My brows flew up. To be honest, I hadn’t thought they’d give us any time. I could easily see them giving us two hours. I wasn’t surprised to learn of the whole exposure thing, though. The Alphas had decreed long ago that humankind could never have real, hard-core proof that a Heaven and a Hell existed, that they must believe in a higher power based on faith alone. I didn’t understand that then and I still didn’t get it now. All I knew was that the Wardens went to great lengths to keep the existence of demons a secret from humans everywhere. “What happens if we don’t have it under control?”
“Nothing pretty. They threatened to wipe us all out. The same thing if the Lilin goes too far.” He exhaled roughly while I wondered what “too far” would look like. “They seem to understand that tracking the Lilin down and killing it isn’t going to be easy, but that’s not all that they talked about.”
“What else did they talk about? How cool it is up on their lofty perch?”
He stared for a moment, and then said, “Uh, no. They... Well, there’s no easy way to say this. They’re not happy with you, Layla-bug.”
Maybe a few weeks ago, I would’ve flipped out and tossed myself in a corner to rock away all my troubles. Now? I snorted, and then took another drink. “Big surprise there.”
Zayne’s gaze drifted over my face. He didn’t speak for a long moment. “Roth did say something true yesterday. I have seen black, feathered wings before.”
I was doing my best not to think about my weird wings, but I set the cup down. “Where?”
A muscle under his eye twitched as he dropped his gaze, and my stomach tightened. Not a particularly good sign. “I’ve only seen one demon with them. Felt like an Upper Level one. It was a brief glimpse. I thought I was seeing stuff, but they were like yours.”
“Oh,” I murmured, unsure of how to feel about that. Zayne and Danika had already confirmed that I smelled like an Upper Level demon. That was why the Warden Tomas had attacked me. So this was nothing new, not really, but it still didn’t explain why my wings were suddenly feathered and why I hadn’t fully shifted like a Warden or a demon would. “Do my wings have something to do with why the Alphas suddenly don’t like me? Well, not that they ever liked me in the first place, but what gives now?”
“All they said was that you were an abomination. That’s not right. You—”
“I know. It’s not right. There are worse things kicking around than me. I know that. And if they don’t know that, it’s not my problem.”
Zayne raised a brow.
“Well, okay, it is my problem if they try to come after me again, but I know I’m not an abomination,” I repeated, dragging my finger along the rim of the cup.
It had taken a long time for me to get to that point, to not let the words of the Alphas or my own clan members cut me down. Or even the words of the girls at school, like Eva Hasher and the Bitch Pack, as Stacey referred to them, who used to have me doubting everything that I was. I don’t even know what exactly flipped that switch for me. Maybe it was the long and dark hours I’d spent in that horrible cage below the compound or maybe it was almost dying. Either way, it was a wake-up call.
In more ways than one, and now I had to seize one of those other ways.
I glanced at Zayne, my closest of friends since I was a little girl, my everything for so very long, and found that I couldn’t look away. This...this was going to hurt. Holy granola bars, it was going to sting like a swarm of wasps. And it was so scary, because there was no safety net for this decision.
Zayne inclined his head. “Hey...” He reached across the table for my hand, but I pulled it back, clasping mine together. His eyes flew to mine. “Layla?”
I thought about what Cayman had whispered in my ear that morning.
Stop being a coward and let go of the past. Embrace the future, because they are two very different things.
Cayman had been right. I’d been a coward, afraid of letting go of the past, of all that familiarity, because there was safety there, a simplicity in its comfort. The past was like going home, and it was sweet and warm, and perfect in its own right. It wasn’t any less than the future, but I’d been terrified of embracing the unknown, of the potential of losing what I’d always counted on.
Because there was only one set of eyes I saw when I closed mine at night and when I reopened them in the morning.
“Layla?” Zayne’s voice was soft.
I squared my shoulders as I drew in a stuttered breath. “You said we needed to talk yesterday and you were right. We do.”
His gaze searched mine as I forged on. “I know there’s a lot going on right now, so many things up in the air, and a lot of it is crazy.”
There was a golf-ball-size knot currently lodged in my throat and I wanted to close my eyes. I wanted to look away, but I forced myself not to hide anything. “You know that you mean the world to me, always have, and that I care about you so much. I love you—”
“But you’re not in love with me?” His eyes shut as his faced tensed. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“No. I mean, I’m not saying it like that. I do love you, but—”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Zayne opened his eyes as he leaned back against the booth, shaking his head. “Just stop.”
I opened my mouth.
“Stop. Just for a second,” he said again, eyes open and not missing a thing. He shook his head, staring at me in the worst kind of wonderment. “Is it because of what happened when I kissed you last time, or because of our clan? I trust you, Layla. And I know you trust me. We can make this work.”
Oh God, that golf ball had turned into a softball. “I know you trust me, but that’s not the reason. It’s really not.” Those words were truer than I’d realized until that moment, and it made saying what I had to so very important, because even if he and I could have made it work, in the end, my heart—my heart would’ve belonged elsewhere. “We could have made it work without...without the kissing and we could’ve been careful. And I trust you, but this isn’t about trust. Zayne, you’re important to me and I—”
“You love Roth,” he continued for me. “You’re in love with him.”
My eyes met his bright blue ones. “Yes,” I whispered, my lower lip trembling. “It’s him. It’s always been him. I’m sorry. I do love you. I care about you so much, and in so many ways, being with you was a dream come true, but it’s not the same.”
He drew back, as if I’d reached across the table and slapped him. “Please don’t expect me to sit here and listen to a speech that makes me feel like a damn runner-up in some kind of contest.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “That’s not how I want you to feel.”
Zayne’s brows lowered as he stared at me. “How in the Hell did you expect me to feel?”
Tears burned the back of my eyes, because I’d never, ever wanted to hurt anyone. Especially not him. “I don’t know.”
“Of course you don’t.” He thrust his hand over his head, clasping the back of his neck. A moment passed as tension tightened the lines of his mouth. “I love you,” he ground out, a muscle thrumming along his jaw. “I’m in love with you. I waited for you, Layla. And none of that—none of that matters.”