XIX. THE MOUNTAIN
Isla had forgotten how to breathe, the sawing, shuddering sounds escaping her lips fading to empty noise as she beheld her mate’s face.
Her mate—a man who had not yet realized what he’d said. The weight that it held.
The woman I love.
The words clanged through Isla’s mind, her body, the bond.
For a moment she wondered if he hadn’t been speaking of her. Maybe another woman had held his affections?
But then Kai’s features shifted.
His jaw went slack. His cold stare warmed. His eyes widened in the slightest fear. The fear she rarely saw.
He gave a subtle shake of his head, his fingers offering the lightest squeeze to her wrists, as if to check if she were really there. If he hadn’t just imagined it.
But she was real.
And with the touch, Isla found he was real as well.
“Isla. . . ”
This time, she’d let that tone of his pass.
Isla struggled to swallow, and her dry eyes burned when she finally got herself to blink. The voice that left her mouth was foreign and weak. “You. . . love me?”
Kai’s stare had her pinned now, passing over the planes of her face with such intent she swore he could see through to her soul. See through to where those threads of her reached out to those of him. Twined with him. Were desperate for their work to end. For the two of them to give it up and give in to each other.
Kai heaved a breath, and Isla was left cold and exposed as he moved to sit at her side, leaving a small distance between them as he raked his hand through his hair. As Isla rose to her knees, he’d only spared her a glance.
She watched his throat bob, before he answered, finally, “I do.”
More words like a shot, stealing the wind from her again.
The woman that I love. . .
The sentence ran rounds. All of it.
The woman I. . .
But besides the mentioning of love, another phrase clawed its way along her skin.
And I’m running out of time with her.
Isla remained rooted in her spot and cleared her throat. “Why are we running out of time?” Though she didn’t know the answer, it still felt like a foolish question.
Kai looked at her fully. “Because me falling in love with you wasn’t part of our plan.”
She wasn’t sure that her ears would ever get used to that word from his lips, that her brain would ever stop pausing at it, but she did her best to ignore, to focus on what had framed it.
Isla nearly cackled remembering that night in the garden. When the Hunt ended, she’d go back to Io, he’d come lead Deimos, and they would forget about each other. But after all of this, how was that even possible?
“None of this was a part of our plan,” she said. “I’m here in Deimos.”
“But you will be going back to Io once the Warriors’ tenure is over,” Kai said. “Right?”
Isla couldn’t get herself to answer.
He turned away, focusing forward. Regret shone across his face. “You can’t stay. . . and I don’t think I can let you go. Not when we’re like this.”
Isla nodded her brows. Like this. Still tied to each other. Partially bound.
For some reason, panic rose in her chest. “You want to reject me?”
“No.” Kai looked like the proposal was absurd. “But I know us being together will be complicated, and that in the end, you’ll have to give up a lot more than I have to.”
Isla managed to choke down a swallow, circling her arms around herself as she thought, remembered. Accepting the bond with Kai meant she’d likely never see home again. Barely see her family, Adrien. Twenty-one-years washed away in a blink.
Some conditioned part of her felt like a traitor when she spoke next, entertaining an idea that she should’ve found ridiculous.
“Why do you think it was someone of Io who tried to kill me?” she forced. “What do you know that you haven’t told me?”
Kai held in a deep breath, but when he opened his mouth to speak, a distant howl cut through the air.
It was for her.
Isla glanced up at the sun through the canopies, nearly to its highest point. It was almost noon. They’d be heading up the mountain soon, with or without her, and she’d be forced to pick up the slack with extra speed and extra weight as punishments.
She didn’t care. She’d take it. She’d take all of it to get through this, and finally get a grasp on what was happening.
But when she turned to Kai, he was rising to his feet, preparing to head back.
“No,” she protested, and Kai offered her a hand. Isla glowered, but took it. Standing on her feet before him, she narrowed her eyes further.
