Kai nodded. “The Keys will be waiting for him.”
Aaron raked his hand through his hair, mixing ash from the burned paper into his red locks. “This is going to be difficult.”
“It might be time for Plan C.”
My insides went cold. Plan C? Did Kai mean killing the Keys of Solomon team before they could harm Ezra?
Kai noticed the look on my face. “Ready to go home?”
“No!” I exclaimed. “Of course not.”
He and Aaron stood there, waiting, but I had no idea what they expected from me. The seconds stretched into a full minute before Aaron spoke.
“Tori, aren’t you going to ask?”
He waved a hand. “About any of this!”
My mouth hung open. “I … I mean … I thought I wasn’t supposed … to …”
I trailed off as Aaron’s expression morphed into disbelief—and Kai’s tightened with anger.
“She doesn’t want to know,” Kai told Aaron cuttingly. “Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it, Tori?” Stalking to the stairs, he called back, “Aaron, we have work to do.”
Aaron sighed. I swallowed hard, my hands twitching as though I could reach out and scoop the three mages back together—as though I could stop the chain reaction the Keys had set in motion.
My eyes stung. “Aaron …”
He gazed at me for a long moment, and I could feel the weight of his assessment. He was evaluating something … evaluating me.
Sighing more heavily, he turned away. “I’ll get some cardboard to cover that window.”
As he walked out of the living room, I could still feel the weight of his judgment. I didn’t know what he had been evaluating me for—tenacity, commitment, competence, how much of a liability I might be?—but I was certain he’d found me lacking.
I stood in the kitchen, alone.
Ezra had barricaded himself in his room, probably planning how to give his friends the slip and flee the city. Kai and Aaron were in the midst of their own planning, the nature of which they’d chosen not to share with me. They were huddled in Kai’s room, though Aaron had trekked downstairs several times to dig through boxes.
Everything was falling apart.
The house’s front window was covered with cardboard and duct tape. I’d peeked through the door a few minutes ago, expecting to see half the Keys guild out there, but the same black van was still parked on the street. Burke and his team were waiting for us to make a move, then they would attack—and I still didn’t know why.
Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it, Tori?
My eyes started burning again and I blinked rapidly. I was ignorant. Willfully, deliberately ignorant. Since my first chilling experience with Ezra’s temper, I’d decided I didn’t want the truth. I didn’t want to know anything that might change how I felt about him.
And now, because of my determination to keep my happy bubble unblemished, I had no idea how to stop this collapse of everything important to me.
Hands braced on the counter, I closed my eyes. I could see it again: Ezra’s crimson power, identical to demonic magic. The scars that raked his torso, identical to wounds inflicted by demonic claws. His face in that mugshot, hollow and sickly and scarred.
I’d seen one other photo of young Ezra. Hidden in the bottom drawer of his dresser was a picture of him and a girl, both around fourteen or fifteen. In it, Ezra was happy, healthy—and unscarred.
A year or so after that photo had been taken, Ezra had suffered irreparable damage to his left eye, lost weight and health, and been arrested for theft in Portland.
His arrest, I suspected, was only significant because of the time and place: sixty miles from “Enright” and four months after an “extermination.” That mugshot tied Ezra to the Enright extermination—whatever that was.
And that summed up everything I knew or could guess, because I’d made no attempt to learn a single thing about him.
I opened my eyes and pushed away from the counter. Hiding from this had made me weak and useless. No matter how frightening the truth, I couldn’t be ignorant any longer. I needed answers—and then maybe, just maybe, I could help fix this before I lost one, two, or all three of my best friends.
First, I needed to get everyone back together and, if possible, in a better mood. I surveyed the kitchen, then rolled up the sleeves of my sweater.
I’d just put the casserole in the oven and was opening the fridge when a shadow darkened the doorway. Ezra stood a step outside the kitchen, his curls rumpled like he’d been running his hands through them in frustration. Had he been wearing those snug, dark-wash jeans before, or had he changed into “run away from home” clothes?
