WHEN ROWAN GOT back to camp, he cornered Reese. Nyssa was off talking to Myra and Kendra about their patrol tomorrow and making sure there were no extra Elites hiding out in case Skye and Arya were lying about their allegiance. Skye seemed genuine enough, especially if Reese trusted him, but Arya was…prickly.
“You should have waited until tomorrow to have gone.” Rowan said the moment he found her curled up in her nest in their den.
“I know,” Reese replied without lifting her head. “But I wanted the information today.”
“You got caught,” Rowan snarled. Reese hadn’t told Nyssa or Rowan about the details of how she met Skye but the russet brown tom knew her. She was too good to confront an Elite and just lead him back to camp. She came back limping and in desperate need of a rest. “You could have been taken prisoner, tortured, and killed.”
“But I wasn’t.”
Rowan’s temper flared. “If you can’t handle it, Reese, you have to stand down! What is Nyssa going to do when she loses her best spy?”
“She’ll do what she does best,” Reese said stiffly, “act like it doesn’t affect her cold, frozen heart.”
“You aren’t an object to Nyssa and you know it. You’re one of her best friends and you are my best friend. The three of us have made this far and I won’t lose you to your stubbornness.” Rowan wanted her to look up. He wanted her to see how much today had shaken him. When the Elites had gathered outside the ruins, all Rowan could think about was how Reese was somewhere out there alone—possibly already dead. He thought he was going to be dead as well if the Elites didn’t give up and leave and then he’d never get to tell Reese how he felt.
“Don’t talk down to me,” Reese lashed her tail, showing her agitation. “You may be her Second because you have a smarter brain and a better body than me, but I am still Third. Don’t pull rank because you’re furious.”
“You’re equally as smart and equally as capable as me.” Rowan shook his head. “I’m not pulling rank. I’m telling you that I can’t stand to lose you and today I thought we were all going to die.”
Reese slowly lifted her head, searching his gaze. “What do I mean to you?”
Everything. More than the world. But Rowan couldn’t let his feelings get in the way. “The three of us have been a unit for so long,” Rowan said a bit hoarsely, “If we break now, we will never defeat the Serpentine. Nyssa needs us, Reese, more than she’d like to admit. We need each other and that means you can’t just push yourself because you want to prove a point.”
“I am not weak.” Reese flattened her ears. “I made a mistake today but I am not weak.”
“I know.” Rowan said, and he meant it.
She searched his gaze again. Rowan kept still even though everything in his blood roared at him to go to her, to touch his nose to her skin, to make sure she was truly safe and alive. No harm had come to her today, but Rowan had come too close to losing her.
He forced himself to stay where he was. “Don’t pull that kind of bull again,” he told her, even if he hated himself for sounding so harsh. “You are not weak, but you are not invincible.”
Reese’s eyes shuttered, as if she had not found what she was looking for in Rowan. He felt his own heart cave in. He was shoving her away; he was doing it to keep himself safe and to keep her safe. There was no place for sorrow and grief in war.
Or love it seemed.
The pale she-cat curled in on herself once more and Rowan just stood there like a fool, watching her until her breathing calmed and her chest rose and fell in a smooth rhythm. He wanted to curl right around her, to cherish the feeling of her body against his, but Rowan forced himself to turn around and walk back outside to find Nyssa. There was still work to be done before he could sleep, even if dawn wasn’t too far off. Today would just have to be one of his sleepless nights.
He found Nyssa right outside the ruins, staring into the distance towards the plains. He was careful to keep his distance, not wanting to make Nyssa snap. It was rare to find her in such a fixated state—she had been distracted earlier today and tonight it seemed would be no different.
“Don’t just stand there,” Nyssa finally turned around. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?” Rowan frowned. They had nothing to do tonight if Nyssa had already secured the camp. Skye and Arya would be finding information on the Forgotten prisoner and possibly the overseer camp, but the Mistakes had the night off.
It was no answer, but Rowan fell in step with his Leader, feeling her senses cast out to stay alert. They walked for a long time until they reached the burnt plains. “Where did Marisse die?” Nyssa finally spoke.
The russet brown tom blinked, the only sign of his confusion. “I don’t know.”
“How did you know of her death?”
“Kendra told me.”
“Why was Kendra out here?” Nyssa pressed.
The dark gray she-cat shook her head, snarling a bit. But she didn’t ask another question as she stared and stared into the horizon, searching for an answer Rowan couldn’t give. He didn’t know what was going on in her brilliant, cunning mind, but he didn’t want to press. Nobody really could push Nyssa into revealing her thoughts.
