Stellan let out an exasperated groan. “I suppose this is why I do have to be around for the rest of this treasure hunt. You know, when the Saxons were parading you around like a show pony waiting for the highest bidder, I had a plan to get you out of every one of those places, in case your dear father decided that was the day he was going to put his foot down and force you into something.”
He ignored me. “I thought I might not have to worry about that kind of thing with you no longer in captivity. Please don’t make me save you from unnecessary martyrdom and get us both killed in the process, okay? This quest is trying enough as it is. Are we finished here so we can get back to work?”
I felt like I had whiplash. “I didn’t say I was ever actually going to turn myself in. And what do you mean you had a plan to get me—” He sighed. I scowled. “Okay. Fine. Once we’ve done what we have to, I’m free to do stupid, dangerous things to my heart’s content. You can yell at Elodie and talk out whatever you need to with Jack and go get Anya. You can leave all of this behind forever if that’s what you want. But for now we finish this.”
He cut his eyes to me, and quickly away. “Fine.”
We slowed to let Jack and Elodie catch up. For a few minutes, we inspected a divot in the wall here, a root across the path there. I couldn’t stop glancing over at Stellan. I knew he had stayed nearby while we’d been on our tour of Circle suitors, but I’d thought it was only to make sure we didn’t try to cut him out of the equation. I hadn’t realized he cared what happened to me. When I darted another glance at him, he quickly averted his eyes. I hung back and walked with Elodie.
“Question,” Stellan said. “I know you all want to save them, because apparently you’re the most altruistic group of people in the world. But do you actually still want to be part of the Circle once this is done, if they’ll take you back?”
It was a good question. One I hadn’t entirely figured out the answer to yet.
“Do you not want to?” Jack asked.
As much as I’d taunted him about it before the initiation, I knew Stellan had only wanted the power being the thirteenth could bring so he could feel safe and know Anya was happy and secure. So much for that.
Stellan turned to walk backward in front of us, tapping his chin in an exaggerated fashion. “Let’s see. So far, our destiny has involved divulging every personal detail of my body and my life so the Circle wouldn’t murder me for being a traitor. Then letting them think we’d be their puppets—and now we’re fugitives. I suppose the prawns at the party the other night were good, though, so that brings it up to . . . two out of ten stars for the thirteenth family experience. Would not recommend.”
“Hilarious,” Jack deadpanned. “What you really mean is that as soon as things stop being easy you’re ready to quit. Because loyalty means nothing.”
I sighed. Maybe it was Jack I should have lectured. Or maybe trying to keep anyone from fighting right now was futile.
“Excuse me?” Stellan said. “Talk of loyalty from someone who was literally spying on his girlfriend for the enemy?”
I cringed. There was a shuffle, and a bang, and Jack’s light fell to the ground, illuminating the two of them from below. Jack had Stellan against the wall, his forearm pressed across Stellan’s throat.
Stellan glanced sideways at me, with a smile and a shrug that very obviously said, He started it. Then he shoved Jack. I had to jump out of the way to keep from getting knocked down.
“Don’t.” I took a step forward. Elodie held out a hand to block me. The boys ignored me anyway.
Jack grabbed the front of Stellan’s shirt. “I know you never liked being a Keeper, but you had an obligation. You still do.”
“Well, you’re doing it all wrong right now,” Stellan said, low in Jack’s face. “A Keeper’s not allowed to lay a hand on family members, you know.”
Okay, so this was definitely not about the fact that they’d both kissed some girl.
Jack panted hard, the shadow of his chest rising and falling. He would normally never make a scene in front of people like this. Now, though, he shoved Stellan into the wall. “And a family member isn’t allowed to leave the Circle.”
Suddenly I saw what the rest of the world must see in them. They’d been trained to be this aggressive and violent since they were children, but I saw it so infrequently; it was unfamiliar and feral and frightening. I backed off another step.
“The Circle isn’t everything,” Stellan growled. “If you believe they are, you’re just going to continue to ruin your own life and everyone else’s.”
I watched Jack’s fingers curl into Stellan’s shirt, his jaw twitch. “I haven’t—”
“Oh really? You felt so guilty about being with Avery that you betrayed her to the Circle. You felt so guilty about Oliver Saxon’s death that you turned on me and Elodie.”
Elodie hissed in a low breath, and I held mine. Oh.
“Do you remember that?” Stellan went on. “You were practically my brother until you decided not to be my friend anymore. It wasn’t your fault what happened to Oliver, and it certainly wasn’t mine.”
There were some things between them I’d scratched the surface of, and there were plenty I knew nothing about. But I did know Jack blamed himself for the death of Lydia and Cole’s older brother. He also, to an extent, blamed Stellan and Elodie and the relationship the three of them used to have for being a distraction that led to the tragedy. If that’s what this was about, it had been building for years. Since they were younger, more naive, less broken. And since they were smaller and less powerful and couldn’t actually kill each other.
Jack’s biceps strained with effort, whether from holding Stellan off or holding himself back, I couldn’t tell.