He sighed. “I will tell you everything, Isla, I promise.” As the doubt cast across her face, he took it in his hands and kissed her like it was the last time he ever would. In a way that took her breath for a third time. But she steeled as they broke apart, not letting how much it had incapacitated her show. “I promise.” He drew out each word.
Isla’s mouth was still tingling from his, as she grabbed his forearms. “Why should I believe you?”
“Because I love you,” Kai told her, running his thumb over her cheek. “And I know I’ll lose you forever if I don’t.”
| ☽ |
As if she hadn’t already felt raw and exposed, Isla also had to weather the dirty looks of the Guard members, typically shot at all the Warriors, reserved today specifically for her and Callan, but mostly her. The Imperial Beta’s daughter—ranked no higher than any of them in the Hierarchy because of it—but viewed as the system’s symbol here regardless, a representation of the force that could topple their lives as they knew it.
But now she had food, so maybe she could bear it.
Opposite the quiet, brooding Kai that she’d encountered, there was the Kai who owned a room. Not with fear, but with unbridled charisma. Maybe he’d always had that draw of an Alpha, even when he wasn’t. Isla watched from her spot at one of the tables in the furthest corner of the room as he meandered through the mess hall, catching up with old friends from his days serving with the Guard and making new ones of the recent recruits. The grin on his face wasn’t entirely manufactured, even with all that had occurred only minutes before. Especially because Rhydian, and surprisingly Ameera, were at his side.
Because I love you.
The two of them had returned just before the units were to grab their packs and head off, with Kai making an appearance a few moments ahead of Isla to lessen any suspicions. Her reasons for being late were several acts of fate, which included breaking off the trail to relieve herself and getting lost, thus being forced to run a longer path. Callan, who was also in the hall, though off to the side, keeping a safe distance from both her and Kai, had no protest.
Her punishment for being late—again—was to be sent off without a stitch of food, framed with some bogus “true battle situation” logic. As if everyone else hadn’t just gorged themselves.
But no one noticed as she shoved the random assortment of nuts and berries, that Rhydian had snuck for her, into her mouth. Not while Kai successfully executed his plan to stall with his presence so she had a chance to eat.
Because I love you.
The small gesture had done nothing to relieve the battle ensuing between her mind and her heart, as the former preached it was a bad idea to the latter that wanted nothing more than to drag him over and say it back.
| ☽ |
The challenge and the Rogues seemed to be the only topic anyone wanted to discuss on the stretch of the mountain. As if Isla didn’t already have enough on her mind, she now had to remember the even bigger matters at hand. If the challenge was approved, she’d have to endure watching Kai in a fight to the death.
Ten miles up and ten miles down.
They went up sporadically in units, rather than all as one large battalion. And although she may had rather hike alone, now without being forced to take extra weight, she was grateful that the unit she was ordered to join was 37B. For Rhydian. Maybe Thyra. Belle was okay. But the double-edged sword lied with Magnus.
Of course, he was the most vocal about what was happening, and Isla, who’d already been struggling to keep her composure, found herself on the receiving end of one too many of his indirect snide remarks. By mile six of being forced to endure his shitty attitude, she was ready to tear his face off.
And by mile seven, when he made a comment that she had no right to look as upset as she appeared because everything happening in Deimos had “nothing to do with her”, she almost did.
As she felt the ripping at her knuckles where her claws would emerge as she stared at the back of Magnus’s head, a hand came down on her shoulder. She turned, scowl still painted, to Rhydian. The unofficial leader of their squadron.
“Take a walk,” he told her, wiping some sweat off his dirt-covered brow and nodding towards a path off the trail between a few boulders.
Isla bit down on her tongue until the metallic tang of blood filled her mouth, the dark protrusions still threatening to appear.
“We’re all on edge,” he said a bit quieter, and from the bite in his voice, she realized all of the challenge talk had bothered him as much as her. “Go cool down.”
Isla huffed through her nose.
On edge was an understatement, but despite how she truly felt—back to angry, helpless, and useless in protecting her mate—she gradually relaxed her arm. And then she hoisted the weight of her pack up her shoulders and stalked off.
