The Alpha and the Warrior

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XIX. THE CONFESSION

Isla was somewhere on the outskirts of the City, but she wasn’t sure where. All that mattered was that she was away from everyone, everything. That it was only her and this ravine, the flowing water rushing below her swinging feet high above it as she sat at the edge of a cliffside.

She’d killed Lukas.

As the words went through her mind like a shot for the umpteenth time, she didn’t put her face in her hands. She didn’t cry. She’d run out of tears now. Been wrung dry of any feeling but numbness. But maybe that was good. As a relief from the despair, the pain, the all-consuming guilt that had her close to passing out as she sobbed and nearly hyperventilated against the heat and dust around her.

Imperial Alpha Cassius knew she’d been with Lukas. He had to have. The way he’d looked at her, spoken to her. . . he knew it wasn’t injuries from the Hunt, he knew she’d been the one who’d done it. Maybe the whole conversation was supposed to build into an expression of gratitude for the loose end she’d gotten out of the way. She’d done him a favor.

Goddess. . .

Isla’s hand went to her mouth. She was going to be sick again.

The sound of approaching footsteps didn’t make her jump. Didn’t make her turn. She didn’t have the energy to anyway, even if she hadn’t known who was approaching.

Adrien and Sebastian made no effort to mask themselves, and as if they could sense how upset she was, moved upon her cautiously. The Pack Hall’s courtyard had been empty when she’d stepped back into the suffocating air of outside, and she’d been grateful for it. She couldn’t face them. Tell them what she’d done.

Murderer.

She grimaced.

She was. She was. She—

“Lukas is alive.”

Adrien’s words were completely missed on her at first. Just sounds amongst the rush of the water. But then they became clearer as she played them again.

And again.

And again.

Lukas is alive.

She lifted her head and blinked at the landscape, letting the sentence run a few more times before she spun around to face him. “What?”

This had to be a hallucination, a dream. She had passed out beneath the beating sun. It was a foreign poison of the blade. Because there was no way—no way—that Isla was hearing what she actually thought she was.

But Adrien paused at her side and said it again.

“He’s not dead. My father only told you that he was.”

“What?” she repeated herself, but Adrien didn’t. He stayed silent and allowed the words to sink in.

Lukas is. . . alive?

Isla was really going to throw up now—the relief, doubt, and anger churning in a way, through the numbness, beyond the despair, that made her nauseous. She didn’t know how much more of this she could take. The up and down, back and forth.

The tears were returning again, and Isla glanced down at the water. “He lied to me?”

It hadn’t been a direct question, simply a realization. And with it spoken aloud, the anger began festering until it usurped all other emotion so much she swore she’d shift right here.

She jumped to her feet, sitting making her feel trapped and suffocated all over again. Her fingers were balled so tightly in her fists that her nails pierced the skin of her palms. Adrien stood a few inches above her as she squared herself to him, a little closer to her than if it were Kai. “Why would he do that? Why would he let me think that I—that I killed him?”

She almost wished her friend was lying—then she wouldn’t have the traitorous thought of ripping through the Alpha’s side running through her head—but Adrien wouldn’t make this up. Not this.

The Heir’s jaw was tight, and Isla saw even Sebastian was wearing something akin to the look of murder he’d brandished upon seeing her injured on the examination table.

“He wants you to stop looking. Stop getting involved. Pushing things,” Adrien said, and there was a hint of shame in his eyes. “He wants it all to go away.”

“He told you that?” When had Adrien spoken with his father?

“In so many words.”

Isla couldn’t breathe again, but this time, it was in rage.

She had to step away. Could feel her wolf restless beneath the surface of her skin, ready to lash out, but still. . . stuck somehow. Her eyes were focused of ground beneath her as she paced a few feet.

“He sat there and looked me in the eye and let me believe that I’d killed someone?” She thought her teeth would shatter from how tightly she’d clenched them. “He was going to let me torture myself for the rest of my life—for what? Did he think I’d call the reporters? Tell them what happened? I wouldn’t have said anything.” She looked up to Adrien who remained in his spot, whose expression hadn’t changed. Who hadn’t fought anything she’d said. “He doesn’t trust me.” Not a question, a statement, and again, one her friend neither confirmed nor denied. Isla shook her head, face twitching as she fought between scowling and sobbing. Lukas was alive. “That’s cruel.”

There was no response.

