Dried leaves crunched softly under Piper's stolen sneakers as she tripped through the underbrush, stumbling on the heels of the huge shadow that made up Alden. She couldn't see anything around her, only layers of darkness, but he seemed impossibly sure-footed. The cold of the November night was biting, her whole body ached with it. Despite her instincts to tuck her hands in her armpits, she kept them out in front of her, waiting for the moment she would fall flat on her face and the noise would alert the police.
Every once in a while she would hear the officers who were combing the woods, searching for them, but Alden was leading her on a winding path that was somehow avoided all of them. With the darkness pressing in, she gave up all hope of tracking their trajectory. As much as it killed her, she just had to trust he wasn't getting them more lost. Why not? It made about as much sense as the rest of this day.
A particularly large tree root caught Piper's foot, sending her sprawling, face first, into Alden's back. He froze. Her arms wrapped around his waist as she righted herself, the offending ankle throbbing. His voice was low, "What are you doing?"
Piper dropped her arms quickly, "Nothing, I—"
Suddenly, Alden turned and grabbed her arm, pulling her along as he skipped back a few steps. He held a hand over her mouth to keep her quiet, shushing gently in her ear as they hid. He held her tightly, shielding her body with his own. Piper's cheeks flushed indignantly until she saw the source of his panic. A flashlight, skimming the tress, not more than 20 feet away. Leaves crunched under boots, and a small voice could be heard over the shadow's walkie-talkie.
Alden's breath was soft against her cheek as he held her there, his whole body so warm Piper melted against his chest without a thought of who it was that held her. The flashlight disappeared, wandering back the way they'd come. Cold air nearly brought tears to her eyes when Alden stepped away, putting an arms width between them. Shivering, she tried to ask what was going on, but before she could manage, a jacket was thrust into her arms. The thick coat was huge, weighing almost more than she did, but it was so blessedly warm.
"Aren't you cold?" Piper asked, even as she pulled it on, swallowed by the fabric.
"No," was all he said before he took off again, not waiting to see if she followed. Why did he sound so angry?
They continued in silence for a long time, Piper digging through her mind for the most colourful curses she could think of as she tripped on Alden's heels. Eventually the sounds of the police search were long since behind them, and the forest settled into a more natural feeling. For some reason she wasn't afraid… but how he had any idea where they were, she would never know. Shivering against the cold, she pulled his jacket closer, ignoring the smell of him (like rain and cedar trees) that met her nose, "How far is it?"
"Another couple hours, at this pace."
Miserably, she repeated, "Hours?"
"If you're tired I can carry you," it was a genuine offer, despite how repulsed he sounded about it.
"No!" she snapped, "You will not carry me! I've been picked up and carried today enough for a lifetime."
"Then it'll be another few hours."
"I'm freezing, exhausted, in pain, and my feet are killing me. Can we please just rest for a bit?"
He didn't slow, "If we stop, it'll take longer."
"Great point, that is very true," she reached up, banging her fist against his back (which was very similar to hitting a wall), "but I am taking a break. I am going to sit right here until morning. You can stay, or you can keep going and come back for me with a car."
Fumbling in the dark, she felt about for a tree to sit against. Alden was a few paces away before he realized that she wasn't following. He whipped around, growling, "We keep going."
"I'm not stopping you!"
He stood over her threateningly, "You'll die if you stay here alone."
"Well, honestly, after today, freezing to death seems like a pretty good option. And it seems like it would save you folks some time," she replied curtly, tugging the hem of his jacket under her bum before sitting on the ground. The coat was so big on her it was practically a blanket.
"You will not freeze to death," Alden snarled, as though she'd insulted him.
She didn't understand him, and she was too tired to care, "And I will also not walk any more tonight."
The shadow looming over her let out a long, slow breath. He squatted before her, forcing her to look at him. His bright blue eyes almost glowed in the dark, "You are incredibly frustrating, you realize that, don't you?"
