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Chapter 21

Cole’s footsteps stopped. “Seriously?”

I couldn’t resist a chuckle, “You’re acting like it was too easy.”

“I mean, it was,” Cole replied. “What changed your mind?”

I was silent for a moment, but something told me that if I could trust anyone, it would be Cole. “I found a group of... loners, I guess. I don’t know what else to call them. They obviously are struggling to sustain all of them, but everyone welcomed me with open arms.”

I paused again, my rasping breath echoing in the tunnel. “They didn’t push too hard about my past or about how I got here and they didn’t question me when I woke up in the middle of the night panicking. They didn’t stop me when I fled in the middle of the night and curled up by a tree on the verge of tears and they didn’t turn and run when I told them snippets of my past.”

I could almost feel Cole listening intently.

“It was like being brought into a new family,” I told him, working hard to keep my voice from breaking. “It was like what I used to have back on the mainland before everything fell apart.”

Silence fell over the tunnel as I waited for the inevitable question.

Cole surprised me by saying, “I’m glad you found someone you trusted.” He seemed to know that even though I was talking about a group, I was also talking about a select few people in that group.

“I’m doing it for them and everyone else who’s ever been like me,” I told him, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. “I’m doing it for them and I’m doing it for me and I guess in some way, I’m doing it for you even though I have no idea why I would trust you or why I’d feel like I should.”

Cole laughed humorlessly into the dark, “I don’t know the answer to that one. I haven’t exactly done much to sway you to my side.”

If it had been brighter, I might’ve tried to study his face. As it was, I could only faintly sense where he was.

“You’ve been sorta honest,” I tried, then paused. “No, actually, you haven’t really been honest. You know, I honestly don’t know why I trust you. It’s just weird. I just have this strange feeling that you aren’t going to betray me or something. Although, it might also be because you seem to be scared of me.”

Cole actually laughed. “I am a little scared of you,” He admitted, “if only because you’re such a wild card.”

I rolled my eyes even though he couldn’t see it. The motion just wasn’t worth suppressing. “Well,” I began, “You’ve figured out that I’m not suicidal.”

“Sorry about that,” Cole replied, sounding a bit sheepish. “I meant every word, I think, but I couldn’t predict you at all.”

“My middle name is ’unpredictable,’” I drawled, “Of course you couldn’t predict me.”

“Stop it,” Cole said. He sounded like he was grinning.

“No,” I refused, also smiling.

Now Cole laughed, “I keep wondering why I like you so much, but there it is.”

I fell silent out of discomfort. I wasn’t used to people admitting they like me. When they did comment on it, I tried to pretend it didn’t affect me. “I’m sorry, why do you like me?” I acted like I knew the answer even though I genuinely didn’t.

“Because you’re wild and snarky,” Cole replied, still chuckling.

I suppose that might be his idea of a compliment, I mused to myself.

A slow grin stretched across my face as I decided to mess with him a bit. “Thanks,” I drawled, dragging it out much longer than I needed to.

“That didn’t come out the way I wanted it to, did it?” Cole sighed. “Give me a moment to retry before you get offended, please.”

The way he said it had me choking on restrained laughter.

“I mean that you’re... um,” Cole floundered for better words than ‘wild’ and ‘snarky.’ “Fierce and...”

I shook as I tried not to cough out my laugh. “Fierce and... what?”

“Hold on!” Cole said in frustration. He paused walking for a moment and it took me another step before I followed suit. “What use is a large vocabulary if your tutors never teach you anything useful?” He asked in frustration.

“Is that a rhetorical question?” I asked in amusement.

Cole ignored me. “You’re fierce and... I already said unpredictable. Are there only those few words to choose from because those aren’t particularly good options.”

Finally, I laughed. “Okay, I get the point. I’m so awesome that words can’t describe me.”

“Sorta,” Cole corrected. He paused, realizing something. “That was a joke, wasn’t it? I wasn’t supposed to keep looking for new words.” He seemed exasperated.

“Nope,” I replied cheerfully.

“You little...” he trailed off, chuckling to himself.

“Excuse you?” I asked, turning in his general direction. “What were you about to finish that with?” I reached my hand out and it hit his arm. I shoved him a bit.

“Princess?” He offered.

“Doubtful,” I replied, “Be honest.”

He didn’t reply immediately and I guessed it was because I was touching his arm, which meant I could easily attack him because I knew where he was. “I might’ve been about to say ‘brat?’” Cole managed uncertainly.

“Was that an answer or a question?” I asked him, still partially teasing him.

“Uhh...” Cole hesitated, “Whichever one won’t make you mad.”

“They’d probably both make me mad,” I lied, smirking to myself.

“Oh,” He said. Air hissed through his teeth as he took a breath. “Whichever one you want just don’t kill me.”

I laughed, dropping his arm, “You are so scared of me. That’s awesome.”

"Awesome?" Cole asked incredulously, “Why is that awesome?"

“Because it means that you aren’t going to make me yell that I’m the Princess of White from the top of the mountains,” I replied jokingly.

Cole’s silence was unnerving.

“You aren’t going to make me do that,” I began in alarm.

“I can’t guarantee that,” Cole replied.

I gasped, choking on the words that wouldn’t form on my tongue. “No,” I finally managed, stumbling through my words. “I’m not... I can’t... No.”

Cole laughed softly, grabbing my arm gently and pulling me to start moving again. I felt his breath blow my hair slightly as he bent down towards me.

“Got ya,” He whispered in my ear.

I closed my eyes, a slightly pained expression making its way across my face, “You jerk.”

Cole laughed, straightening, “Hypocrite.”

I grinned because I couldn’t really say he was wrong.

It was absolutely correct.

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