The three remained in a tense quiet as Isla continued her movements against the backdrop of the setting sun. As she continued her tirade beneath her breath. As she fought to hold herself back from storming the Pack Hall. Tore through every memory she’d reminisced upon. Every subtle detail of recent events she’d reminded herself to go through.

She knew the Alpha could be ruthless, that he had a job, owed her nothing, but to let her believe something like this. . .

All to keep Lukas a secret and prevent inciting panic?

“Did you get rid of the dagger?”

At Adrien’s words, Isla snapped her head up, then subtly glanced at her bag that was close to his feet. She swallowed, already feeling terrible for what she was about to do.

“Of course I did,” she lied.

A line feathered in Adrien’s cheek, and he nodded in acceptance, before taking a few steps towards the black fabric coated in dust.

He was going to go through it.

“Wait!” Isla called, and Adrien halted.

His features were hard when he turned to her. So much he looked more like his father than he ever had in his life. “What’s going on, Isla?” he asked, a sense of finality in his tone. Like he was done with her games. “You’ve been so off since you came out of the Wilds, and I thought it was all from the Hunt, from Lukas going missing, but it’s not just that. It never has been.”

Isla bit down on her tongue.

She wanted to tell them everything. About Lukas, the Pass. About Kai. But she couldn’t. She’d promised. “It’s nothing.”

Adrien shook his head. “No. No, it’s not.”

She sighed. “I. . . I can’t tell you.”

“Why?” Sebastian had taken a few steps towards her, the two closing in.

“Because I can’t. Not yet.”

“The Alpha of Deimos couldn’t stop asking about you at the Feast,” Adrien started after some hesitation, and at the mention of Kai, Isla whirled around to face him. “He saved you during the Hunt, visited you when we were with you in your room. You didn’t bump into him before you came to the Gate. You were with him. Somewhere.” His voice had been charged with understanding, rung with epiphany, as he encroached on her further, and Isla felt her chest tighten. “I thought he was just looking at you to get in Io’s graces, make some kind of statement in his new position, I didn’t know—but it’s more than that, and I should have been able to figure it out from the way he looked at you. Because I’ve seen it before.” He stopped a few inches away, locking her stare, and saying without a hint of uncertainty, “Because he’s your mate.”

Sebastian laughed.

Isla felt like the ground had just caved in, and Sebastian laughed. But he was the only one laughing, and he seemed to realize that fact quickly.

His eyes darted between his best friend and his sister—now engaged in a silent standoff—his jubilant features gradually falling into those of shock. “Wait, you’re serious?” His eyes were wide as he put himself in Isla’s view. “You found your mate?”

Isla barely spared her brother a second’s glance, holding Adrien’s stare instead. She didn’t know what she was trying to read from it, or what she wanted to convey with her own. Part of her wanted him to elaborate—to learn how Kai had looked at her that should’ve been a dead giveaway to him—but she knew from his later words, it would only drudge up horrible memories for the Heir. Memories of the day his Chosen mate’s Fated one had shown up to challenge Adrien for her claim.

So instead, Isla focused on what the rest of her wanted, what it felt. The slightest bit of relief to have one of her secrets out in the open, but also a fear, an anger, a guilt, and a defiance. Maybe too much to handle after the emotional drainage she’d already gone through.

“So what if he is?” she said softly, stepping away, only to gasp as Sebastian roughly manhandled her collar—as only a brother would—and pulled it back to check her neck.

“Did he mark you?” His voice was a mix of overprotective, surprised, and maybe. . . excited, as he inspected the skin.

“Get away.” Isla swatted at him, adjusting her clothes. “He didn’t.”

Sebastian moved back, a breath of disbelief from his mouth. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because. . .” Isla trailed off, directing her eyes anywhere but the two of them. Just the rocks, the granules of dirt, the cool water flowing down the ravine. Even with the sense of inevitability that had hung above the truth being revealed at some point, she hadn’t prepared what to say. “Because it doesn’t matter,” she eventually settled for. “We aren’t doing anything. We aren’t accepting the bond.”

“You rejected him?” Sebastian again, spoken quick as a whip.

He was the only one who would speak. Adrien simply observed in silence.

“No.” Isla wrapped her arms around herself, feeling the stickiness of the sweat percolating on her skin. “And he didn’t reject me. We’re just forgetting we ever met and moving on.”

