she said. Neal waited, but Cara didn’t respond for while. Then she said, voice hitching, “Neal I’m in trouble.”

I felt Neal freeze behind me. “What kind of trouble?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“Do you need me to come?”

She was quiet, but I could imagine her shaky breath. “No,” she said. “No I’m sorry. I can handle it.”

“You know I’ll come if you need me to.”

“I shouldn’t have called,” she said. “You need to be there with Julian.”

“Cara —”

“No, I’m fine. I’ll talk to you soon. Shiloh — stop getting sliced open, okay, how am I supposed to sleep at night?”

And she hung up. Neal stared at the phone, stricken.

“Call her back,” I said.

He looked like he was going to at first. Then he put his phone away. “No,” he said. “Whatever mess she’s in, she’ll get herself out. She always does.”

“But —”

“Yeah, I don’t like it either,” Neal interrupted. “But I can’t leave Julian here to deal with this himself, and whatever trouble Cara is in, she definitely got herself into it.” He gave me an overwhelmed smile. “One disaster at a time, okay? I’ll call her later.”

Side note: I’m writing this after the fact, so I already know that later when we did call her, she didn’t pick up. She also has not answered any of my texts.

When we came out of the bathroom, Emily was already awake again.

“Are you Shiloh?” she asked, and I was confused. Emily glanced at Julian who nodded. “’m so sorry,” she said. “Your poor hands.”

She was so genuinely upset. I wanted to go back out into the hall and rage again.

“You don’t remember?” I asked.

“The Hyde is still asleep,” she said. “My memories are a little bit shaky.”

I glanced at Neal who’s expression was infuriatingly sympathetic and gentle.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It isn’t your fault.”

Emily’s eyes filled with tears, which she dashed away impatiently. “You are all being so kind to me.” She looked up at Julian. “Please, can we do it tonight? I’m sick of being scared I’ll hurt someone.”

I don’t want to write anymore. I don’t want to tell you about the the quiet that settled over the apartment, the meal we cooked together while Emily was still sort of loopy on the tranquilizers, or the music she put on, or the very obvious stalling we were all doing.

It wasn’t until Emily finally said, “I can feel it coming back. I don’t want to go out fighting. It’s time.” And when Julian hesitated, she added, “my choice. Remember?”

Neal gave her a big hug. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

She smiled. “Are you testing me for lies?” When he didn’t deny it she laughed. “I don’t want to die, of course not. But given my options, this is the one I want. Do you understand?”

All he said was, “do you want me to stay?”

She laughed. “No, you go take the girl and get out of here, alright? Julian and I have this.”

He cupped her face, kissed her forehead, and that was that. He checked wordlessly with Julian, who just nodded. And then he turned to me. “Come on,” he said, looping an arm around my shoulders.

“How’s he going to do it?” I asked.

“There’s a snake called a honey snake,” Neal said. “It has the deadliest known venom, but they almost never bite. When they do, their venom triggers euphoria and then painless death. There are three at the emporium. They harvest the venom and supply hunters with it. Just in case.”

We stood awkwardly in the hall for a long time before Neal finally said, “Do you want to wait in the car?”

“Yeah,” I said, but I was lying. I didn’t want to leave Julian in there by himself.

So instead, Neal went and sat against the wall. I, thankfully, fell asleep on his shoulder, and when I woke up, Julian was letting himself out of her apartment.

None of us said anything, but Julian nodded to confirm that it was done, and then reached out his hands to help us up. The boys hugged for a long time.

In the car, Julian called 911, told them he’d heard a strange noise in the apartment above his, gave Emily’s address, and hung up. Then he said, “I’m going to need to run tonight.”

I didn’t quite catch what that meant until a few hours later, well out of the city, when Neal pulled onto a dirt road and after almost an hour of bumpy driving, an old, abandoned, fire lookout loomed up above us in the twilight.

“…is there another case out here, or…?” I asked as we climbed.

“Nah,” Neal said. “Jude’s just gonna let loose tonight, that’s all. Get what you need until morning, cuz we’re staying up there come hell or high water.”

Julian didn’t even climb the stairs with us. Neal gave him the thumbs up from the window and Julian started out into the woods.

“He’s gonna go change?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Neal said, watching him go through binoculars. “We might see him later. He likes to come find me sometimes.”

Which sounds scary, but hours later, in the dark, when Neal woke me up, and I saw Julian down in the trees below us, I didn’t feel afraid. I didn’t feel like he was coming for us in a hunter/pray capacity. His strange, owlish face blinked up at us through the dark, and he let out a long, melodic howling sound, not quite wolfish. Neal threw back his head and howled back at him, so I howled, too, a strange, wild, harmony.

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