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Knox’s fingers froze, and he went completely still next to me. My throat felt dry. “Wha-” Then I was moving, being lifted to my feet as Knox stood and pulled me with him. He held me pressed to his front, arm still tight around my shoulders, staring down at me intently. His eyes were flickering, lightening and darkening as he studied my face and addressed Janus behind me.

“How much time do we have?” He never looked away, and I was locked in my place, palms flat against his chest. The smell of him was all around us, his magic wrapped like a protective blanket over my shoulders.

“A request was submitted to land within the Territory, arriving tomorrow afternoon.” Knox sighed and raised his head to stare over me.

“They have to fly in?” He sounded tired, frustrated, and a bit resigned. My mind was trying to catch up, piecing together the bits I gleaned from them despite my racing heart and proximity to a barely dressed Knox.

“They’re traveling a long way to retrieve the Runaway.” Janus chuckled, and the meaning in his words finally sunk in. I pushed myself from Knox’s grip to face Janus.

“Hold on, can one of you please tell me what the hell is going on?” Janus crossed his arms and rolled his eyes, glancing between me and Knox.

“I could ask you the same question, Runaway.” My mouth opened in protest, but he ignored me. “I guess you’ve wandered too far from home. Your boyfriend decided to make a house call.” Knox growled and stepped towards me, a movement his Beta did not let go unnoticed. He wiggled his brows, piercing dangling and eyes full of glee. I wrapped my arms around myself, panic rising at the mention of Draven.

“You said the Alpha was coming. Draven isn’t an Alpha. And he’s not my boyfriend.” My face felt warm, and I squeezed my eyes closed while I waited for him to confirm what I already knew in my gut.

“He’s an Alpha now, Runaway. Tore his father to pieces when he learned you were gone, at least that’s what the scouts are saying. Tell me, why would a man do that if not for his lady love?” Pressing a palm against my chest, I tried to slow my breathing. Draven was coming for me, and he’d challenged his father for Alpha to do it. If he was willing to kill his father to get to me, travel all the way across the country in pursuit of me…my shoulders were shaking at the thought of what he might do when he got here.

Suddenly, Knox was before me, his large hands holding my shoulders still. His expression was pained, but determined. “You are a guest in my Territory, and as such you are under my protection.” He pressed his thumb against my lower lip, gently freeing it from its place between my teeth. “If you don’t wish to return with him, you need only say.” He murmured, leaning forward over me and cupping my cheek. “He won’t touch you, if that is what you want.”

A tear slipped from the corner of my eye, rolling down my face only to be wiped away by gentle fingers. I nodded, pulling myself together, and he studied me for a moment longer before turning to Janus. “Take her to Jessamy when you return. I’ll finish the run alone and be back by morning.” He whispered something too low and quick for my ears, met with a nod from his Beta.

Next thing I knew, I was loaded in Janus’s battered blue pickup, watching Knox grow smaller in the rear window as we drove away. Night was upon us within minutes, almost as soon as he was out of view, and I turned in my seat to stare blankly at the road illuminated with headlights before us. Minutes ago, I had awoken in the arms of the Alpha, drawn to him in my sleep. Now…that second of bliss before reality hit seemed a million years in the past.

He had held me, pressed me closer to him even once awake. Touched my lips, my cheeks, spoke to me in soothing tones when he saw my fear. He offered me protection, offered the choice that had never been mine to make. I could stay here if I wanted, or I could return home if that was my desire. My desires…

“Seems the Alpha has taken quite a liking to you,” Janus taunted, glancing at me from his spot in the driver’s seat. I crossed my arms against my chest, not in the mood to put up with the mouth on this Beta.

“Whether he likes me or not should be of no interest to you,” I spit, bolder than I felt. He grinned, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel. The tips of his fangs pressed against his lips, and I briefly thought about what Knox had said about his magic. Janus is excellent at making others see only what he wants them to see.

He cleared his throat, fiddling with something on the dash. “That’s where you’re wrong, Runaway. Everything the Alpha does, says, thinks and feels is of interest to me. You’d do well to remember that.” He raised a brow at me and smirked, flexing his arms as he changed his hold on the wheel. I noticed his tattoos, visible and sticking out from below the sleeves rolled at his elbows. The glow from the headlights was enough for me to see them, closer than I had before, but my eyes couldn’t seem to focus on the black inked patterns to make any form I could decipher.

I recognized the blur of my vision as magic, and I peeked over at him from the corner of my eye. With a scowl, I resolved myself to ignore him as we drove, burying any of the questions I might have asked him in the hours it took to get back to the Pack house. My head felt like lead against my seat, and I regretted the amount of wine I consumed as my stomach rolled with the movement of the truck. I was in no mood to play mind games with Janus, and more insight to his magic would have to wait until he decided to be less of an asshole every time I was around.