Simply saying it all out loud made her feel just as crazy as the night they’d started their grand scheme in the garden.

“Does it work that way?”

Sebastian again, and Isla found herself toeing at a rock protruding from the russet-tinted earth. “It has to.” And at his follow-up question of why, she met his eyes. “Because it’s what we want.”

The ‘we’ felt different off of her tongue this time.

We.

They were a ’we’, an ’our’. Their bond—a little universe drawn between their souls—vast and endless and mystical and wondrous and. . . theirs. Only theirs. No Council or otherworldly force would decide for them what they did with it. If they wanted to live their lives separately, they would. And if they’d decided they had wanted to tread through existence and eternity together—

“Why keep the dagger?”

Now Adrien spoke up.

Isla turned to look at the Heir, his eyes more golden than green in the early forays of dusk, still barely readable. But his words—not at all about Kai or her forsaken bond—clued her in enough on where his head was. What he had in mind was either not worth saying in his eyes, or so bad he didn’t want her to hear it.

She sighed, perfectly fine with his disposition for now, but knew something was coming, if not for the slightest flare of his nostrils, but because she knew he couldn’t be silent. Not about something like this. She fought away the nagging of guilt and focused.

Now how much should she share? The bond was out there, but how much further down the rabbit hole would she bring them? Where would she even start?

“Lukas knew who I was when I went to see him,” she began, moving closer to her bag, debating internally on whether or not she wanted to brandish the marker and explain—eventually. “I don’t know if he remembered me, or if someone told him who I was, but they gave him that dagger to get himself free. And then gave him these ultimatums regarding whether he killed me or took me. . . ‘somewhere’. I want to make sure there’s nothing I can figure out from it, before I let it get buried with everything else.”

The boys had gone entirely still as she spoke, barely catching on her latter dig. And even without ties or tethers or connections, she could sense the rage simmering beneath the surface. Worse than it had been in the infirmary when they thought she’d just been attacked.

“Where?” Adrien asked, eyes narrow and voice rasped.

“We didn’t get that far,” Isla said, curling her fists—though not out of anger. She felt the phantom warmth of Lukas’s blood on her hands again, the feeling, the memory, making her shudder. He’s alive, he’s alive, he’s alive.

“Who would bring that to him? Who got it in? We canvased. He was guarded non-stop.” Something that struck as shame lingered in Sebastian’s tone, like he couldn’t believe that they’d allowed her to get in that position, that they’d let that happen to her. “Who would want you dead?”

The million-dollar question.

“He mentioned a nurse who’d come in to see him,” Isla continued to divulge, feeling weight lift from her shoulders bit-by-bit with every word spilled. But there were limits. There had to be limits. “A second one we hadn’t accounted for, and one the infirmary probably didn’t know about either. He never said if it was a man or woman, but he mentioned a ’he’ when he had the dagger on me.”

As she’d spoken, her eyes had flitted back and forth between the two of them, but remained mostly on Sebastian, hesitant to look Adrien in the eye. But when she did dare pass her gaze over the Heir, she had to double-back. There was a gnawing in her gut, a little voice in her head, that clued her in on what the shifty look on his face meant, and as if the words had been whispered in her ear by that tiny thing for her to relay, she asked carefully, “Where is he now?”

“Heading to Valkeric.”

There was no remorse in her friend’s voice. It was mostly flat. Could’ve been considered indifferent if it weren’t for the aggravation still steaming within his blood. Isla wished she knew exactly what was bothering him most. What she’d said about Lukas or—

Focus.

“What else do you know?”

“Just that whatever his story is, it doesn’t add up or make sense. I was only able to grab your father right before I had to get to the caravan and didn’t have time to convince him to give me more information.”

She hadn’t even seen her father before they departed.

Her eyes passed over him again, calculating, noting there was no release of that contemplative, unsettled expression. If anything, his brows had drew in further, breathing became deeper as if he were trying to calm himself, hold himself back.

Isla braced herself with her own inhale, a sneaking suspicion of what was to come.

“What else?” She inclined her head to him. “You look like you want to say something else. What is it?”

Adrien wasted no time. “Why?”

Said blunt, to the point.

She knew what he meant. The period of feigned apathy was over, but still—it felt like he was repressing something. Her next exhale had started out shaky, but she steadied. Their choice—this was their choice, and she would stand by it.

But besides that it was what her and Kai desired, what they’d decided, she added, “I can’t be a Warrior and the Luna of Deimos.”

