The Alpha and the Warrior

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XIII. THE FEELING

A small piece of Isla couldn’t help but thrum with pride as she stood, maintaining her distance, and observed Adrien and Kai while they carried on with their conference. Their voices were so quiet, she couldn’t pick up a single word, and she knew exactly why.

Her best friend and her mate. Essentially strangers—one more privy to those titles they bore to her personally than the other—and yet both of them, unknowingly, had been burned enough by her eavesdropping in the past that they knew to keep things to the faintest of whispers in her presence. That, and to angle in a way that she couldn’t glimpse even their faces, take note of any expressions, leaving her view simply of Adrien’s back and the dark waves of Kai’s hair over top of the Imperial Heir’s head.

Her lips jutted in a pout.

What the hell could they have been talking about?

Minutes had passed, it seemed like—minutes that ticked along like hours—and they remained, jabbering like the sunrise frequenters of the Imperial City’s Market Square. On and on, like they had all the time in the world. It was all to keep her foot from tapping impatiently. To seem relaxed and eased.

She knew that if Kai glanced over again and saw the action, her perturbation, he’d enjoy it all too much, and the last thing she wanted was to give him any type of satisfaction.

With a heaved sigh, she turned away, forcing herself not to care, not to question, not to speculate, even if it fought against every inkling of her nature. She needed to be done with him. She had to be done with him. So she pushed down that piece of her that hoped they’d use her wandering eye as a false sense of safety to let their guards down, and instead, used the moments of limbo to scan the terrain, the few spectators that had begun to fall away, pick some dust off of her coat, check the ends of her hair, and then plot.

She couldn’t wallow in guilt anymore. She needed to take action. Lukas would likely be kept away from everyone, possibly brought up to one of the upper floors of the infirmary that had been abandoned. She wasn’t sure if she could find a way to jog his memories, but she’d be damned if she didn’t try. All she had to do was get herself inside his room.

“I’ll let you know.”

For the first time, Kai’s voice sounded heavenly.

Snapping back to attention, Isla found, to her bliss, that the two men had, indeed, broken away from each other. She’d picked up on the timbre of Kai’s voice, the assertion of it. It tipped her off enough that whatever they’d been speaking of was serious.

But she didn’t care. Nope. She wasn’t curious at all.

“Finally,” she’d muttered involuntarily, folding her arms.

Like they’d heard it, both of them turned her way.

She stiffened, and as if she hadn’t already been caught, cocked her head, deciding to inspect the flecks glittering in the midnight ink above. These stars, she knew, the witches worshipped. Their deities drawn in the constellations, opposite their Moon Goddess.

“The queen of subtlety,” she heard Adrien jeer as he encroached on her.

She brought her gaze back down to meet his, ignoring the comment and cutting to the main objective. “What now?”

“I have no fucking idea.”

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise. He’d sounded so sure in his demands to bring Lukas to some aid.

The Heir rubbed his forehead. “I either did the right thing, or I’m about to return home to another Winslow packet and lecture about how I’m supposed to handle myself in the subjacent Packs.” He eyed the space behind her, as if he could see the former Trainee across it. “He wasn’t like that the last time you saw him?”

“No, not at all.” Isla shook her head furiously. “We worked together when we were in there, fought together. He was himself. Perfectly fine until—”

Kai and I distracted him. . .

Kai and I let him get taken. . .

Kai and I—

Isla bit down hard on her cheek, the pain pulling her from the thoughts. “He was fine,” she forced.

Adrien nodded, thankfully not catching onto the spiral she’d gone on, too lost, likely, in his own, “I know my father departed after the Alphas meeting today, but your dad should still be here. I’ll meet with him, and then find Seb. We’ll meet you in your room in an hour. Be there this time.

“Of course,” she said, more eager and defensive than she’d meant to, not forgetting she hadn’t offered him an answer as to where she’d been before. “Don’t let them hurt him.”

She received another nod, more like an ’I’ll try’, before Adrien stalked away. She spun and followed his form until he was nothing but a speck, then empty air. Along the way, she caught the last few stragglers departing too, which meant. . .

It was then that a gust of wind blew by, shockingly strong, casting her hair into her face and rustling her jacket. She tightened her grip around her body, blaming the chill she felt on that breeze, and not the sound of the grass shuffling behind her as someone moved through it. Not on the scent that wafted to her nose, overtaking the enduring bite of magic, and instilling a comfort in its essence of something warm and woodsy, with a hint of spice and something else she couldn’t quite place.