She was pacing agitated circles around a flattened clearing when Rhydian appeared from around a bend several minutes later.
“I said a walk, not a second hike,” he tried to joke, but it fell flat. Felt empty. Even he knew it, barely able to force his mouth into a decent smile.
Isla pointed to the space beyond him, growling, “I’m going to punch him in the throat.”
“He deserves it. I wouldn’t have stopped you if I hadn’t thought fighting Magnus was beneath you.” He shrugged. “And if it didn’t mean we’d have to carry his ass the rest of the way through the mountain.”
Another quip that barely worked on their moods.
Isla ceased her pacing, needing to stabilize against a tree after so much rapid movement. She wedged her hands into her hair, something that Magnus had said eating away at her.
“Can I ask you something?”
“That’s a dangerous question.”
Isla took that as a ’yes’. “What did you think when Kai told you that I was of Io? Assuming that he did after you all figured out he’d met me.”
Rhydian raised his brows, the query throwing him a bit off balance before he snickered. “When we found out you were of Io, or when we learned you were the Imperial Beta’s daughter?” At Isla’s frown, he elaborated. “We weren’t mad, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
Isla ran her tongue over her teeth.
Rhydian may not have been up for a confessional—and he may not have been her first choice to vent to—but they were going to be out here for several more hours. He was the only option she had.
Davina had been a great listener. Maybe it was something the mated pair shared.
“Kai told me he loves me,” Isla blurted, causing Rhydian’s brows to shoot upwards again. “And if I don’t talk to someone about it, I’m going to lose my mind, and I can’t guarantee Magnus makes it off this peak alive.”
Initially, Rhydian remained quiet, blinking, and then shuffled awkwardly on his feet. “Okay,” he said gently. There was a further pause. “Do you—love him?”
Isla finally laughed.
At first, because she figured this was a horrible idea—and then because she realized the simple, to the point inquiry was exactly what she needed.
“I think I do,” she confessed, feeling like a weight had been lifted off her chest, but then replaced by another. “But I’ve never felt like this, and it’s so much, so fast.”
Isla pursed her lips. “I get that’s what mates are. It’s quick, and everything’s supposed to make sense and fall into place and be this perfect fairytale. But I don’t think that’s how our story’s going to go.” She wrung her hands together, trying to wrap her head around how something fated could feel so forbidden. “I know that I’m not my Pack, but convincing people that I’m not their enemy because of how they view where I came from and who my family is, will probably be a battle I fight forever. That he will.”
“And us too,” Rhydian reassured.
Isla smiled softly at him. Maybe she wouldn’t have no one if she stayed.
“The whole way up here, I’ve been trying to picture how my life would be if we rejected each other. If we moved on, and I just went home to continue on as I was and never saw him again.”
“I can’t do it. . . I don’t want to.”
| ☽ |
The Warriors’ ride back to the hotel was uncomfortable, the silence resounding. Not only was everyone too exhausted to speak, but a thick tension lingered in the air. One that stemmed from each of them. Isla was most curious about Eli’s, but he hadn’t disclosed anything about what had happened in the strategy meeting to them. Apparently, there would be another one tomorrow.
Callan had refused to make eye contact with her—from the base to the car and now within it. She wondered if he could feel her pointed stare at the back of his head. If he could feel it as she followed his every movement off of the Warriors’ van and into the hotel lobby. Her own unofficial mission—making sure he left. Until she saw him cross those borders, he was a wild card.
Who knew what he’d try to do in the hours before he was technically trespassing on Pack ground?
But as she was about to trail him to the staircase, she felt someone tap her shoulder. She spun and was greeted by a man in a hotel uniform, the same one Davina usually wore. She was nowhere to be found behind the desk.
“Are you Isla?” he asked, and when she nodded, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a key. “Here.”
Isla observed the metal. It was for a room, labeled 324. “What is this?”
“East wing. Take the lift to the top floor,” was all he said, casting his eyes side to side for listening ears, before shuffling away.