“That’s it?”

Isla jerked her head back at the words spoken, yet again, brusque.

That’s it.

That’s it.

“Is that not good enough?” she countered, and Adrien didn’t answer. At least, not fast enough to prevent her from becoming defensive, despite her earlier thoughts of not needing to explain herself. “How about that I don’t want a mate at all?”

“Then reject him,” was all he said, and it boiled her.

One word, two words, and now three. Forget ’that’s it’ for her reasoning. That was all he had to say?

“That wouldn’t benefit either of us,” she told him. “He can’t afford to be weakened right now, and neither can I. It’s not worth it.”

That seemed to break something in Adrien, cracked some of his callous shell, but it didn’t shatter it. Her friend still clung to that restraint, even as his eyes darkened. “And this is your solution? This is going to help? ‘Forgetting’ and ‘moving on’?”

More words, all spoken in a manner that seemed to show off a glimmer, just a small tick, of the pain he’d endured over the past year.

Guilt rushed her like a tidal wave again. “Yes.”

Adrien chuckled, but not with warmth. It was incredulity. Both she and Sebastian watched him go pensive as they danced around the topic that they, even as close as they were, barely breached. Corinne’s name hadn’t even been uttered aloud between them for over a year, yet the ghost of her presence hovered again amongst the trio—like it was the four of them, like old times.

“Goddess above, Isla,” Adrien finally said, pacing a few steps. “I know you don’t like being told what to do. But this. . .”

Once again, he’d left her stunned. Had her jaw unhinging. Her eyes blowing wide, before they narrowed. “You think that’s all this is? Me not liking being told what to do?”

“What else would it be? He’s your mate for Goddess’s sake.” Adrien shook his head, and then looked away from her.

There was so much more he wanted to say, she could see it clearly now. That it was there—not what it was—but she was fine if it remained hidden. If he knew well enough to keep it tempered, if he said it, she might strangle him.

“Did you not see what happens when you don’t accept a Fated bond?” he pushed. “Were you even around for the past year?”

“For every second.” Her inhale and exhale was haggard again, and her tone was ice. “I watched my two best friends fall apart because of a bond. You and Cora almost died. And she lost everything. Her sanity, her home, you. To be with. . . him. And for what?” Isla hadn’t even bothered mentioning nearly losing her father. Cora was enough. She shouldn’t have brought it up anyway, because now complete and utter shame overtook her soul.

Who was she to talk about this? After not understanding—after not believing Corinne—when her friend had claimed she couldn’t fight off the feelings and connections to her destined mate, though still while loving Adrien. After becoming such a horrible, horrible friend to her while she needed Isla’s support, because Isla was terrified one wrong move would cause her to lose Adrien and Cora both.

Her beautiful, radiant, powerful best friend had gone from being the future “queen of queens” to a scorned exile, suffering the whole way while the man she loved and the man she was meant for battled over her in one of very rare times destiny and choice collided.

All because of Fate. The cruel, wicked goddess who had wound such a horrible, wondrous marvel. A rare, extraordinary double-edged sword.

Isla looked down at her hand—anger rumbling in blood—but also feeling pathetic for being so dense, for falling into the trap again. With every look Kai had given her, every handsome smile, every phantom touch, every tender word and every jabbing taunt, he was the deity’s unwitting accomplice. Had Isla buying into all of that romanticism around the Fated again, and even if only in brief moments, it was too much.

“She lost everything all because of this stupid thing,” she began hoarsely. “that drives us mad or kills us when we don’t respect it. That pulls and tugs and blinds us with how beautiful it sounds and how amazing it feels to have one person in the world who’s ‘yours’, but it’s just a connection to someone no more than a stranger—who could very well be the most horrible person on the planet—that we let hold our lives in its hands. That we let torture us from the minute we come-of-age and society, even interpretations of our Code, tells us that’s all we’re meant for.”

She was rambling. Rambling and ranting, but she couldn’t stop. Didn’t want to. This was a release she needed, from the emptiness, from the bitterness she still felt over the nothing she’d found on the other side of the bond. She was angry, so incredibly angry, but most of it was with herself. How could she let herself feel abandoned again, let herself feel alone? This was their choice. Her choice.

