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“But not you.”

“Going after the shifters looked and smelled an awful lot like prejudice to me. And then it began to look a lot like genocide. Especially when he started adding other supernatural creatures—and even made vampires—to his list. Things got ugly.”

“How ugly?” I ask, though I’m not sure I actually want to know the answer. Not when Jaxon looks more grim than I’ve ever seen him. And not when he’s throwing around words like “genocide.”

“Ugly.” He refuses to elaborate. “Especially with our history.”

Again the blanks in my knowledge base make it impossible to understand what history he’s referring to. Instead of asking, I make a mental note to check the library or ask Macy.

“I tried to reason with Hudson, tried to talk him down. I even went to the king and queen to see if they could do something with him.”

I note how he calls his parents the king and queen instead of Mom and Dad, and for a second, I flash back to the first day I met him. To the chess table and the vampire queen and the things he said about what I thought at the time was just a chess piece.

It all makes so much more sense now.

“They couldn’t.”

“They wouldn’t,” he corrects. “So I tried to talk to him again. So did Byron and Mekhi and a few of the others who would have graduated with him. He didn’t listen. And one day he started a fight that was set to rip the whole world apart, had it been allowed to continue.”

“That’s when you stepped in.”

“I thought I could fix things. I thought I could talk him down. It didn’t work out like that.

He closes his eyes, and it makes him seem so far away. Until he opens them again, and I realize he is even more distant than I imagined.

“Do you know what it’s like to realize the brother you grew up revering is a total and complete sociopath?” he asks in a voice made more terrible by the reasonableness of it. “Can you imagine what it feels like to know that maybe if you hadn’t been so blind, so caught up in your hero worship and seen him for what he was sooner, a lot of people would still be alive?

“I had to kill him, Grace. There was no other choice. Truth be told, I don’t even regret doing it.” He says the last in a whisper, like he’s ashamed to even admit it.

“I don’t believe that,” I tell him. Guilt radiates off him, makes me hurt for him in a way I’ve never hurt for anyone before.

“I believe it was necessary. I believe you did what you had to do. But I don’t believe for one second that you don’t regret killing him.” He’s spent too much time torturing himself for that to be true.

He doesn’t answer right away, and I can’t help wondering if I said the wrong thing. Can’t help wondering if I just made everything worse.

“I regret that he had to be killed,” he finally says after a long silence passes between us. “I regret that my parents created him and molded him into the monster that he was. But I don’t regret that he’s gone now. If he wasn’t dead, no one in the entire world would be safe.”

My stomach plummets at his words. Instinctively, I want to deny them, but I’ve seen Jaxon’s power. I’ve seen what he can do when he controls it and what it can do on its own when he can’t. If Hudson’s power was anything close—without Jaxon’s morality to keep it in check—I can’t imagine what might happen.

“Did you have the same power, or—”

“Hudson could persuade anyone to do anything.” The words are as flat as his tone. As his eyes. “I don’t mean he could con people; I mean that he had the power to make people do whatever he wanted them to do. He could make them torture another person, could make them kill anyone he wanted to. He could start wars and launch bombs.”

A chill runs up my spine at his words, has the hair on the back of my neck standing straight up. Even before he looks straight at me and continues. “He could make you kill yourself, Grace. Or Macy. Or your uncle. Or me. He could make you do anything he wanted, and he did. Over and over and over again.

“No one could stop him. No one could resist him. And he knew it. So he took whatever he wanted and planned for more. And when he decided he was going to murder the shifters, just wipe them out of existence, I knew he wouldn’t stop there. The dragons would go, too. The witches. The made vampires. The humans.

“He would destroy them all— just because he could.”

He looks away, I think because he doesn’t want me to see his face. But I don’t need to look in his eyes to know how much this hurts him, not when I can hear it in his voice and feel it in the tension of his body against mine. “There were a lot of people who supported him, Grace. And a lot of people willing to stand in front of him to protect him and the vision he had for our species. I killed a lot of them to get to him. And then I killed him.”

