“I’m sorry,” I said. I realized that I’d been saying that a lot, but I still meant it. I just wished I could say something else.
A quick grin appeared before vanishing. “I know you are. What you did was incredibly brave. Crazy, but brave. I’m not going to lecture you for it. I’m sure... I’m sure Roth has already done that.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “You know, you can’t doubt what you really are, anymore. Inside. You have to know. To make that kind of choice you made, you can no longer doubt your worth. I just... I just wanted you to know that.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and let out a shaky breath. “I... Thank you.” That was all I could say, because he was right. I knew what I was on the inside. Being a demon or a Warden didn’t make me who I was. My decisions and my actions did. And I wasn’t perfect—and I wasn’t evil. I was just me.
A breeze tossed a strand of his blond hair across the chiseled line of his jaw. “Enough about me,” I said, and Zayne chuckled. “What?” I asked.
He slid his hands out of his pockets as he leaned back against the bench, relaxing. “Layla-bug, you died and came back to life. Kind of hard not to focus on that.”
At the sound of my nickname, I got a little giddy inside. “Okay. Good point...” I racked my brain for something to say and found it. “I’m going back to school next week. Roth and Cayman did their thing and the school officials think I’ve been out with mono or something. I can catch up and graduate on time.”
“That’s good.” Sincerity clung to his voice. “What about college?”
I shifted on the bench. “I think I’m going to apply for spring semester—to some of the colleges around here, but once I’m done with school, I kind of want to travel.” Thinking back to the conversation I’d had with Roth about seeing the world, I smiled. “I’ve never been anywhere and I want to see things—the beach, the mountains—a desert. I have time to do that. Lots of time.”
“That’s right. I don’t know how I keep forgetting that you...you’re not going to age or anything.” His jaw tightened. “I think it’s good, though—the whole travel thing. You’ll have fun.”
“Yeah.” It was weird and something I honestly didn’t obsess over, but I was forever going to look like this...unless someone managed to stab me in the heart or chop my head off. I really needed to change the subject again. “But really, enough about me. I want to know how you’re doing with everything.”
He raised one broad shoulder. “Taking it day by day, to be honest. A couple of the nearby clans are coming in, to scope everything out. It’s nothing to worry about,” he added when I tensed. “It’s just procedural crap from what Nicolai and Dez have said.”
“They’ve been a lot of help, haven’t they?”
“Yeah. I’ve got a couple more years before I need to take over, and I know between the two of them, they will do things right. They’re going to bring about some of the change that is needed, especially with how close Nicolai and Danika are getting.”
I grinned, still liking the idea of those two together. “Change is definitely needed. Things have been a bit...archaic.” If Danika had her way, and I couldn’t see her stopping until she did, then the females of the clan would have a heck of a lot more choices in the future. “But aside from your responsibilities to the clan, how are you?”
His brows knitted together. “It’s hard some days,” he admitted quietly. “Talking to Stacey has been good. She...she understands, you know?” He paused while I nodded. “I know my father and I didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things toward the end, but he was my dad, and I loved him.” He glanced at me. “He loved you. You know that, right? Underneath it all, he did care for you.”
Recalling the conversation Zayne and I had after Abbot died, I nodded. “I know.”
“I miss him.”
I started to reach over to squeeze his arm, but halted halfway. I wasn’t sure if he wanted that kind of comfort from me now.
Zayne must have caught the movement out of the corner of his eyes, because he half turned, picking up the black bag. “I brought you something.”
My brows flew up. “You did?”
He nodded as he reached inside. “I thought you might be missing this.”
Curious, I watched as his arm lifted and a raggedy, furry brown head came into view. I clasped my hands together, my mouth dropping open as Zayne pulled out an old, beat-up teddy bear that had seen better days. “Mr. Snotty,” I breathed, reverently.
Zayne had given me Mr. Snotty the night Abbot had first brought me to the Wardens’ compound. I’d only been seven and terrified of the winged creatures with their hard, stone-like skin and jagged teeth. I’d rushed through the house, found a closet and hid in it until Zayne had coaxed me out of it, offering a once-pristine teddy bear.
I’d loved that thing.
As much as I loved Zayne.
I took the bear, clutching it close as Zayne cleared his throat. “I know you’re not a little girl anymore. Heck, I know if push comes to shove, you could kick my ass now, but I thought...well, you could always use Mr. Snotty. He belongs to you.”
Tears burned my eyes as I buried my face in the top of Mr. Snotty’s head and breathed in deeply. The scent of what used to be my home clung to the little bear, and I almost started sobbing right there. Hugging that bear, I wanted to go back in time just so I could get one more hug out of Abbot, before everything went downhill between us.
Blinking back tears, I lifted my face to Zayne. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
He closed his eyes briefly. “I miss you, Layla.”
My chest squeezed like it was in a vise. “You don’t have to,” I whispered, angling toward him as I held the bear. And here we were, finally at the heart of the reason why we were sitting on the bench. “I’m right here. I miss you, Zayne. I want to be friends.”
“I know. It’s just... I’m not ready for that,” he said, flipping his gaze to the sky. His chest rose with a deep breath. “I like to think that one day I will be. Well, I know I will. One day.”
“I will be waiting,” I told him. “I mean it. I’ll be waiting for that day.”
Some of the weight I carried around my heart eased as Zayne nodded slowly. Then he smiled as he looked over at me, really smiled that full-faced grin that I grew up adoring, and in that moment I knew that there really would be a “one day” to look forward to.
ZAYNE AND I chatted for a little while longer, and when it came time to leave, I was reluctant to part ways. I didn’t know when I’d see him again. I’d been so close to jumping on him and hugging him like I did with Mr. Snotty, but I knew it was still too soon for that.
Teary-eyed, I watched Zayne head across the lawn and I hoped that “one day” became someday soon. I really did.
I gently placed Mr. Snotty back in the bag and when I stood, I started across the lawn in the opposite direction, toward the museums. I was going to text Roth soon, but I needed a couple of minutes to sort through all I was feeling. I was happy that I got to see Zayne and to know he didn’t hate me, but I missed him something fierce. I wished it could be the way it was before he and I had gone down that road, but I couldn’t find it in myself to regret any of what he and I shared. We needed to experience everything we had for both of us to know where we really stood with each other. Although I wanted to force him to be my friend right now, I respected and cared for him too much to not give him all the time he needed. In the meantime, I could only be glad he had Stacey to talk to.