“This thing that expects me. . .” Isla paused, choking on the words, feeling pieces of her fracture. “That expects me to completely upend my life. To give up everything I’ve worked for. To renounce my membership to my Pack, my home. To leave my family, my friends, and move to this place where I’ll have no one. Nothing. Where I’m stuck for the rest of my life with a man who I don’t love—who I don’t know—and who doesn’t know or love me either. With a people who probably don’t want me there anyway, who would hate having me there. Where I’m a mockery in a role I’m nowhere near qualified for.” Her chest felt heavy, the corner of her eyes stinging, but she kept her voice as even as she could. And when the first break of tears stung at her cheeks again, she wiped them quickly.

“He didn’t ask for this,” she finished. “For me to be the one. If there’s that much cost—that much risk with a bond, with a kingdom—Kai’s better off getting to choose someone. Someone he needs and deservesthat his people do—after all the shit they’ve gone through.”

“And what about you?”

At Adrien’s immediate response, Isla lifted her head, surprised to see a gleam of their own shock and worry on both the boys’ faces for all she’d just laid bare. It was the most, she realized, she’d ever poured out, in a manner so raw, to anyone. She was so used to wearing a mask, throwing on her facade, and having her guard up.

She blinked back another wash of tears—the final cascade—at the question. What about her? She had her plan. Be a Warrior and when the time was right, choose a man to settle with, start a family.

Isla wouldn’t let the image of Kai being that one materialize in her head, all an illusion purported by the bond. She beat it away swiftly, then visualized ripping whatever remnants of the tether remained within, that tainted her mind, and chucking them off the cliffside.

It wouldn’t be him. It couldn’t be him. And that was okay.

“I’ll be fine without him too,” she said.

And hated that she felt like a liar.

| ☽ |

Isla had been in her apartment for all of a few hours—enough time to stow away the book, marker, and dagger, sit in a bath until the water ran cold, and then, when the sky completely succumbed to darkness, decide to get herself dressed up to head to the bar in the heart of the Market Square to blow off some steam.

The man she’d found to help her do so—a swaggering, muscly, dark-haired, lower member of the Imperial Guard, who she’d watched sweep the floor with his comrades in pool from afar before he’d noticed and approached her—was named. . . something.

His name was something, and she couldn’t remember it for the life of her as they fumbled their way up to her apartment door.

He kissed her, hard, his tongue parting her mouth, his hands greedy as they roamed her body. She welcomed him eagerly—even if she had some tender spots from her injuries—because she needed this. Needed to let herself get lost in booze and sex for just one night. Somehow had to let go of how incredibly wrong it felt letting someone else touch her this way. Had to ignore that she wanted it to be Kai. Try not to be livid over the fact that she hadn’t been able to just ‘throw away’ the bond like that.

Isla hadn’t lingered by the ravine for much longer after her declarations to the boys. In fact, it had only been a few heartbeats before she hoisted her bag onto her shoulder and stalked off, leaving the two of them—still stunned—with the simple parting words of ’you can’t tell anyone’. They didn’t follow, knowing it best to leave her be.

It was pure adrenaline that had powered her through the territory, across the City. Adrenaline that had dipped steeply the minute she’d reached her apartment door. She practically collapsed into the alcove at the entrance once she’d gotten her shaking fingers to turn her key, and after that, she’d remained on the creaky wood floor for Goddess knew how long, enduring a maddening cycle of silent crying and cursing. She’d finally gotten a grip of herself when she’d heard movement down the hall that she figured was her neighbor, and from then, she’d decided that was it.

So she’d picked herself up, gone through her motions—her stashing, her bath, her dressing—and now she was here, tangled with a man she hoped to the Goddess was decent in bed.

She was going to forget Kai. She would. She had to.

And it started with. . . this. . . person.

Goddess, what the hell was his name?

When they eventually made it to her landing, the man made an effort to hoist her off her feet, but she stopped him, peeling away to reach for the keys in her pocket. But as soon as she extracted them and brought her hand to his face to pull him back in, she stumbled.

Her door was already ajar.

Her heart—still pounding with needy anticipation—leapt into her throat, and without a second thought, she moved into action, pushing the man further away, further behind her, slowly. A sneer crossed her likely swollen lips as she moved forward, inclining her head to catch a scent, hear a sound—but there was nothing. Eyes fixed on the white wood, bearing an askew thirty-four, she bent to her shoe—slow, all slow and careful—and retrieved her tucked scalpel.

