I awoke the next day sometime in the mid-afternoon. Not that it was very surprising given the events that had occurred the night before.
Confusion was my initial reaction, finding myself in a strange bed, before my mind finally caught up. It still all seemed so crazy that, had it not been for the aching in my body, perhaps I would have thought the entire thing was just a nightmare. Or maybe I could have at least pretended it was.
I changed into some clothes that were left for me and made my way into the living room, my movements all still incredibly stiff… only I found the quarters to be completely empty. I knew it was unreasonable to expect Aleric to be here but a part of me was still on edge from almost being kidnapped. Had he left to speak to Tytus in my stead?
A knocking then came from the front door, making me jump, and I approached it warily.
“Yes?” I called out.
Without any warning, the door then swung open to reveal Alexander behind it. He must have heard my footsteps from inside.
“Afternoon,” he greeted. “Aleric had to go organise some things but I‘ve been placed on watch duty. I‘ll be out here if you need me.”
“Oh. Okay,” was all that came out of my mouth. How was I meant to react to that? Didn‘t Alexander have better things to do? I felt like an inconvenience.
“Don‘t look so forlorn, things could have been worse,” he added, mistaking my expression. “I took over the watch from Brayden about an hour ago so you could have had him sulking out here instead.”
That sounded like Brayden. I could easily believe how annoyed he was at being put on babysitting duty; our relationship never having evolved past mutually putting up with one another. Not to mention that, for a Gamma, his ego was far too big.
“Thanks, Alexander,” I said quietly.
He smiled with a nod before closing the door again between us.
I now stood alone once more in the empty room, unsure what to do with myself. Should I be out helping somehow? Organising some patrols? No, I hadn‘t done anything like that in months given I was no longer a Beta heir.
Useless. I felt useless. Like a damsel in distress, locked in a tower. And none of it made any sense.
What was Thea‘s plan with kidnapping me anyway? Had I triggered whatever the required event was without knowing, allowing for my demise now? But I couldn‘t recall impacting anything of importance recently. Was it the meeting with Alpha Frederick, stopping the deal for the casino? That didn‘t seem like such a momentous event though, and it was one I had no influence on in the previous timeline.
So what was the real motivation here?
I sat on the couch, mulling in frustration for some time, continuing to try and make sense of the night before. But every time I thought I might have a possible explanation, I would find some flaw in the reasoning.
“Aria?” a voice then said from the door, snapping me out of my head.
I looked up startled to see Aleric had returned, the windows now dark as night had fallen. I really had spaced out for some time.
Woah, it‘s just me,” he clarified at my reaction. “Sorry, I didn‘t mean to scare you. I thought you would have heard the door open.”
I cleared my throat, my brow furrowing slightly. “No, no, it‘s all good. I was just lost in thought.”
“How are you feeling?” he asked, walking across the room to peer out the window.
“Fine, I guess? Better than last night… Did you talk to Tytus today?”
Aleric then became distracted, as if concentrating on something else.
“Something like that. No further punishment for you but I‘ll be taking all the bad patrol shifts for the next few months. They‘ll be adding stricter patrols at the packhouse from now on too… not that it matters…..”
It could have been worse. Much worse. I was grateful that Tytus hadn‘t decided to move my marking date up in response to the intruder scare or my unplanned adventure out of the pack; though not technically my fault for that last one.
The insane part was that this was really my life. I was walking on eggshells around Tytus and praying that I managed to change my fate before he took my choice away.
“Aria,” Aleric called, pulling my attention once more. “I know you‘re still tired but I need you to follow me.”
I was a little taken aback by the abruptness of his request but assumed he must be wanting to show met o my new room for the night. The old quarters were now a security risk and had a broken door so it made sense to put me somewhere else.
Silently, I got up and trailed behind him, letting him lead me through the packhouse.
…Only we kept going down the floors without stopping.
Not just that, but the packhouse was also eerily quiet with no one in sight along the route we took. Didn‘t Aleric say that they were going to be increasing patrols here?
I paused in my spot once we reached the ground level, now completely perplexed. “Aleric… What‘s going on?”
“Don‘t stop,” he instructed, pushing me gently forward. “I‘ll answer your questions soon.”
I frowned but resumed following anyway, wanting to put my trust in him that he wasn‘t about to lead me down another misadventure. Only that hope quickly dwindled further as he eventually led me outside, heading directly towards a car.
So much of this wasn‘t making any sense. Was there a different building that they were going to move me to for safety? Was the packhouse considered too compromised?
Per his request though, I didn‘t stop or question it further, following him into the car after him. A car || hadn‘t seen him drive before.
We drove for some time in silence and I could feel the tension coming off Aleric. And the further we went, the harder it became not to press him for information, especially since we were still heading in the direction I had been silently hoping he would deviate from.
“Can you please tell me now?” | asked, knowing that in a second it would be too late. “We‘re clearly heading towards the border, Aleric. What are you doing?”