“Hi,” I said softly.
His eyes skimmed over me, somehow wary. The despair I’d glimpsed earlier lurked in them and in the unhappy slump to his shoulders.
“I’m making dinner,” I informed him. “About to start the salad. Want to help?”
Something in him relaxed, and a faint smile appeared on his lips. “I’m not allowed in the kitchen.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Second rule, my dear mage. Second rule.”
He chuckled and stepped onto the forbidden tile floor. “You might regret this.”
“Pfff. It’s just vegetables. How could that go wrong?”
Grinning, I passed him ingredients—lettuce, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, cheese. Kai must’ve been planning to cook this week. He was the only one of the three bachelors with an even mildly adventurous palate when it came to home cooking. Aaron would live off baked chicken and boiled broccoli if we let him.
Ezra got out a cutting board while I searched the pantry for croutons. When I emerged, our eyes caught and a dart of anxiety made me falter. I’d sworn to stop avoiding the truth, and here was Ezra—the source of all truth. It was just the two of us. The perfect time to ask. Ezra, what are you?
Four little words. I could do it.
My mouth opened obediently, but no words came out. As that subdued wariness returned to his gaze, I hurriedly passed him a colander to wash the lettuce, then moved on to chopping vegetables.
I’d cooked in Aaron’s kitchen enough times to know my way around—and to know it was too damn small for anything. It was a tight L shape with a dinky island in the middle, nowhere near enough counter space, and about half the square footage required for two people to coexist.
Our first collision came thirty seconds in. Ezra and I bounced off each other, laughing, and I squeezed past him to rinse off the cucumber. He almost clobbered me while reaching for the paper towel. I got out a big bowl, only for him to bang his head on the cupboard door I’d left open. I babbled an apology, but he was grinning in amusement.
My heart lifted. With a bounce in my step, I threw all the ingredients into the bowl. I asked him to pass me the bottle of dressing; he knocked it over, splattering ranch on the counter. We both reached for the dishcloth and collided again.
Laughing too hard to help, I stepped back to let him wipe up the spill. The timer on the oven beeped. He passed me the oven mitts—no mishaps this time—and I pulled out my cheese-and-noodle concoction, the breadcrumb topping perfectly golden brown.
As I set it on the stovetop to cool, Ezra hovered at my shoulder, peering at the bubbling cheese.
“Don’t drool on me,” I warned as I ensured the casserole dish was sturdily placed.
Yelping, I twisted to look at my shoulder. He laughed—then grabbed the oven mitt out of my hand before I dunked it in the casserole.
“Kidding. I was kidding!” He set the mitt on the counter. “I have my salivation strictly under control, I swear.”
Casting him a suspicious squint, I looked around for the little dish of freshly chopped parsley I’d prepared as a garnish. “You should try to sound like you’re joking when you make a joke.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
Oh, there was the parsley. “Can you grab the plates?”
He opened the cupboard and reached up. Humming tunelessly, I grabbed the small dish, turned toward the casserole—and accidentally jabbed my elbow into his taut stomach. The air pfffed out of his lungs and he stepped back sharply.
“Sorry!” I exclaimed, whipping toward him and knocking into his arm.
The four plates tumbled out of his grasp. They hit the floor—
—and the room whooshed as I was whisked away.
Ceramic exploded everywhere with an ungodly crash, but I couldn’t see it. Ezra had pulled me clear of the spraying shards, and my face was mashed against his chest, his arms around my waist, my toes brushing the floor. My head spun from the sudden movement, and I tried to remember exactly how I’d ended up face to chest with him.
He loosened his arms and I slid down a few inches, my feet settling on the floor. I gawked at him, my eyes wide. His reflexes were insane. They were impossible.
“You okay?” he asked worriedly, craning to look around me at my bare feet. “You didn’t step on any shards?”
“I didn’t have a chance,” I said faintly.
He smiled, then pressed his thumb to a spot beside my mouth and swiped it across my cheek. “You have salad dressing on your face. How did you manage that?”