This time, when he closes his eyes and then opens them, the distance is gone. And in its place is the same resolve it must have cost for him to not only take on Hudson but also to beat him. “So, no, I don’t regret that I killed him. I regret that I didn’t do it sooner.”

When he finally turns back around to look at me, I can see the pain, the devastation behind the emptiness in his eyes. It makes me ache for him in a way I’ve never ached for anyone, not even my parents. “Oh, Jaxon.” I put my arms around him again, try to hold him, but his body is stiff and unyielding against my own.

“His death destroyed my parents, and it broke Lia into so many pieces, I don’t think she’ll ever recover. Before all this happened, she was my best friend. Now she can barely stand to look at me. Flint’s brother died fighting Hudson’s army in the same fight, and Flint’s never been the same, either. We used to be friends, if you can believe it.”

He takes a deep, shuddering breath and lets himself sink into me. I hold him as tightly as I can, for as long as he’ll let me. Which isn’t long at all. He pulls away well before I’m ready to let him go.

“Nothing has been the same since Hudson did what he did. The different species have been at war three times in the last five hundred years. This was almost number four. And though we stopped it before it got too far, the distrust for vampires that goes back centuries is right up front again.

“Add in the fact that a lot of people got an up-close-and-personal look at my power and no one’s happy. And can you blame them? How do they know I won’t turn like my brother did?”

“You won’t.” The certainty is a fire deep inside me.

“Probably not,” he agrees, though it’s hard to miss his qualification. “But this is why I warned you away from Flint, and it’s why I had to do what I did in the study lounge. They’ve been gunning for you since you got here. I don’t know why it started, if it’s because you’re human or if there’s something I haven’t figured out yet. But I’m sure that it’s continued—and gotten worse—because you’re mine.”

The torment is back, worse than before. “It’s why I tried to stay away from you,” he adds, “but we both know how well that worked.”

“That’s it, isn’t it?” I whisper as so much of what he’s said and done since I first got here finally begins to make sense. “This is why you act the way you do.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His face closes up, but there’s a wariness—and a yearning—in his eyes that says I’m on the right track.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about.” I rest a hand on his cheek, ignoring the way he flinches when I touch his scar. “You act the way you do because you believe it’s the only way you can keep the peace.”

“It is the only way to keep the peace.” The words are torn from him. “We’re balanced on a razor-thin tightrope, and every day, every minute, is a balancing act. One wrong step in either direction, and the world burns. Not just ours but yours as well, Grace. I can’t let that happen.”

Of course he can’t.

Other people could walk away, could say it wasn’t their responsibility. Could tell themselves that there was nothing they could do.

But that’s not how Jaxon operates. Those aren’t the rules he lives by. No, Jaxon takes it all on his shoulders. Not just the mess Hudson created and left him with but everything that happened before it—and everything that’s happened since.

“So what does that mean for you?” I ask softly, not wanting to spook him any more than I already have. “That you have to give up everything good in your life just to keep things together for everyone else?”

“I’m not giving up anything. This is just who I am.” His hands clench into fists, and he tries to turn away.

But I won’t let him. Not now, not when I’m finally understanding all the ways he’s managed to torture himself—for Hudson’s death and for this new role he doesn’t want but can’t turn away from.

“That’s bullshit,” I tell him softly. “You wear indifference like a mask; you wield coldness like a weapon—not because you feel nothing but because you feel too much. You’ve worked so hard to make everyone believe you’re a monster that you’ve begun to believe it yourself.

“But you’re not a monster, Jaxon. Not even close.”

This time he doesn’t try to turn away—he jerks away, like a live wire has just wrapped itself around his entire body. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he growls.

“You think if people are scared enough, if they hate you enough, they won’t dare to step out of line. They won’t dare to start another war, because you’ll finish that one, too—and them right along with it.”

God. The pain, the loneliness, of his existence hits me like an avalanche. What must it feel like to be so alone? What must it feel like to—?