Up ahead, a warrior then came into view as they walked into the middle of the road, waiting to screen the car at the border exit. There was no way they weren‘t going to alert Tytus this time given recent events.
“Don‘t worry about it,” he replied, driving ahead without hesitation.
The car then slowed down as we approached and I anxiously anticipated some sort of argument or fight tap evenly the to ensue as the warrior peered in through the window.
…Only it never came.
Aleric and the warrior simply nodded at each other, a silent acknowledgement between the two, before he accelerated once more, driving past the exit and over the borderline.
“Aleric… seriously, what‘s going on?” I stressed, now deeply concerned.
It was then, as I turned to face him, that my eyes finally caught sight of a bag on the back seat. It was my bag. The one I would take when travelling.
“…What have you done?” I whispered, horrified.
“Nothing. I‘m getting you out to safety. If you don‘t get killed by some other means then I‘m sure Tytus will drive you to that point. I can‘t silently sit back and watch it happen anymore.”
I stared at him as though he‘d gone completely insane. His explanation didn‘t warrant the consequences he would face. Did he even stop to think about what the fallout of doing this would be?
Ignoring my gaze, he then pulled off to the side of the road where it dipped out of sight. A small nook mostly obscured by trees. It was maybe five minutes down the road so it was unlikely anyone would see us here.
Once he was satisfied the area around us was quiet, I watched as he reached down and handed me something wrapped in cloth.
“Here, take this. You‘ll need all the help you can get until you can get the collar off.”
I took the item from him and quickly uncovered it, revealing that it was a silver dagger. Possibly even the same one. My stomach felt sick just looking at it.
“This is your dumbest idea yet,” I chided, trying my best to put aside my grievances towards the object in my hand. “You realise Tytus is going to know it was you, right? It‘s going to be very easy to work that out even if he doesn‘t just order the other warriors involved to confess.”
“I know that,” he said, his hands tightening back on the steering wheel, refusing to meet my eyes.
“And the punishment for helping me escape isn‘t going to just be just bad patrol shifts. He‘s going to make you seriously pay. Alpha heir or not, it won‘t help you this time.”
“I know that.”
“And you know he can just order you to tell him where I am, right? That tomorrow morning they‘ll realise I‘m gone and the manhunt for me will instantly begin, starting from where you tell them I am.”
“I know that, Aria,” he hissed.
“Well, do you?” I snapped back. “Because I‘m struggling to understand why you‘re jeopardising your entire future for this, Aleric. It doesn‘t make sense that you‘re going to potentially risk everything on the small hope that I successfully esc–.”
“Because |–,” Aleric interrupted angrily, but cut himself off. “No… It doesn‘t matter. I‘ve already given you my reason.”
“No, not this again,” I argued, just as irritated. “I‘m sick of you not telling me what you‘re actually thinking about. I‘m sick of the silent treatments or snippets of info. Just, tell me Aleric. Tell me why the hell you‘re actually–”
“Because I‘m in love with you, Aria, okay? Is that what you want me to admit?” His eyes finally flicked over to mine, full of frustration and pain. “
You want me to sit here and tell you that when we both know it‘s not a mutually reciprocated feeling? To make me feel like a f#cking idiot for having to confess to something so goddamn pointless?”
… This wasn‘t real,
It couldn‘t be. I was having some sort of weird dream or vision or nightmare. But this wasn‘t real. No way. No way in hell.
I sat frozen in place, momentarily forgetting how to breathe. How long had I suffered to hear those words from Aleric in the past? How long had it taken before I accepted it was futile to keep faith I ever would?
What he was saying wasn‘t real. I was probably still in bed. Maybe I had actually died last night. Because there was absolutely no chance that I‘d gone through everything I had, spanning over two lives together at this point, for him to tell me this now.
I slowly opened my mouth in an attempt to speak, to say something, anything, to him… but no words came out. Where would I even begin?
But in the end, I never got the chance to reply anyway. Suddenly, the noise of a motorbike approaching broke the silence, forcing my attention elsewhere.
Aleric looked up towards the sound, able to see better into the darkness than me, and tsked in annoyance.
“Such a tosser,” he whispered, disapprovingly.
My head was still spinning, working overtime to try and comprehend everything that was going on, but
there was no mistaking the situation.
“Is that… is that who I think it is?” I asked, my voice barely audible.
Without warning, something then hit my lap and the sound of metal clinking against the dagger broke me out of my trance. I looked down shakily to see the car keys.
“You‘re going to need those,” Aleric said, unbuckling his seat belt. “The bike will be too conspicuous. Can‘t believe he brought that.”
I watched mutely as he then opened the car door and got out, immediately walking back in the direction of the Winter Mist. I followed unsteadily out of the car after him, however, I only managed a few steps towards him before I paused.
“Wait, Aleric… umm…,” I yelled out to him, rubbing my forehead to try and focus. “How are you getting home?”
