I sucked in a sharp breath as the tears welled up again. He was proud of me. How many times had I wondered if he was? There had been so many stupid things I’d done in my past, things that had gotten me in a world of trouble, and the gods knew I had a lot of stupid left in me, but my father was proud of me, and that was all that mattered after everything was said and done. The pressure expanded until it was too much.
Springing forward, I wrapped my arms around him and held on like he might disappear in front of me. He dropped the pen and notepad, enfolding me in a powerful hug. The kind of hug I’d been missing my entire life. A hug that hadn’t come too late, but just in time.
The tears came. There was no stopping them, but they were happy tears.
* * *
I stayed with my dad for hours, me talking and asking questions and him answering with a shake of his head or with his notepad. On and off, I cried. I kept thinking this was a dream, but the longer he remained by my side, the more I began to realize this was real.
Maybe an hour into our reunion, something else amazing happened. Something that I had never thought would.
Dad met the other most important man in my life.
He met Aiden, who’d come looking for me, and then I got to see what it was truly like to have a father in my life. He regarded Aiden coolly; he looked like he was thinking about using the dagger the same way he had with Seth.
Aiden was polite as ever, and he started to make a quick escape to give us privacy, but I captured his hand. Our eyes met and he nodded. I wanted him there, to share this with me, because none of us knew how much time we really had left and there was no point to missing an opportunity like this. Aiden sat on the floor by my feet, his hand and thumb smoothing over the back of my calf.
I would’ve loved to have met my dad under better circumstances. Maybe where the three of us could go out to dinner like normal people, but this…this was perfect in its own way.
Honored that he would leave those who were still behind the walls to see if I was among the Sentinels that had arrived, I fought the pain and the panic when he showed me the message I’d been dreading.
I have to go back to them. They have no one else.
My heart turned over heavily. “But Ares knows you’re my father.”
I won’t be strolling in the front door, he wrote. I know my way around in there, and I stay out of Ares’ way. If Ares was going to use me, he would’ve done so by now.
“How can you be so sure?”
Aiden continued the soothing gesture. “He may be right. Maybe Ares has some sort of code he operates by.”
I doubted that. My chest seized at the thought of him falling into Ares’ hands.
My father tipped his chin down as he scribbled on the pad. I don’t want you doing what you’re planning.
I opened my mouth, but he wrote on.
But I know you have to. Like I have to.
He was right. Damn my father for actually being the logical parent. My wildness came from my mom, but apparently I got my stubbornness from my dad.
When the morning was only a few hours away, my father hugged me goodbye, and I knew he was heading back to the Covenant. I didn’t want to let go of him, and I didn’t for several minutes. I held onto him, squeezing him as tightly as I could, and when we broke apart, there was a stinging pain deep in my chest. Seeing him go was one of the most painful things I’d ever experienced.
In a small room with a pile of blankets as a bed, I stared out the window over the camp.
“You should get some rest. We’ll have to start out in the afternoon.”
My head wasn’t on the battle ahead. “What if I never see him again?”
Aiden came up behind me, slipping his arms around my waist and tugging me into the warmth of his body. “You will see him again.”
Clinging to that, I tipped my head back against his chest and closed my eyes. “When this is all over, I want the three of us to go out to dinner.”
He kissed my forehead. “Pick a place.”
“Anywhere normal. Somewhere like Applebee’s.”
Aiden chuckled. “I think we can make that work.”
Turning in his embrace, I rested my cheek against his chest. He held me as I rambled on about my dad, and then we moved on to less happy subjects. While I didn’t want to tell him about Seth, I needed to.
“I don’t like the sound of this,” he said, resting his hands on either side of my head. “If he doesn’t allow you to transfer the power or pulls any crap like he has before, you’ll be a sitting duck for Ares.”
The upcoming face-off with Ares was a constant, low-level hum of adrenaline that was like a pebble in my shoe. Annoying but tolerable. But adding in the possibility of Seth going rogue at the last minute turned that pebble into a shark’s tooth.
“I’m going to try again, but I don’t think it’s going to work. Once Seth has his mind set on something, there’s no changing it.”
“But that’s not acceptable.” Aiden dropped his hands and turned, stalking toward the blanket. “It’s too risky. If—”
“We don’t have any other choice.” I followed him. “And I think…I think he needs to do it that way, when the risk is the highest. Like a…”
“Like how an addict stops doing drugs because they’re sitting in jail?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Uh, sure?”
“Inmates can still get drugs,” he grumbled, reaching down and tugging his shirt off his head. Thick bands of muscle stretched and pulled taut.
“I’m not following this conversation.” For several reasons, but I kept that last part to myself.
