“We’ll figure it out,” he says. “We’ll find a way to stop him. But not today. Today, we eat chicken stew and tell stories of our friends. We talk about what you and Darin will do after he wakes up, and about how enraged my bat-crazy mother will be when she learns she didn’t kill me. We’ll laugh and complain about the cold and enjoy the warmth of this fire. Today, we celebrate the fact that we’re still alive.”
Sometime in the middle of the night, the wooden floor of the cabin creaks. I bolt up from my chair by Darin’s bed, where I’ve fallen asleep wrapped in Elias’s old cloak. My brother slumbers on soundly, his face unchanged. I sigh, wondering for the thousandth time if he will ever come back to me.
“Sorry,” Elias whispers from behind me. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I was at the edges of the Forest. Saw the fire went out and thought I’d bring in more wood.”
I wipe the sleep from my eyes and yawn. “What time is it?”
“A few hours before dawn.”
Through the window by my bed, the sky is dark and clear. A star shoots across the sky. Then two more.
“We could watch from outside,” Elias says. “It will only go on for an hour or so.”
I pull on my cloak and join him in the doorway of the little cabin. He stands slightly apart from me, his hands in his pockets. Falling stars streak overhead every few minutes. I catch my breath each time.
“It happens every year.” Elias’s eyes are fixed on the sky. “You can’t see it from Serra. Too much dust.”
I shiver in the cold night, and he eyes my cloak critically. “We should get you a new one,” he says. “That can’t be warm enough.”
“You gave this to me. It’s my lucky cloak. I’m not giving it up—ever.” I pull it closer and catch his eyes as I say it.
I think of Afya’s teasing when she left, and I flush. But I meant what I said to her. Elias is bound to the Waiting Place now. He does not have time for anything else in his life. Even if he did, I’m wary about incurring the wrath of the Forest.
At least, that is what I have resigned myself to thinking until this moment. Elias tilts his head, and for a second, the longing in his eyes is written as clearly as if he’d spelled it out in the stars.
I should say something, though, skies, what do I say, with the heat rising in my face and my skin so alive beneath his gaze? He too looks uncertain, and the tension between is as heavy as a rain-filled sky.
Then his uncertainty vanishes, replaced by a raw, unfettered desire that sends my pulse into a frenzy. He steps toward me, backing me into the smooth, worn wood of the cabin. His breath goes as ragged as mine, and he brushes his fingers against my wrist, his warm hand trailing sparks up my arm, my neck, and across my lips.
He cups my face in both of his hands, waiting to see what I want, even as his pale eyes burn with need.
I grab the collar of his shirt and pull him to me, exulting at the feel of his lips against mine, at the rightness of finally giving in to each other. I think briefly of our kiss months ago in his room—frantic, born of desperation, desire, and confusion.
This is different—the fire hotter, his hands more certain, his lips less hurried. I slide my arms around his neck and rise to my toes, pressing my body against his. His rain-and-spice scent intoxicates me, and he deepens the kiss. When I run my teeth across his lower lip, savoring its lushness, he growls low in his throat.
Beyond us, deep in the Forest, something stirs. He inhales sharply and pulls away, lifting a hand to his head.
I look to the Forest. Even in the dark, I can see the treetops rustling. “The spirits,” I say quietly. “They don’t like it?”
“Not in the least. Jealous, probably.” He tries to grin but only grimaces, his eyes pained.
I sigh and trace his mouth, letting my fingers drop to his chest and then his hand. I pull him toward the cabin. “Let’s not upset them.”
We tiptoe into the cabin and settle down beside the fire, arms entwined. At first, I am certain he will leave, called back to his task. But he doesn’t, and I soon relax against him, my lids heavier and heavier as sleep beckons. I close my eyes, and I think I dream of clear skies and free air, Izzi’s smile, Elias’s laughter.
“Laia?” says a voice behind me.
My eyes fly open. It is a dream, Laia. You are dreaming. I must be. For I have wanted to hear that voice for months, since the day he screamed at me to run. I have heard that voice in my head, spurring me on during my weakest moments and giving me strength in my darkest.
Elias rises to his feet, joy etched onto his features. My legs don’t seem to work, so he takes my hands to pull me standing.
I turn to look into my brother’s eyes. For a long moment, all we can do is take in each other’s faces.
“Look at you, little sister,” Darin finally whispers. His smile is the sun rising after the longest, darkest night. “Look at you.”