And just like that, the world suddenly felt so, so small.

Even with the monstrous feat of architecture hovering above. Even with the vast and endless gem-freckled sky. Even with the oblivion the field seemed to fade into at either side. . .

Isla realized she hadn’t truly known quiet until now, even when she’d found her moments of peace up on the roof. Here, there was no bonfire, no people down below outside or bustling within the infirmary’s walls. Even the chattering bugs were nonexistent.

It was just the moon, the stars, the dark velvet they adorned—and them.

Kai came to a halt what sounded like a few feet behind her.

Just walk away, she told herself, practically begged her feet. Just walk away, and be done with him. You already said your goodbyes. Just end this here. Right now. Go to your room. Meet Adrien and Sebastian in an hour. See Lukas. Fix him. Go back to Io. Move on. Forget. Forget, forget, forget—

“What was that about?” Her traitorous tongue or her exhausted mind—she wasn’t sure which to curse.

“Nothing,” Kai answered plainly. “Pack business.”

Isla held back a roll of her eyes and kept her tone unwavering. She’d gathered that much. “Of course.”

“You’re safe.”

“Right.” The response was quick and followed by the bite of her tongue. His reassurance was like salt in a wound, using her own words against her. As long as her life didn’t hang in the balance, he owed her nothing.

More footsteps whispered through the grass before she felt the warmth of him radiating as he stood at her side.

“Are you okay?” His voice was laced with a disarming gentleness she wasn’t expecting.

“I don’t know.” Once again, she damned her mouth and cringed at how weak the words sounded off her lips. How nearly broken.

When she’d started to fall apart during the chaos with the Gate was the last and only time he’d ever witness her like that. She’d battle tooth and nail with herself to ensure it.

“You were in my head,” she said sharply, adding a little extra bite, using whatever anger she’d felt in that moment to fuel the fire needed to weld back together her shattering mask. “you tell me.”

Kai was quiet for a few seconds, pondering, before he snickered. “I wasn’t in your head.”

She wasn’t keen on his aloofness and kept the flames burning hot. “You did something. How?”

“You know how,” he said easily, coolness undeterred.

“Fine, then why?” Following the question, she craned her neck to briefly meet his eyes. The sight made her constrict her fingers so tightly that her nails dug into her arm.

Mate.

The word rung and rung and rung in her head like it never had before. It ebbed and bowed through every vein of her body, every patch of her soul. My mate. My mate. My—

“We’re doing what we’re supposed to.” She looked away hurriedly and cut the train of thoughts off. “We haven’t touched.”

“You know we’ve been playing with fire. It’s been fun, yes, but I suppose it comes with a cost,” he explained, voice kissed by that softness again. He shoved his hands into his pockets. “You and I—” he paused, as if searching for words. “You and I are two ends of the same broken road. Two pieces of a cloth stitched and torn by Fate’s own hand. We see each other, and we know that, innately. We feel it. Every time. It’s not a chosen bond. We don’t have to wait for threads to form with time together to have any type of connection.” There was the slightest catch in his voice, as if the struggles she’d been having truly were mutual, like that repetition was running through his mind the same way. “I’m here. You’re there. I’m here.” He reached out, and his hand ghosted over her cheek. She didn’t flinch. “You’re still there, but you feel it, right? You have been. The threads winding, pullingconnecting.”

She should’ve vexed her own instinct and curiosity as she allowed her eyes to slide closed. As she dug deep and allowed herself to give life and image to what she’d been experiencing.

In her center, her essence was a spool of rich, golden light, and from it, spawned webs and webs of strings, inner connections of her soul, creating the fabric of who she was. But that wasn’t it. There was also a darkness leaking through, caressing the threads. Some pieces even twined with the shadow.

Kai?

“Why is it dark?” she asked, practically seeing how the inner machinations worked with the proximity.

“I can’t help how you perceive me.”

Her eyes snapped open, and with a small smile, Kai dropped his hand to his side, leaving her cold again.

She blinked, unsure what to say. Darkness and shadow infecting her soul. . . that’s how she saw this?

Shaking her head, she fought the images away and fought the urge to ask what he saw when he closed his eyes. Instead, she focused on that winding. “So what’s the point then? All of this dancing around each other if we’re already more or less connected.”