Behind her, the man made a noise of both confusion and concern. “Did you always have that?”

Isla raised a hand for him to be quiet.

Inch by inch by inch.

Who could it be? Lukas somehow escaping Valkeric. . . his benefactor come to finish the job?

Step, step, step.

Isla vexed the squeaky entryway as she guided it open with her foot, and the creaking floor once again betrayed her arrival as she broke the threshold. But no one appeared upon the noise. No lost souls or secret killers.

Things had been moved, she noticed, mostly within the small kitchenette. Her cupboards and fridge left open, a bag and bowl of chips left on the counter. With a quirked eyebrow, Isla tiptoed over to the lot, fighting her urge to tidy everything.

She jolted at the sound of a flushing toilet and whipped around to face the bathroom door. Her scalpel was up and ready as her heart ratcheted up a few paces.

But the bracing for battle was all for naught, as exiting the washroom was her brother.

Relief and rage swirled in Isla’s gut, and she almost chucked the small blade at him anyway.

“Sebastian, what the hell?” she roared, dropping her weapon to the side.

Her brother flashed a grin, greeting her with her beloved nickname, before directing his eyes to the astonished Guard who hadn’t drifted too far from the apartment’s entrance. “Who’s this?”

Isla wouldn’t have told him even if she knew.

Obviously, there had to have been a reason for Sebastian to just show up—or rather, break in—to her home. His own place was a good hour’s walk away, on the other side of the City in the more luxurious townhouses, so he’d gone through the hassle of getting here. But she didn’t care. This was humiliating, absolutely humiliating.

She jabbed a finger towards the door. “Get out.”

Sebastian strolled over to the counter to what was his bowl of food. Isla held back a roll of her eyes. The open cabinets and disarray should’ve flagged her off immediately as to who had come in.

He pulled a chip from his bowl. “We have to talk.”

Isla’s eyes narrowed to slits, but she’d entertain him. “About what?”

Sebastian hesitated, gaze flicking over to the flabbergasted man lingering by her door frame. When he moved back to Isla, he began an explanation—through broken words and hand movements. It was entirely vague and nonsensical, and entirely something she didn’t have the time or patience for.

She pointed to the door again. “Get out.”

“It’s about your mate.”

Isla’s entire body went stiff.

“You’re mated?”

She spun to the Guard to find his face, previously flushed, had paled substantially. The fear was valid. Touching someone’s actual mate the way he’d been all over her was nearly unheard of. Even Cora’s true mate had known better than to try anything with Cora while her and Adrien were still bound. There wouldn’t have been any second-guessing on the Heir’s part—he would’ve likely killed him on the spot—and that would’ve opened a whole new catastrophe.

“No, I’m not.”

The Guard let out an unmissable sigh of relief, before he shifted awkwardly on his feet. “Do you, uh, want me to wait outside?”

He still wanted to stick around. That was a good sign. . . or he was just a man. Okay to wait for however long, as long as he ended up in her bed.

It was tempting. The thought of Sebastian leaving and then them picking up right where they left off. . . but she wasn’t sure if it was her brother’s presence or the verbal reminder of Kai, but she wasn’t necessarily in the mood anymore.

“No,” she said, taking a few steps towards him. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how long we’ll be.”

The Guard’s eyebrows rose, not seeming to expect the answer. He opened his mouth like he’d protest, or make another proposal, but then he closed it and relegated to a nod. Something like defeat and disappointment flashed in his eyes.

Isla trailed him to the exit as he let himself out and then worked on each of her locks—the chain above, then the knob. Her head remained hung low as she closed her eyes and sighed a breath.

“Poor bastard.”

Isla whirled around to her brother with murder in her eyes. “You bastard.” She reached for the first thing she could find—one of her slippers—and launched it across the room. Sebastian caught it effortlessly, and Isla let out an aggravated growl. “You scared the shit out of me! Why are you here? You could’ve called!”

Sebastian threw her footwear to the side. “I did, and you never picked up.”

“So you broke into my apartment?”

“You just told me that someone tried to have you killed,” he retorted, as if that were answer enough. He grabbed another chip from his bowl and pointed to her closed door. “Alpha Kai could tear that guy apart.”

He probably would’ve, even if they weren’t formally mated—if how he’d reacted at the Feast were any indication.

“Kai would never know that he was here,” she muttered, moving to kick off her heeled boots. “How did you even get in?”