Aiden faced me. “I know the plan is for you and Seth to go with Perses to find Ares, but—”
“But we’re not changing the plan, no matter how cray-cray Seth is.” My heart acted like a spazz at the thought of Aiden being with us. “You cannot be there when we face off with Ares. He’ll use you—”
“He can only use me if I’m incapable of defending myself, Alex.” His brows lowered as his eyes flashed silver. Uh-oh. “I’m not your weakness.”
“You’re not. You’re the opposite of that, Aiden, but I know Ares will go straight for you. He knows I’ll be distracted because you’re there. And it’s what I’d do if I were him.”
Aiden looked away as he shoved a hand through his hair. Several seconds stretched out, and then he released a ragged breath. “I know you have to do this, Alex, but it goes against everything in me not to be with you.”
Biting my lip, I nodded. I knew it was going to take a near act of the gods to get Aiden to not follow us tomorrow. “If it were you asking me to not be with you, I wouldn’t want to listen to you.”
He let out a dry laugh. “You wouldn’t listen to me, Alex. You’d go against me, and you’d find a way to be there with me.”
“I would.” I cracked a grin. “I would do it even knowing that you’d be distracted by me, because I’m selfish like that. You’re not.”
“I can be incredibly selfish.” His gaze settled on me once more, and he placed the tips of his fingers on either side of my cheeks. “I’ve been nothing but selfish with you.”
Confused, I frowned. “How?”
“I was selfish in wanting you, knowing what it could mean for you. I was selfish the first time I kissed you, touched you.” The shiver his words brought forth didn’t go unnoticed by him. A dimple appeared. “I was selfish the night I came to your bed when you were at my parents’ house, and I’ve been selfish every day since then. The only time I hadn’t been selfish was when I pushed you away, and that’s the day I regret most.”
My stomach fluttered like there was a jackrabbit inside it. “Aiden…”
“You’re going to be separated from me tomorrow, and it’s going to take everything in me to let you face Ares without me standing by your side, so I’m going to be very selfish right now.” His finger trailed over my cheek and across my parted lips. “Because it’s the only way I can be unselfish tomorrow.”
Aiden’s lips replaced his fingers then, and the kiss wasn’t slow or gentle. It was fierce, consuming, and tasted of soul-burning yearning and desperation. Our clothing came off with a quickness that was rather impressive, and our bodies melded together on the thick blankets. Behind every touch and every kiss there was the knowledge that neither of us wanted to put forth into words. So we used our mouths, our hands, and our bodies to say what both of us were too terrified to speak.
This could be our last time together.
A cool, calm breeze lessened the effect of the strong afternoon sun beating down on us as we stood at the edge of the forest surrounding the Covenant. The sky was a bright, vibrant blue with only a few pillow-like clouds floating in the sky.
It was a beautiful day for a war.
Covenant daggers were strapped to my hips, and a Glock loaded with titanium bullets was holstered on my thigh. With my hair pulled back in a tight bun and my skin tingling with the marks of the Apollyon, I felt pretty badass.
Standing on either side of me were the silent forms of Aiden and Seth. Behind us, Perses and our AOA were ready. Deacon was staying behind, and after what’d happened with Olivia, I wished he’d remained at the University.
I hadn’t seen my father among the faces, and I don’t even know why I was looking for him. I knew he’d gone back. I hoped he’d made it back, but I still looked.
“Warriors know no fear, show no fear.” Perses’ deep voice boomed, upping the adrenaline in my system. “Many of you will fall today.”
My brows rose. That’s a motivational statement.
“But you will fall as warriors—the only true, honorable death.”
He continued on, and I zoned him out. Motivational war speeches about dying honorably in battle weren’t my thing. How about a speech where we were all awesomely alive at the end? I could get behind that. Besides, we had a helluva hike ahead of us, and I was using that time to clear my thoughts of everything that’d happened in the last couple of weeks. There was so much clogging up my head—Olivia, my dad, Aiden, and Seth, and where in the hell was Apollo, and so much more. I needed to be focused.
All these moments were leading up to the here and now, and by the time the sun rose the next day, blood would cover the ground like a crimson river. Blood of our own. Blood of our enemies. And blood of those who’d been manipulated onto the wrong side.
Twigs crunched and snapped under our boots as we crested the second hill. There was one more, and then we would be staring down at the walls. We had the high ground, but they would see us the moment we came down.
“Remember the plan,” Perses said, stalking up behind me.
I nodded, because my vocal cords had frozen. The plan had been set into motion before we even left South Dakota, and I had had plenty of time to come to terms with it, but I hadn’t.
At the last hill, Perses, Seth, and I would split from our group, leaving Aiden, Solos, and Luke behind with the army. Cannon fodder. No one said that. Instead, Perses had said they would be the distraction needed for us to get inside, but I knew that was what they were. The walls were protected by the automatons, and they would be picking off our guys in bulk. And then, when they made it through the entry gate, there was the mortal army…and gods knew what else.