“The threads can try to tie together all they want, but they won’t hold in the end. The bastards have gotten stronger because we’re masochists, but they’re not permanent. They’ll break with time, with distance. Hell, even touch isn’t ’permanent’, but it would be damn near impossible to fight against what happens next.” She caught the way he looked her over head-to-toe, before adding, “And trying to hold off the inevitable after that, long enough for the ties to fray, would have us wishing it would kill us.” He shrugged. “I’d say the waters get a bit muddier when the choices are losing your mind or best sex of your life with your supposed ‘soulmate’.”

She couldn’t help but snort. “Best sex of my life, huh?”

“Lewis would be a distant memory,” he said with a taunting grin.

Levi is already a distant memory, believe me.” She battled to contain a smile.

Now that he’d finished his elucidation, she couldn’t deny that she was not only stunned, but mildly impressed. Where she lacked in understanding he’d filled in most of the gaps, and somehow, also managed to overwhelm her. When she’d wanted a mate those years ago, obsessed over it, she hadn’t truly known the depth of what it meant. When all that pressure came down the minute she came of age, she’d accepted it and done everything she’d felt she needed to. The idea hadn’t sounded too bad. Having that one person to turn to, that shared a piece of her, that couldn’t abandon her.

But it was more. It was so much more.

“You’ll understand when you find your mate.”

A female voice she hadn’t heard in over a year clawed into her consciousness. It turned everything in her stomach sour. Made her sick, nauseous. She fought that away too.

“How do you know all of this stuff?” she asked. “About the threads and connections.”

“A friend of mine used to work those pathetic, money-hungry, mate-search events. The ones that leech off of the sad and lonely. She told me all this stuff they’d tell people to mystify them and get them excited to finally find ’the One’—with their help, exclusively. I thought it was all bullshit until now.”

She did her best to keep herself from frowning. She’d been to one of those gatherings—or several.

“So was that a good enough explanation for you, or do you need more? Will I have to prepare myself for a strip tease next?” he heckled. “As enjoyable as that would be, I’m afraid it’ll likely be counter-productive.”

And just like that, as always, the illusion was broken by his knack for pushing her buttons at the absolute worst moments.

“You insufferable ass,” she grumbled, before turning and wordlessly stalking away. Heading back to her room, back to planning how she’d find a way to get to Lukas, how she’d hopefully help him get his memories back, and wondering who she’d have to cross along the way.

His laugh from behind her was loud and bright, before she heard his footsteps follow her own. She didn’t turn, but tallied them, tracked them. He could’ve kept up with her easily, but had chosen to lag behind. It was like she could feel his eyes boring into her back, studying every movement. There was the smallest rush through her veins, and she denied the urge to use the opportunity to get him back. To move a bit more smoothly, to exaggerate the sway to her hips. See how long she could tease and taunt him before he—

No. Not again.

About halfway up the field, he could have veered for a quicker shot to the lodging areas, where he, no longer a patient, stayed. But he remained at her tail.

“I believe our business is done, Alpha,” she called to him.

“Back to ‘Alpha’ now, I see.”

“That’s what you are, is it not?”

“I think we’re at the point where you can call me whatever you want.”

She whipped her head around to offer off-handedly. “How about asshole?”

Kai echoed it with a scoff. “I think you can do better.”

She growled. There were plenty of things she’d like to say, but refrained. “Stop following me.”

Kai let out a breath, and with it, the air seemed to cool instantly. Like they’d finally reached a punchline to a long-winded bit. “I need to make sure you’re okay.”

Isla stuttered in her movements, finding pause at how honest he sounded. Make sure I’m okay?

She recalled the look he’d given her as the Gate held tight, as the Bak roared, and she began to crumble and descend into that place. When those connections wrapped and held for dear life. It was so easy to forget in the moments when he drove her mad, when the world kept buzzing around at a pace she could barely keep up with, but he looked out for her, even if it was for his own sake as much as her own.

Still, with that in mind, she said, “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”

A lie, more or less, but he didn’t need to know that.

Kai snickered. “Easier said than done when your favorite pastime seems to be sprinting towards danger whenever opportunity arises.”

Her jaw slacked. “I do not.”

“You’ve proven to me otherwise.”

“You’ve barely known me a week.”

“And yet, you’ve stressed me enough for a lifetime,” he said with a tinge of exasperation. “Every chance you’ve had to get yourself in trouble or nearly killed, you’ve taken it. And I’ve come to know that look in those dazzling eyes of yours.”

She growled in response to the beguilement and held in her groan as she fought her heart and mind to make sure neither took it for anything other than what it was.