He didn‘t turn around though, instead yelling back over his shoulder as he walked towards a thicket of trees ahead. “Going to run.”
I took another few steps as only more uncertainty filled me. I didn‘t want to leave things how we had. Regardless of what he’d said, I didn‘t want this to be our last conversation.
“Aleric, wait as–.”
“Bye, Aria,” he cut off, waving without turning back to me. “Have a great rest of your life. I hope for your sake that we don‘t meet again too soon.”
And then he was gone. Into the trees and probably shifted already.
…And I didn‘t even get the chance to thank him… though I wasn‘t even sure whether that was the correct response given the circumstances. With just a few words, he had managed to create such a mixture of emotions within me; emotions that I didn‘t know how to properly process.
“Aria,” a familiar husky voice then called out from behind me.
…And with everything that had happened just now and with everything that had happened the night
before, this was the final trigger. His voice was enough to instantly destroy the last bit of strength I had inside to keep composure.
I quickly spun around and saw him standing there, my breathing heavy as it slowly turned into sobs…
“…Cai,” I choked out.
The dagger and keys slipped from my fingers and I felt my legs give out from under me, falling to the ground. My body was faint, overwhelmed to my limit.
“Aria,” Cai repeated, though now worried.
He quickly rushed to me and grabbed me into his arms, But I was completely helpless to stop the tears from streaming down. I instantly buried my face into the nook of his shoulder, wrapping my arms around his neck.
I missed him. Goddess, I missed him. It‘d been months since I‘d seen him, months that had gone by thinking that he hated me. But he was here. He came to get me. He still wanted me.
His energy was just as infectious as I remembered it, pulling me in and making me want to forget about everything else that had happened. I just wanted to be here, now, with him.
“You came for me,” I cried.
“Of course,” he said, stroking the back of my head. “Aleric got in contact with me this morning about a plan to get you out and I dropped everything to make sure I was here. And I heard about the collar, Aria… what they‘ve done to you is sick.”
If Cai was here then he was probably working with Iris to get me to safety. Once they moved me to a safe location, I would need to lay low for a while… maybe forever.
But I couldn‘t help but feel something seemed off.
I pulled back to look upon his face. It was dark but I could just make out how he still appeared worn out and tired, almost as if he were still in the cells within the Winter Mist. I would have thought by now he would have recovered. Was this because of me? Because he‘d missed me too?
“You look exhausted,” I pointed out, tracing my finger along his face. “What‘s wrong?”
“Me?” he laughed. “Aria, you should be worrying about yourself. You look about ready to pass out and I don‘t blame you after what apparently happened last night. We‘ll get you back to the Silver Lake as soon as possible and let you rest up for a while.”
I frowned. That didn‘t really seem like the wisest of decisions. I thought the plan would be to move me somewhere else to hide. Unless he meant until tomorrow when they would move me elsewhere?
He k!ssed my forehead between my brows, just the same as he used to. “Stop overthinking.”
…But something still felt wrong. Normally I would have melted when he did things like that but now it seemed almost like there was something I was missing.
And, with another moment of thinking, I quickly realised what it was.
Every time he went to touch me, there would be a moment of pause accompanying it. As if he wasn‘t sure whether or not to do it.
“Cai… What‘s happened? Honestly, I need you to tell me.”
“Nothing is wrong, Aria. I‘m going to get everything sorted, don‘t worry.”
…There it was again. Like something nagging at me, telling me it wasn‘t right.
Wanting to test the theory, I moved in close, my hand on his chest, and, slowly, I brought my lips in to meet his.
…Hesitation. I felt it again. As if he was having to think twice about it. He returned my kiss but pulled away again just as quickly.
And my stomach dropped with the heartbreaking realisation.
“…Your feelings for me have changed,” I said, stating it as a fact.
It was stupid of me to presume that he would feel the same. Hell, even I had questioned it at one point, having thought I was never going to see him again. Yet, somehow, I‘d managed to convince myself he still wanted me that way after seeing he‘d come to save me.
“What? Aria, no, of course I still have feelings for you,” he said. He proceeded to then grab my head in his hands and plant small k!sses all over my face. “There will never be a moment I don‘t want you.”
But I pushed myself away from him a little, still unconvinced this was a good idea.
“Cai… please. Tell me.”
He then sighed and looked off into the trees. “It‘s just… it‘s complicated.”
He was avoiding my eyes, hesitating… They were signs of guilt. He was hiding something.
“Complicated‘ how, Cai? Because of what happened in the Winter Mist? Because I failed to get you out of the cell sooner? You know, I tried my hardest to free you, right?”
“No, no, I know that. Of course, I do. That‘s not the issue.”
“… Then what is it? What‘s wrong?”
“The thing is…,” he started but his voice trailed off as he wasn‘t sure how to proceed. He then inhaled and rubbed at his face in defeat.
“Aria… I found my mate.”