I raised my chin. Confidence. I strode to the door and flung it open.
Ezra stood on the other side, hand raised to knock.
My stomach dissolved in a surge of molten heat. My mouth went dry, throat closing, toes curling. My gaze raced over his body then up to his face, his hair damp and tousled, cheeks flushed from exertion.
Our eyes met and his widened with surprise—then dropped. Sliding down. Taking me in.
Clutching my towel, I dove past him and sprinted toward my only escape. Aaron burst into laughter at the sight of my towel-clad self bolting up the stairs, but I didn’t stop until I was two floors away. I slammed Ezra’s bedroom door shut and pressed my back against it.
Way to panic, Tori.
I didn’t have to dwell on our overly eventful workout for long. When I returned to the main level, something far more pressing claimed my attention:
Fenton, the young Keys contractor, was standing outside on the front sidewalk.
For one horrible, disbelieving moment, I gawked witlessly through the living room window. Then I ran into the basement to inform the guys.
Since the Keys couldn’t get at Ezra in or around his guild, they had tracked him to his house—and judging by the black van parked behind Fenton, they planned to hang around for a while. This probably wasn’t what Darius had intended when he sent us home.
The three mages and I conferred on strategy. According to Aaron, the Keys wouldn’t enter the house because, as per MPD law, violence against mythic trespassers was perfectly acceptable. If they forced their way inside, he and Kai would be free to roast the Keys guys like pigs on a spit.
Short of that, our hands were tied, so we decided to stick with our original plan: wait them out. We’d ignore them and be as boring as possible. We’d stay in. Do nothing. Rot our brains watching TV and eating microwave dinners until the Keys lost interest. We closed all the blinds and did our best to forget they were out there.
Ha, yeah right. None of us could forget even for a minute.
We didn’t actually eat microwave dinners. Ezra held true to his pushups loss and toasted a box of frozen waffles for breakfast. After eating, I got to work on my menu proposal. So far, I’d selected which dishes to remove from the existing menu, but I was still struggling with ideas for new meals.
“Guys?” I squinted at my list. “Do fried mac ’n’ cheese balls sound good?”
Game controller in hand, Aaron didn’t look away from the TV, the split screen displaying two racetracks with careening cars. “Huh?”
“Fried mac ’n’ cheese balls. Does that sound appetizing?”
“Fried … mac and cheese … balls?”
Ezra dared to look away long enough to smirk at Aaron. “Don’t you know everything is better in ball form? Cheese, meat, donuts, snow … pasta.”
“Real comprehensive list there, Ezra.”
Sighing, I erased that one off the page. While I worked, Aaron and Ezra continued to race the afternoon away. Kai had disappeared upstairs to do who knew what. Maybe he just wanted some quiet; Aaron cursed almost nonstop while gaming.
Ezra played with his usual quiet humor, trouncing Aaron every time—though I now realized his victories had less to do with his skill and more to do with his fast reflexes—but I could see his tension. At every lull in the game, his gaze slid to the curtains covering the front window, his shoulders tensing and brow creasing.
I peeked outside a few times throughout the afternoon. The three Keys members were taking turns standing out front, changing shifts every hour. Their mission wasn’t merely surveillance; if it was, they would’ve stayed in their van. No, they were being deliberately obvious. It was a power play. It was a mind game. They were trying to freak Ezra out.
Unfortunately, it was working.
Their presence wore on him as the day went on. His options were painfully limited. If he fled, they’d chase him. If he confronted them, they’d fight him—which was probably what they wanted. His only option was to stay inside, hiding like a mouse in a burrow, the cat poised over the opening in anticipation.
Apparently, Aaron’s neighbors had also noticed our unwelcome company. A cop car showed up midafternoon, but the two officers left after a short talk with Burke. All the Keys had to do to get rid of the police was flash their MID numbers.
We ordered pizza for a late lunch, but Halil intercepted the delivery man, forcing Aaron and Kai to go outside and rescue our meal. The moment Aaron handed over some cash, the delivery man literally sprinted back to his car.