She knew her mate’s tendencies well. How he used a charm to disarm and distract her, and surely, others. How he calculated things. How he was always one step ahead of her, and by the time she realized, another. They’d said their goodbyes. They’d parted. No love or emotions to bind them. Just figments and fragments of fading stars, fraying threads. They had nothing necessary to offer each other at this point. So there was a reason he hadn’t left her alone yet. Another play at hand.

He’d since sped up to join at her side.

“What look?” she asked carelessly, barely peering over.

He pointed. “That one.” She went cross-eyed for a moment as she stared at the digit, inches away from her nose. If it were anyone else, she would’ve nipped at it. “You’re about to do something you shouldn’t be, and you know it too.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She shot her narrowed gaze up to him. “And get your hand out of my face.”

She hated the mirth her aggravation seemed to bring to his features—and even greater than that, despised that joy looked good on him. She hadn’t noticed the slightest dimples bracketing his smile before.

He dropped his arm. “What’s your thing with this guy anyway?”

“What guy?”

“The Hunter from Tethys that you’re running off to see.” When her eyes widened and then promptly narrowed, he added, “I didn’t read your mind, you’re just horribly predictable. So what is it? You seem to care a lot. Here—back in the Wilds. You were ready to jump into that mess to help him, and though I’d still hedge my bets on you and that temper, that Guard looked—”

“Nothing like that if that’s what you’re worried about,” she cut him off, sick of hearing how smug and correct he was.

“I wasn’t.”

She shook her head as the scene ripped through her mind again. Lukas lunging for the Guard, being brought down to the ground, his screaming, the group descending. All the while, Kai was off to the side.

She met his eyes. “Why didn’t you get involved?”

His brows drew together, as if it were obvious. “He’s of Tethys, and we’re in Callisto. My thoughts and opinions don’t matter here. If I inserted myself, it would’ve just led to a headache and more paperwork than I can afford attention to. And frankly, I have much more to worry about. A Pack to return to, and a mate who’s ready to risk herself and take on the world at any minor transgression.”

I suppose the Goddess has blessed you, would have been her retort. The snide remark sat just on the tip of her tongue, but that last word, the words. . .

Minor transgression.

Lukas losing all memory and sense wasn’t a ‘minor transgression’. His life hanging in some balance wasn’t a ‘minor transgression’. His family that was waiting back in Tethys for him to return triumphant, a Warrior, wouldn’t see it as a ‘minor transgression’.

Her lips quivered and nose twitched with unspoken words. All she wanted was to lash out at him. Her tongue ran over her teeth, but as she opened her mouth to speak, she felt wetness on her cheek.

Her gaze directed upwards, and another drop of rain fell directly into her eye. She winced, squinting, before wiping it away.

A stronger current of wind rocketed through the field, nearly forceful enough to move her, as one drop became two, then three, four, five. The crack of lightning came next, then the roar of thunder and a low whir before the steady stream of watery bullets. The chilly rain made quick work soaking her clothes, her hair.

Maybe it had been a gift from the Goddess to snap her out of it. For the smallest of moments, the corners of her mouth threatened to twitch upwards, and she resisted the urge to throw her arms out as it washed over her. She’d always loved rain and thunderstorms, so rare to come by in Io. On the times they did, she’d immediately go to her window perch in her small city apartment and sit, listening to the patter and watching the lights of the city glitter in the dew.

She could almost do that again. Be home, at least. Almost.

A gasp slipped her mouth when a sudden rush of unease rocked her system—but the feeling. . . wasn’t her own. She brought her attention down to its source, her eyebrows furrowing.

Kai, equally drenched—with his clothes clinging to his body, leaving outlines of the taut muscle beneath and his dark tresses straightening and bending in ways she’d never seen—wasn’t looking up at the mist-like gathering storm clouds or even at her, but instead, beside them. His eyes were slits, and a sharp line, bolstered by shadow, cut through his cheek. Isla followed his gaze. It took a while for her to register the silhouettes of trees bucking in the whistling, brewing torrent. The feelings of unease got stronger, morphed into an anger and—fear?

“Alpha?” she voiced cautiously, breaking the title down into its syllables.

Kai didn’t answer. Instead, he snarled at what seemed like emptiness before he ran to it, leaving Isla alone in the middle of the field, where pools and puddles quickly formed at her feet, blinking and stunned.

“What the hell?” she mumbled as he disappeared into the blackness.

Technically, this was her opening. To walk away. To leave him behind and leave him, leave them, be—forever. But that connection fought, those strings and threads and tethers tugged and twisted and did everything they could to keep them together.

