Another card flashed in my mind’s eye: a regal woman holding scales and a sword. Justice. Judgment. A choice.
Then a final vision: the heart pierced by three swords. Loss and heartbreak. My three mages, leaving me forever.
But I had a choice.
That had been the cards’ message. I could change this. I had the power to alter my fate—our fate.
“You’re not a demon.” The words came out flat but ferocious. No doubt or hesitation touched my voice.
Ezra’s dull gaze flicked up. “I’m the next closest thing to—”
“You’re not a demon.”
I closed the short distance between us, and every line of his body tensed in anticipation of my rejection and revulsion. I towered over him for a moment, then sank to my knees. We stared at each other. Confusion and something like dread rose in his eyes.
“Ezra …” My voice went husky with emotion. “Would you like a hug?”
He sat in rigid silence, hesitating, uncertain. The seconds stretched out, an echo of the awkwardness from that first time hanging between us. How many embraces had we shared since then? Some casual, some heartfelt, some more intimate than I’d ever allowed myself to acknowledge.
Tentatively, he lifted a hand toward me.
With no more than that, I was in his arms—squeezing between his knees to press against his chest, burrowing my face into his shoulder, clinging tightly. My arms were clamped around his neck, fists gripping his shirt.
His hands touched my sides, then slid around to my back. He took an unsteady breath, his chest lifting under me, and his fingers closed around my sweater. His arms tightened, crushing but gentle, strength that could break my bones.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that before I spoke.
“Let me guess,” I said into his shoulder, gently exasperated. “You figured I’d never want to look at you again now that I know.”
He made a quiet noise, like he’d started to speak before cutting himself off.
I pushed back to look at him, my hands on his shoulders, his at my waist. He stared up at me like he couldn’t believe I hadn’t run away screaming.
“Ezra, please.” I shook my head. “Do you really think I’d up and abandon you? You already know how stubborn I am.”
He blinked, an anxious crease between his brows. “You’re stubborn? I hadn’t noticed.”
On the last word, his mouth pulled into an unintentional smile—the first time his deadpan delivery had failed him. A laugh bubbled in my throat—and a hot flutter ignited in my core. Suddenly, I was acutely aware of how close he was, his face tilted up to mine. My heart gave a weightless lurch.
But his humor was slipping away as despair crept back in. “Tori …”
“Nope,” I interrupted. “Don’t say it.”
“Whatever heartbreaking farewell you were about to start on there. It isn’t necessary.”
His eyebrows pinched together, his hands still gripping my shirt tightly. Before he could try again, I tapped a finger against his lips, causing them to part in surprise.
“Not necessary, because I’ve already made my decision.” The Justice card flickered through my mind once more, but I focused on Ezra’s mismatched eyes, fully aware that my next words would trigger a fierce battle of wills—a battle I had no intention of losing.
“I know you’re leaving, and I’m coming with you.”
Kai shouted at me. Aaron shouted at me. Even Ezra shouted at me—frosting the walls in the process—until Kai banished him into the bedroom to calm down.
They could yell all night about how I was throwing my life away, how I had my whole future ahead of me, how I was perfectly capable of living without them, how I couldn’t abandon my brother, how I had no idea what permanent exile entailed, and so on, but it wouldn’t change my mind.
They were not leaving me behind, and if they tried, I would follow them. How I would follow them, I didn’t know, but they seemed alarmed at the prospect of what trouble I might get into while trying.
Even then, they were still debating how best to ditch me when Kai had a sudden realization—the Keys knew I was close to them. If they left me behind, the Keys might target me in the hopes I would know where Ezra had fled.
So, with the three mages in varying states of furious disapproval, Aaron, Ezra, and I loaded into the car. Kai would follow us on his motorcycle. I’d packed a single duffle bag of essentials, while the guys would have to rely on the spare clothes and weapons Aaron always carried in his trunk.