Sebastian swung around the counter with his bowl under one arm. “A magician never reveals his secrets.”

“You’re a con-artist, not a magician.”

Feeling it her right—as it was her food he was eating—Isla walked up and snatched the bowl from him, glowering as she popped a chip in her mouth. But as she went to eat another, she caught something out of the corner of her eye and froze. The cover of the small vent beside her sink wasn’t quite the way she’d left it, one of screws not done as tightly.

“You didn’t,” she seethed, before shoving the bowl back into Sebastian’s arms and storming to the bathroom.

She made quick work of unscrewing each piece—done so by hand very recently, she realized—and was greeted by a confirmation of her suspicions. “Where are they?” she yelled from her spot on the floor, and then exited the washroom in fury.

Sebastian had since moved to the living area and had an arm outstretched to the couch. Isla was by his side in seconds and gaped at the marker, book, and dagger perched in a neat line upon her cushions.

There were so many things she wanted to scream at him—most of them profanities—but she settled for, “How?”

“You’ve had the same type of hiding place since you were eight. You would think after we moved out you’d change it up,” Sebastian jeered—receiving another glare.

Suddenly, he bent to the dagger, and Isla lurched forward. “What are you doing?”

Sebastian said nothing as he picked the weapon up and ran his fingers over the blade. No flinching. No recoil. “I don’t think anything’s on it anymore.”

Isla blinked. “What?”

She had washed it—thoroughly—in order to remove all the traces of blood, but she hadn’t dared try to touch it after that, especially not with her bare hands. She hadn’t even taken the time to truly examine it. But she did now—as she cautiously took the dagger from her brother’s grasp and gripped the hilt firmly in her own hand. As she felt the ridges of it along her palm—a near perfect fit. As she tested the weight in her hold.

Isla brought it up closer to her face. Her reflection in the silvery metal was kissed by flecks of gold, dotting like faint stars on the blade, but appearing as freckles on her nose, across her cheeks. She noticed something like crystal weaving beneath her fingertips that she’d overlooked before.

There were many more fine details she’d missed, every pass of her eyes revealing something new. It was a beautifully crafted piece of weaponry.

Even if it had been used in an attempt to kill her.

Holding her breath, Isla brought a finger to its sharp edge, and indeed, it did not burn. She even went further, applying a bit more force—just on the edge of piercing her skin—but there was no pain. No reaction of her wolf. She flicked her finger the rest of the way, and the metal seemed to sing, elicit a hypnotizing hum, under the movement of her passing touch.

Every part of her being relaxed.

“So what is all of this?”

Isla snapped her eyes up to meet Sebastian’s, dropping her arm with the dagger to her side. Casting a glance over to the book and the marker, she pursed her lips.

She could tell him. She really could. But something—something—told her no. Told her to wait.

“My things,” she answered simply.

Sebastian looked doubtful. “From where?”

“You already broke into my apartment and rifled through my stuff, we need to have some boundaries. You don’t need to know everything,” she rebutted, before turning on her heel to head back to the kitchen.“You said you wanted to talk to me about Kai.”

Goddess, did it feel odd speaking so freely of him with someone else. Not trying to cover anything up with formalities and titles.

As she stopped to get a chip out of the bowl left on the counter again, Sebastian nodded towards her side. “Are you going to put the knife down?”

Isla looked to the blade still gripped tightly between her fingers. She hadn’t even realized she was still holding it. It whispered through the air as she lifted it, catching her reflection in pseudo-starlight again, before she placed it on the table beside her. But to make a point she didn’t leave it far and shot Sebastian a look of challenge.

Sebastian snorted, but didn’t make any type of “Warrior princess” remark as she’d expected. Instead, his face turned serious. “Does Dad know about you and the Alpha?”

Isla bit into her chip and answered once she swallowed. “No. No one else knows except for you guys and Kai’s Beta.”

“The Beta knows?”

“Yes, and it has to stay that way. I meant it when I said you can’t tell anyone,” she warned, reaching back into the bowl. “Why are you asking?”

Sebastian took a few steps forward. “That’s where I was during everything with the Gate when Lukas emerged. Why I wasn’t around. Dad wanted me to tail the Alpha or Beta of Deimos, whoever I could find—which was the Beta for a little while, until I lost him.”

Isla had ceased bringing the snack to her mouth mid-motion. Her eyebrows were drawn in tightly. “Why?”