Tense and edgy, we settled in for a Netflix marathon. Thinking a food-related show might help me with menu ideas, the guys picked a cooking competition.
As the show’s host dramatically revealed the episode’s theme ingredient, I squinted at the spiky dark purple things on the screen. “What are those?”
“Sea urchins,” Kai answered.
“Are they poisonous?” Aaron muttered as the camera zoomed in on the round creatures covered in bristling spines. “They look poisonous.”
“You need to get out more—to actual restaurants instead of burger bars,” Kai said dryly. “Sea urchin is quite good. My favorite is uni donburi but it’s also delicious in—”
The living room window shattered.
I screamed as glass shards sprayed the floor and something heavy slammed into the hardwood. The guys leaped to their feet and whipped toward the window. Aaron flung the drapes open.
Burke stood on the sidewalk, smirking. As soon as Aaron appeared, he gave a mocking salute, climbed into his van, and slammed the door shut.
“What the hell?” Aaron snarled.
Glass covered the floor, with larger shards heaped beneath the sill. The drapes had caught most of the debris, keeping it from reaching the sofa. I sat frozen in my spot, heart pounding painfully against my ribs.
An object sat halfway under the coffee table. Stretching forward—without stepping onto the sparkling floor in my bare feet—I picked it up. A piece of folded paper, held in place by a rubber band, was wrapped around a heavy red brick.
“Guys,” I murmured.
Treading carefully, they returned to the sofa and gathered around me. None of them spoke. Since they seemed to be waiting, I pulled the elastic off, set the brick on the coffee table, and unfolded the paper.
The first thing I saw was Ezra’s face. Even in black and white, the bold scar cutting across his pale eye was unmistakable, but he appeared much younger. His cheeks were hollow, his eyes sunken, his hair short and scraggy. He looked like he was ill … or a drug addict.
The photo was a mug shot.
My eyes darted across the page, zipping from one block of info to the next. It was a police report. The date jumped out at me—eight years ago. Then words—breaking and entering … theft under $5000 … resisting arrest. The suspect details were blank, with “unknown” written in place of a name and a note that the suspect had refused to provide any identification.
At the top of the report was the title Portland Bureau of Police, and someone had circled “Portland” in red—the only color on the black and white photocopy. Written above it in a masculine scrawl were two short lines:
60 miles from Enright, Oregon
4 months after extermination
Aaron yanked the paper from my hands. He scanned it rapidly, Kai squinting over his shoulder.
His hand clenched, crumpling the paper. “This proves nothing.”
“It doesn’t look good,” Kai muttered. “Ezra, you never mentioned …”
They looked at the aeromage. Ezra stood unmoving, his face blank, his jaw locked. His eyes were empty, shuttered, his emotions locked down so tight I wondered if he felt anything at all.
“Never mentioned getting arrested?” he said tonelessly. “It happened a few times.”
I could see a sliver of sixteen-year-old Ezra’s gaunt face on the paper, his stare in the photo as vacant as it was now.
“This proves nothing.” Aaron tightened his fist and flames erupted over the page, consuming it in seconds. Gray ash fluttered to the floor. “They can’t prove anything.”
“They don’t need to,” Kai said, a sharp, almost fearful edge creeping into his tone. “This is enough for them. If they’ve linked him to Enright, then they’re certain. They won’t give up. Waiting them out won’t work. They’re biding their time until they have a clear shot at him.”
Ezra’s blank mask cracked, and for a bare instant, despair flooded his eyes. He blinked it away. “Then I have no choice. I need to—”
Aaron and Kai whirled on him and shouted, “No!”
He recoiled, his mouth tightening.
“You’re not leaving,” Aaron snapped. “We’re not letting them drive you out.”
“We’ll handle it, Ezra,” Kai promised. “Don’t rush to jump ship. We’ll come up with something.”
With a burning glare, Ezra swept past them and into the front hall. The stairs creaked under his footsteps, then a bedroom door opened and closed. I stared after him. Not once had he looked at me—not once since I’d unfolded the police report.
“We’ll have to watch him,” Aaron told Kai. “He’ll try to sneak out tonight, when it’s darkest.”