At some point I dozed off, neck craned to rest my head against the window. The sway of the truck eventually changed, and the sound of tires crunching against gravel filled my ears. Begrudgingly, I peeled open my eyelids and blinked furiously to clear my vision. We rolled to a stop in front of a small house, not unlike the Perimeter outpost we had just left. In the darkness, the outlines of murals covered every inch of the walls, and I could tell that in the daytime they would be alight with color. Cacti and rocks of various sizes lined the short path to the front porch, and lights bobbed and floated all around the desert yard.

Janus stepped out of the truck and slammed the door without a word. I hurried to follow him, feet shuffling over the unfamiliar ground. He did not look back as we approached the front door, which he opened without pausing and stepped over the threshold. Most of the doorway was blocked by his overlarge form, but I could see lights from the inside and smell dried herbs of all types.

“Jaaaanusssss!” A singsong voice called from somewhere past my view, light and girlish. “What have you brought me this time?” She sang, and Janus finally stepped out of my way into the house. I paused in the doorway, eyes adjusting to the lights floating all around the room. The space was arranged similarly to the other houses I’d been to, though in place of the bathroom there was a large table covered in a random assortment of papers and mugs and open books and a spiral staircase leading to another level.

Instead of windows wrapping the walls, shelves of all kinds loaded with objects and books and plants lined every open inch of the room. My eyes followed them up the double height space to the catwalk lining the upper level. Those walls were also covered in shelves, so tall they towered all the way to the ceiling, if you could call it that. The edges shimmered with magic, but most of the roof had the appearance of being open to the sky. Had I not started picking up on the subtle giveaways that accompanied magic use, I would have thought the house had no roof at all.

My eyes finally fell on the owner of the girlish voice, standing in the middle of the room with her hands on her hips. She was a tiny thing, shorter than me even at barely five feet, with flawless pale skin and bright blue hair pulled into a messy bun. Her lips were full and pouty, and her eyes a glowing turquoise. An aura shimmered around her, the barely there colors shifting through shades of blue. Everything about her seemed magical, from her colorful hair to her flower-print dress and oversized knit cardigan.

She stood on the rug-covered floor in bare feet, and her toenails were painted bright pink. Black, ink-like stains spread up her toes towards her ankles, and I noted the same stains on each of her painted fingers. On her face was an expression of scrutiny as she took me in, surely a mirror of my own observation. Her plump lips pulled into a wide smile, showing her perfect, dainty white teeth.

Janus stood off to the side as we stared at each other, occasionally moving his eyes from her to me. Finally, he cleared his throat. “Luna, this is Jessamy. She is an advisor to the Pack. Jess, this is Luna, the Runaway from up North.” I flinched at the nickname. “The Alpha requests that you fill in the gaps of the Runaway’s magical knowledge.” He shifted from foot to foot, eyes locked on her. She did not look away from me. “I’ll just be…outside.” Heavy footfalls stomped away and the door slammed behind him.

“Well you look delicious,” Jessamy purred, beckoning me toward her with a curved finger. “Come closer so I can look at you.” My feet shuffled forward, uncertain on the layered rugs, until I stood before her. We were almost eye to eye - I had maybe an inch or so on her. It was nice, not having to crane my neck up to meet her gaze, and a feeling of calm settled over me as she circled around me slowly. Rotation complete and standing before me once again, she took my hands in hers and held them aloft between us.

Her black-tipped fingers were warm in my palms, and she squeezed gently. “With your permission,” she said, her eyes full of excitement and sincerity, “I would love to examine your magic.” My brow furrowed in confusion, and she released her grip so I could drop my hands to my sides.

“I don’t…I don’t think I have any magic.” I stuttered, cheeks flushing. Jessamy laughed, a tinkling sound that floated around the room and made me smile despite myself. She stepped back from me and let her eyes drift all around me, shaking her head slightly.

“You are completely cloaked in magic, doll.” Another laugh escaped her, and she rubbed her hands together in front of her chest. “With your permission,” she prompted, and brought her palms apart slightly. Swallowing thickly, I felt myself nod, and I watched her with wide eyes. The space between her palms began to glow, a small white ball of light that grew as she spread her arms wider and wider. When she could reach no further, Jessamy brought her palms together with a smack, and light exploded all around us. Every color of the rainbow shifted in whisps, mixing and blending with ribbons of black and white smoke-like light.

My mouth was open in shock as the energy of it thrummed steadily, in time with my heartbeat, the scent of smoke and summer and wine and cinnamon and him flooding every inch of me. Jessamy gasped in delight, her turquoise eyes glowing and sparkling in the dome of magic. She grinned as she spoke, lifting her hands to twist her blackened fingers in the changing colors as they moved. “I recognized Knox’s signature on you, but this…this is something else entirely.” Her eyes drifted to mine, as full of questions as I’m sure mine were. “This other energy…it’s like it’s shielding you…” She turned her gaze to my side, where I could see both color and shadow alike breaking out from the circle to reach towards me, before snapping away again.

“...and looks like it’s containing your magic.”
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