She could leave him now. She should.

“Shit,” she breathed, shaking her head, before bounding, herself, to the trees.

When she broke over the woodland’s edge, it was as if she’d entered another world. The shrouded area possessed an odd and eerie stillness as both the wind and moonlight battled to break through the dense brush and heavy canopy. It was almost disturbingly familiar, like all it was missing was a simple curse before it became the twin to its bastardized and caged brother yards away. For that, Isla was even more grateful for the rain, the downpour like a lifeline, a rope to cling onto while she dangled over the abyss of her memories from beyond the Wall. It was one of the few differences her brain could latch onto as a reminder that she was safe and out of death’s grasp.

“Where the hell did you go?” She paused to look to either side of her.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Though she hadn’t been too far behind, Kai was nowhere in sight. Grinding her teeth, she shook her head.

This wasn’t the first time she’d found herself running after her mate, she realized. Funny—and not at all—how that night felt like ancient history now. Like it was another lifetime. So much had changed since those moments in the garden, on the terrace, back when the only substance to their bond, fresh and newly recognized, was of their barest and most primal instincts.

Her eyes slid closed as she honed her hearing, her smell, trying to pick up any type of hint as to where he was, but she couldn’t. Kai didn’t want to be found—by her or whatever he’d run after, she wasn’t sure.

Any feelings of annoyance were usurped by worry, the unease she’d been infected with still crawling beneath her skin. She’d never felt or seen him afraid of anything. Nervous, yes, but not scared.

Reluctantly, she latched onto the emotion, clawing through it to find that tether again, hoping she could use the damn thing to her advantage. But it was weak, the tie fraying. Of course. Still, she did what she could, continuing her trek and following an instinct she hoped had been guided by the webs weaved through them.

She called out his name, through a link, out into the wind, as her path grew dangerous over a terrain a mess of dips and valleys and swamps she hadn’t been expecting, under pockets where the moon’s glow peeked to greet her.

She’d nearly reached her wit’s end, her own terror enveloping and icing her soul the way the rain was her body, at the notion of the complete unknown, when finally, she spotted him. A warming rush of relief took to her veins, but it didn’t last nearly as long as she would’ve liked.

Skidding to a halt so fast she nearly fell over, Isla cocked her head. Kai was postured tall, head held high, as if he were trying to catch a scent in the air. He had to have known she was there, even if she’d been masking herself, judging by the way his clenched fists had tensed, relaxed, and tensed again. Maybe he’d wanted her to find him out in the open like this.

She approached him slowly, not making an effort to tiptoe through the mud. “Is this you trying to be funny?”

The query was met by silence. Kai hadn’t even bothered to turn around.

As she got closer, Isla could sense the faintest pull again, but she didn’t need it to feel the simmering rage and bitter worry that emanated from him.

But—there was nothing. Nothing obvious here that should’ve sent him running, that should’ve elicited such a vehement reaction.

The chill up her spine was a potent concoction, brewed by the weather and the ominous. Her teeth chattered, and she wrapped her arms around herself. “What is—”

“Quiet.”

Isla jutted her head back, the word holding like a block between them as Kai returned to his silent observation. A sense of quiet urgency seemed to power every breath of his, the twinge of each solid muscle as he remained at high alert.

She narrowed her eyes at the back of his head, before following his lead, training her eyes over the terrain to gather her own intel and pull some leverage before prying again. What she found was nothing different than she’d observed before—endless trees and bushes and mud and darkness.

“Stay here.” Kai finally broke his silence with another command, taking a step forward. “Be ready to shift.”

Isla snapped her attention back to him, the contents of her stomach turning to lead. “Shift?”

“Yes,” he affirmed, voice unwavering. Like a general commanding a soldier, an Alpha over his armies. “Have your wolf ready.”

Isla blinked, finding it suddenly difficult to swallow. The statement had hit her two-fold.

No one, besides her own father and physicians, knew of her inability to tap into that all-important piece of herself—not even Adrien and Sebastian—but the realization that this was yet another way she could be viewed as broken wasn’t the worst.

Shifting itself required a great deal of strength, and to maintain the state, an ample amount of energy. It was the pinnacle of all they could be and why so much training went into preparing for the often days-long Hunt. For that reason, taking on one’s wolf for any type of fight or battle was typically reserved for the greatest of threats, and for lesser cases, Warriors had learned other forms of combat to fall back on—hand-to-hand, weaponry. But for whatever was out here. . . that wasn’t enough.