"Coming from you, the gold-medalist of frustration? I'll take it as a compliment," she pulled her arms into the sleeves, wrapping them around her waist.
Piper had to admit though, the cold was worse now that they weren't walking. Feeling almost guilty, she asked, "Are you sure you're not freezing?"
"I'm fine," he sighed, resigning himself to the fact that they wouldn't be traveling again until morning. He sat back against a different tree, far enough away that they wouldn't accidently touch.
The night pressed down on them, making her feel so small. After a moment, she asked, "Will the police keep searching for us?"
"Aren't you supposed to be napping or something?" he retorted grumpily.
"Never mind. Sorry," Piper muttered, closing her eyes, her entire body throbbing painfully. Every muscle she had was complaining. Loudly. Blisters covered her feet. The ill-fitting shoes had chafed them bloody.
It was sitting there against that tree in the middle of the night, shivering, her whole body hurting, miles away from her apartment – an apartment she might never see again – that the reality began to sink in. Even if she didn't believe everything Alden was saying about magic and the Gods, she'd still been chased out of her home, and now she was wanted by the police. The quiet life she'd so carefully constructed was gone.
And if the Gods were real? If that explained her strange, dark affliction, her ability to see death… what did that mean?
Piper's head dropped down into her hands, her throat painfully tight. I can't. I can't. I can't, throbbed through her mind in time with her thundering pulse. Hot tears welled in her palms, dripping down her wrist.
"What are you doing?" Alden growled.
"Crying," she rasped miserably.
If Piper expected his voice to soften, or words of comfort, she was disappointed. "Well, stop it," he snapped.
She didn't have an answer to that, so she just ignored him, hunching down even further. Any thoughts that tried to enter her mind were drowned out by the chanting I can't, I can't, I can't, until even that held no meaning anymore. Everything was numb, until, shivering, exhaustion finally dragged her into an uneasy sleep.
Her mind was so numb that she didn't even realize when she stopped shivering. She didn't notice how she melted into the warmth of the body curling around her own.
The forest was only minimally brighter (grey instead of black) when Piper was jostled awake by Alden shaking her shoulder, "People are nearby. We need to move."
She blinked up at him dully, the pain in her stiff neck and shoulders agonizing. Everything hurt. This was the last time she slept curled up in the forest in November she vowed, accepting the hand that he held out to her. Alden pulled Piper to her feet and took off without checking to see if she would follow. Of course she would, what else could she do?
At least now she could see what she was tripping over, "You said there's people close by?" Alden grunted, not providing anything more. She persisted, "More police?"
"I didn't stop to ask," his voice was smooth, Irish, and grumpy.
"Wait, but what if they aren't after us at all? Maybe they could help us," Piper looked back over her shoulder, as though they might materialize out of the trees. Alden's jacket still buried her in fabric, the thick wool holding a surprising amount of warmth.
Alden glared back at her, "Don't be stupid. No one who I don't trust can see us and live. We're not trying to leave a trail for Jacob and his commissioner to follow."
"Oh," her voice small. Right. Piper hadn't forgotten about all that… just wished it out of her mind for the moment.
Suddenly Alden froze, leaving Piper to collide with his back. "What –?" He cut off her question by holding up a hand for quiet, tilting his chin up. Piper's nerves began to sing as she watched his shoulders bunch with tension. Silence pressed in on them, but he could hear something. And something was wrong.
Alden's jaw ticked, the tiny movement the only thing to betray his frustration. His blue eyes were icy fire when they landed on her, "We're surrounded. You need to hide."
Piper's heart hammered against her chest, "W-what?"
"People ahead and behind. You need to hide, I'll scope it out."
"Hide? Where?" the air was suddenly too thin.
Alden glanced around, then without a word, walked to the closest tree and linked his hands in front of him, crouching slightly, "Climb this tree, as high as the branches will hold your weight. Don't make a sound. I'll be back as soon as I figure out what's going on."