Sebastian raised and lowered his shoulders. “He doesn’t trust them." As her perplexed look persisted, he meandered his way to the kitchen. “Deimos has always been a mess deal with, but Alpha Kyran. . .” He trailed off, seemingly choosing his words more carefully than she thought he ever had in his life. “From how I’ve heard Dad and other Council members complain, he was a different kind of bastard.” Before Isla could ask how, he continued, though the account diverged, “You and Lukas are the only two people who had to face multiple Bak during the Hunt. The only ones. Fourteen Hunters descended, and the Wilds is massive. You were either in the wrong place at the wrong time or targeted in there.”

Isla had never thought of that—how no one else had claimed to encounter multiple beasts. She replayed Sebastian’s words. Wrong place, wrong time. . . or targeted.

That latter option rang loudest.

“Where does Deimos fit into this?” she questioned.

Now Sebastian really took his time in crafting his answer. “If the Alpha. . . if Kai had felt like avenging his father, he could’ve somehow drew the Bak to you, with food or blood or—”

Isla cut him off. “Why would hurting me be avenging his father?”

“I guess we denied a lot of his proposals or something. I don’t know what they were for. Dad won’t tell me, and Alpha Cassius won’t tell Adrien.”

“Adrien didn’t go to the meetings? I thought he always got to attend the forums with other Alphas?”

“They were private audiences. Not open forums. Alpha Kyran requested four of them with the Imperial Alpha within the past year. Alpha Cassius figured three was enough.”

“He denied the fourth?” Isla couldn’t even believe the Imperial Alpha had entertained him for three.

“A month before he died.” Sebastian let the words sit a while—as if leaving the air for respectful silence for the fallen—before he added, “If the former Alpha went with unspoken grievances, if we wouldn’t listen, killing you is one way to get our attention. . . or saving you.” Another pause. “But if the Alpha’s your mate, it disproves that theory.”

Does it? Isla thought, but then immediately brushed it away.

If Sebastian had brought this up weeks ago, before they’d gone into the Hunt—right after her and Kai had just met—she may have said no, it didn’t disprove anything. She did have a vague idea of how hard Deimos had been to deal with. Knew they’d withheld information and lied to Io in the past. So easily had she questioned a product of their Pack a family-slaying killer. Her own mate for Goddess’s sake.

But she didn’t feel that way anymore. At least, not about Kai. His survival was twined with hers. Talk about leverage.

Isla had to sit down as she broke down each of Sebastian’s words, but he interrupted her thoughts with a question. “How did he know where to find you?”

“The bond,” she stated warily, absentmindedly tracing her fingers over the hilt of the dagger. “He knew when I started fighting my first Bak and stayed back to track me. To make sure I was okay—and then, I wasn’t.”

“It’s that strong?”

Isla looked up to find her brother’s eyes filled with curiosity, and it dawned on her. Adrien had his Chosen bond, she’d now found her Fated, but Sebastian had never known what any connection felt like. She wondered if he even cared. He seemed invested as she spoke shallowly about how the bond and feelings came and went. How they were most potent when the emotions were strong enough in any sort of way. She purposely neglected to mention how much they’d wanted to jump each other upon first meeting.

“It was all involuntary,” she finished explaining, gazing at her hand. “Or most of it was.”

Sebastian pulled out a chair and sat beside her, beyond the counter’s corner. “Can you feel it now?” His tone had been edged in concern, surely prompted by her earlier meltdown. Another embarrassment today. Noting the absence of a particular member of their usual party, she held back her question as to where Adrien was.

“No,” she respond, nearly as soft as the sound of her finger gliding over the cool metal of the blade.

“And that’s okay.” Not a question. A statement. Though unsure.

Yes.

“It’s what we want.”

Sebastian leaned back in his seat with a loud sigh—overdramatic and exaggerated—as if he were trying to lighten the mood. “For the record, if you had gone through with it—or if you did change your mind—he has my blessing.”

Isla peered up at him, unsure if she wanted to laugh or scowl. “One—I don’t need your blessing, and two—he gets your seal of approval?”

Sebastian snorted. “You think I want to go against Fate and the guy who killed four Bak—three of them to keep them away from you? Unlike you, I know when to step back.” He took a hold of the bowl of chips and pulled the whole lot towards him. “Plus, saying my sister’s a Luna sounds a lot more badass than saying she’s a Warrior.”

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