Finally, she choked down the ash on her tongue. “I—I can’t.”

Kai raked a hand over his hair, slicking it out of his face, though some stubborn pieces curled back to his forehead. He turned to glance at her sideways. Though it shouldn’t have been, given his tone, the darkness and seriousness of his eyes startled her. “What do you mean?”

Isla frowned, the words cement in her throat. “I can’t shift. I haven’t been able to since I was hurt.”

Kai’s face flashed, not with anger, but with concern, an odd desperation, and Isla felt not a tug, but a twist. He spun fully, moving quickly in a way that had his body looming over her, blocking her view of the forest. . . or blocking the forest’s vantage of her.

His eyes traveled over her features in earnest, as if searching for some mirth over a twisted joke she’d been playing. Though quickly he found that wasn’t the case.

“Why didn’t you say something?” His voice was gravelly as he dipped his head to whisper, the statement terse. That aura of urgency and desperation had seeped into his voice. Before she even had a chance to answer, he pinched the bridge of his nose, shaking his head. “Why do you do this?”

“Me?” She stood her ground, pointing a finger, though she felt like a fraud. “Youre the one that ran this time.”

“You shouldn’t have followed me.”

Isla slowly dropped her hand. “Well, I didn’t have much of a choice.” Kai’s features softened in understanding, but the moment was brief. She countered his displeased look with one of her own, while inside, she battled to feel confident and in control. “What’s going on? And if you say ‘Pack business’, Goddess help you.”

Kai growled, but it almost didn’t feel like it was directed at her, before looking off to the side. A slew of emotions ran over his face, so fast she couldn’t clock them, but it was enough to give her hope that he may actually open up. It was a dance they’d found themselves engaging in few times already, and she wondered if there would ever be a point when he’d be ready to throw caution to the wind and completely give in.

Thunder rumbled again. The boom and its accompaniment of crashing lightning was so loud that it seemed to shake the earth around them, sending the animals that had wedged themselves in heavy thickets to protect against the torrent scattering.

At the rush of noise, Kai stepped back with an aggravated sigh and angled his head. He scanned the trees closest to them before nodding upward. “Can you climb?” Isla’s face twisted in confusion, but once again, before she had a chance to question, Kai added, “Go up into that tree and don’t move until I come back.”

“Excuse me?” Her jaw slackened. Was he insane? “Come back from where? Why? What is going on?”

“I need you to trust me.” Kai met her eyes again, and she swore she almost found some sympathy in them. “If this is what I think, I don’t want you anywhere close, especially when you can’t defend yourself.”

Trust him?

“I’ve been trained just as long to be able to fight without my wolf as with it.” The counter was unsteady off her lips, not assured in the statement herself, deep down.

“It’s not enough,” Kai echoed the sentiments.

Isla took note of the rippling timber around them. What was she supposed to do? Just go up into a tree and—wait? “I’ll just go back to the infirmary.”

“No. You can’t go back through here alone. It’s not safe.” Kai stepped closer again, though the warmth of his body couldn’t quite melt the ice buried within her. “I need you to trust me, Isla.”

There were those words again, conveyed with a sincerity that almost felt manipulative.

Isla straightened, not knowing what to do with the overwhelming emotion that seemed to be pooling up from her ankles. It grated every part of her to trust him, simply for the fact that the only reason she would was this bond she never wanted to acknowledge again.

Dammit.

Wordlessly, Isla turned and scouted the branches. She pressed her fingers firmly along the cold, slippery bark of the one she’d determined easiest to reach. The limb groaned as she hoisted herself up, but proved sturdy, barely trembling from her weight as she spun on it and sat. As much as she hated the idea—and judging by Kai’s expression, he’d been second-guessing too as another gust of wind shot by—she couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling this was also the best option. It took scaling up one more limb for her to be nearly masked in the brush, protected from the view of whatever was lurking out in the shadows.

Kai approached the trunk’s base, resting his hand on the branch just below her. One inch, and he’d just brush her skin. “Stay quiet and stay hidden,” he said, features hard as stone. “Don’t move.”

Isla bit down on her cheek. She hated this. With every piece of her, she hated this. How could she just stay up here, useless, while he was out there dealing with whatever this was?

“If you’re not back in ten minutes, I’m going after you,” she told him quickly, digging her nails into the bark beneath her. “I’m serious.”

Kai’s face remained unchanged, as he simply answered, without protest, “I know you are.”

And with that, he disappeared.

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