Ignoring how her knees shook, Piper stepped into his hands, letting him give her a leg up. She flung herself forward onto the bottom branch, bark scraping as she scrambled onto the limb. Her stomach twisted as she looked down at the ground. Alden's usual scowl was in place as he peered up at her, "Stay quiet. I'll be back."
Piper glanced around, trying to get a sense of where they were, but all she could see was the sea of foliage, stubborn leaves that hadn't yet fallen. Remembering Alden's instructions, she balanced herself on the branch and started to climb.
She was only a few branches higher (cursing her weak arms and promising to go to the gym if she survived this) when she heard the voices. She froze, wrapping an arm around the tree trunk. Holding her breath, as though they might be able to hear it.
Two men stomped through the brush, rough voices rumbling words she couldn't quite make out. They crossed moved to her tree, the one saying, "…should be heading them off right now. They didn't get far."
"Why does Pyotr want the bitch so badly anyway?" the other asked.
Was Piper the bitch he meant? Who was Pyotr?
"Something about her sect. As long as he pays, I don't give a –"
"Wait," the first man cut him off, "the signal divides here. Would they split up?"
Piper didn't dare shift to look down at the men who had paused directly underneath her, certain that somehow the movement would draw their attention. The thin leaf cover was not nearly enough to hide her if they looked up. The second man let out a string of curses, "What sect was the male who took her?"
"Pyotr said he had to be—"
A third voice warbled over the walkie-talkies on their belts, "Blue team, we need back up, now! Code red!"
An inhuman roar thundered in the distance, echoing back through the forest. Birds took off into the air. Gun shots rang out. Both men sprinted toward the noise. Piper couldn't see much, but she did see them swing rifles off their backs before they disappeared.
She counted three pounding heartbeats before more gunshots fired. Every nerve in her body tingled as she tried to figure out what to do. They had guns. Alden must be dead. Which meant they would come back for her.
There were at least four men in this forest who would be searching for her. They had guns and some kind of gadget that could track her. What did she have? The terrifying ability to inform them of when they would die, years from now. If the Gods had to give her some magical superpower, why couldn't it be something useful?
She had to run. Once they came back it wouldn't take them long to look up. Clutching the tree trunk, Piper scooted backward, reaching her foot for the branch below. Two more gunshots fired. A whimper escaped her lips. Trying to move faster, she slipped down the branches, chips of bark raining under her feet. Finally, with arms shaking, she reached the last branch.
Piper peered over the edge toward the ground, stretching further and further away. Okay. Just an eight foot drop. Moving as fast ash she could, she folded her stomach over the branch, and lowered herself to dangle above the ground. A breath.
She hit the ground with a jolt that reverberated through her bones, her tailbone cracking as she landed on her butt. Leaves and twigs crunched underneath her, and tears sprung to her eyes. Get up!
"Has anyone ever explained to you what it means to hide?" The grumble of the smooth, Irish voice was perhaps the most beautiful sound she'd ever heard.
Piper turned her face skyward, where an upside-down Alden was glaring down at her, huge arms crossed over his chest. A delirious laugh bubbled to her lips. He was alive! Even as he tailbone protested, she scrambled to her feet, asking, "Are those men still out there?"
"No," he popped his jaw.
"How…?" Piper stopped, finally taking in what she was seeing. Alden looked fine, but he was covered in blood. The stench of it made her stomach heave. She could taste the iron from here. His expression was guarded as he watched her, studying her reaction. "They had guns…"
"Not enough," Alden shrugged his huge shoulders.
Piper wrapped her arms around waist, trying to hold herself together. "You killed them?"
He didn't try to sugar coat it, "Yes."
How? Piper wanted to ask, but thought better of it. Her stomach wasn't likely to handle much more. It almost looked like the blood dripped from his mouth. Nope. Definitely didn't want to know. Piper was almost surprised when she heard herself ask him, "Are you okay?"
His brow furrowed for a second, as though her question confused him, "I'm fine. We need to go."
And with that, Alden turned and stalked away, his predatory gait reminding Piper strangely of a wild animal.