As the car pulled away, I watched my dark, sad bungalow disappear behind us. My stomach twisted with nauseating anxiety, but I ignored it. My decision was made. I’d never been the type of person to plan far into the future, and all the potential the guys thought I was losing forever—I had no plans for it. My dream of running my own business was a means to an end, a way to support myself in the least painful way possible. I wasn’t particularly passionate about school or entrepreneurship or any of it.
What I was passionate about was my job at the guild—and without the guys, that would be empty too. I’d rather take my chances on the road.
I watched the city lights pass as we drove, Kai’s black bike and dark helmet occasionally appearing in the side mirror. Inside the car, Aaron focused on driving while Ezra sat mutely behind me. He was taking my presence the hardest, blaming himself. They were so gloomy that I considered waking Hoshi for company, but she was currently tucked in my purse, fast asleep.
Soon, the city was behind us and we were driving down a treed corridor lit only by the car’s high beams. Somewhere on our left was the Burrard Inlet, and in a few more minutes, we would join the Sea to Sky Highway—a beautiful stretch of coastal roadway with breathtaking views of the island-dotted Howe Sound. Not that we’d get to enjoy it in the dark.
“Where are we headed?” I asked conversationally.
“North,” Aaron replied in a distinctly unhelpful tone.
“I know that. It’s either turn north or drive into the ocean.” I cast him a pointed look. “Are you going to sulk all night? That’ll make for an awfully long drive.”
“It’ll be a long drive anyway,” he retorted, but his mouth quirked in a half-hearted smile. “We’re going really north. The Yukon or maybe Alaska.”
“I’ve always wanted to see Alaska.”
“This isn’t a vacation,” Ezra said from his spot behind me, a bitter edge in his smooth voice. “We’re fugitives, not tourists. I’ve done this before, and there’s nothing pleasant about it.”
“Kai and I have prepared for this,” Aaron cut in, glancing in the rearview mirror at Ezra. “We have money set aside in untraceable bank accounts, travel routes and safe houses mapped out, all that kind of stuff. It won’t be like last time, when you were on your own with nothing.”
His last words chilled me, and I remembered Ezra’s sunken cheeks and hollow eyes from his mugshot. No wonder he sounded bitter.
“How much money?” I asked cautiously, thinking of my near-empty account. “Is it enough for me too? Am I screwing up your plans?”
“It’s more than enough. It’s all from my trust fund.” Aaron made an amused sound. “My parents think I invested it, but I’m sure they’d be pleased either way that I’m finally using it.”
Aaron had dipped into his trust fund? The only other time he’d touched it that I knew of was to buy his house. I was beginning to grasp how painstakingly he and Kai had planned for this contingency.
“Your parents would be less pleased to realize they won’t get to see you for the next few years,” Ezra muttered darkly.
“Few years?” I repeated, my brow furrowing. “Aren’t we going into hiding permanently?”
Silence. Neither guy answered, and I frowned at Aaron. He kept his eyes on the road.
“We’ll have to change vehicles within a couple of days,” he said after a minute, giving the dash of his beloved car a glum look. “Kai might want to keep his bike, but it won’t be very practical up north. Maybe we’ll get an SUV. It’ll be better suited for mountain terrain.”
Deciding to question Aaron on the “few years” thing later, I suggested, “How about a pickup truck?”
Aaron hummed thoughtfully. “A large pickup truck isn’t a bad idea. Kai could strap his motorcycle in the back when he doesn’t want to ride it.”
We discussed vehicle options for a couple of miles, and Ezra eventually joined in, his tone relaxing into something more natural. Every few minutes, I checked for Kai’s headlight behind us. Only a few other vehicles passed in the opposite direction, heading toward the city.
My eyelids grew heavy. As Aaron and Ezra’s conversation meandered from vehicles to travel routes, I pillowed my head on my arm and let their voices and the rumble of the car lull me to sleep.
“What the hell?”
Aaron’s angry exclamation jolted me awake. I sat up, squinting blearily. The wipers swept across the windshield, erasing a half-hearted sprinkle of raindrops, and everything outside the car was still dark. It didn’t feel like I’d been asleep for long.