She always shut them out, Rowan reflected. While he and Reese were close—close enough that Rowan couldn’t ever stop thinking about her; Nyssa was always a lone star on the side. And Rowan knew precisely why she insisted on staying so detached. But he couldn’t help but want to try anyway.
“I need to talk to Kendra.” Nyssa decided.
Rowan stopped her with his tail. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Nyssa shoved past him, causing him to stagger slightly at the blow. She stalked away, not deigning to give him an answer. Rowan’s temper flared slightly at her arrogance, her haughty attitude, but he didn’t press. If he did, Nyssa would shut him out so thoroughly it would be days before she finally opened up to him again.
If any of this counted as “opening up.”
“Kendra needs rest for tomorrow,” Rowan decided to say instead as he followed Nyssa back. “You can ask her your questions when she returns from patrol.”
“And when she doesn’t?” Nyssa asked sharply.
“Kendra and Myra aren’t stupid.”
“Neither is Reese but she got caught today.” So they weren’t going to dance around this fact. Rowan already felt bad enough he had shoved the accusation on Reese just moments before, but Nyssa was right to say this. Reese couldn’t make amateur mistakes.
Rowan didn’t have anything to say to that. Nyssa pivoted, her amber eyes burning brightly as she searched his own eyes. “Did you talk to her?”
“And she’s pissed,” Rowan shrugged. “Any of us would be if we got caught. Reese is used to being the best; she’s never been noticed before.”
“Why did she get caught?” Nyssa pushed.
In that moment, Rowan’s temper flared so brightly he couldn’t help but say coldly. “You honestly don’t know why?”
Nyssa frowned, her face closing off. But there was no shred of kindness in Rowan’s heart for the dark gray she-cat if she had no idea why Skye had found Reese. When Nyssa didn’t answer, Rowan half-snarled. “You should have noticed she was flagging. We pushed her a little too much in the morning, with the fight against the foxes. Her leg needed rest and you sent her out--”
“She made the decision to go tonight.” Nyssa snapped. “I asked her to wait until tomorrow.”
“Then you should have found a way to stop her!” Rowan shouted.
Nyssa’s eyes flashed. “Why didn’t you? You’re the one who has pined after her all these moons. If you actually care about her so much, why didn’t you stop her?”
“Because you told me to stand down and let Reese do it. Because that will make her feel weak and useless and I know Reese is more than capable to do everything we do and more.” Because I love her and I don’t know what she’d do if I told her.
Chances were, Reese would laugh it off and say that Rowan was bluffing and saying that because she was a cripple and he wanted her to stay in their little unit, as he had called it. Rowan wished the pale she-cat would let him help her more.
“Don’t blame this on me,” Nyssa’s eyes glowed with fury. “I know I make mistakes, okay? But we are all to blame for tonight. We should have realized someone would rat us out; we need to get more prey in. We need to shore up our defenses and make sure we’re safer, or else others will run out too. And the three of us—we need to communicate and understand each other.”
She turned away and started walking, as if her pretty speech had smoothed the rift between them. Rowan stared after her for a long moment before slowly following. Nyssa was an idiot if she truly believed she ever knew how to communicate with others. But now wasn’t the time for Rowan to tell her.
There was too much at risk.
Dawn was here by the time Rowan and Nyssa finished delegating jobs for the day and planning out their meeting with Skye. It was almost time for them to set out, especially if Reese was coming along.
The russet brown tom was running on a sleepless night, but he shook it off and told himself he would take a nap when they returned. If Skye didn’t bring news that required immediate action of course.
Reese was awake by the time Rowan finally made it back to the den to rouse her. She was stretching her leg, rubbing the herbs that Adel had given her onto her leg. “Are we leaving now?” She asked, standing without another word.
Involuntarily, Rowan glanced at her leg, wondering if it would hold out for the day. Reese didn’t get much sleep over the night and yesterday her leg had given out. That hadn’t happened for a very long time.
When he finally dragged his gaze back up, Reese’s blue-green eyes were steel. “Let’s go,” she brushed past him coldly, “We don’t have much time to lose.”
Rowan trailed after her, feeling guilty and ashamed all at once. He wanted to find a way to apologize for her, but in this world, Rowan couldn’t afford to be weak. He would just have to look past his love for the pale she-cat and move on.
Nyssa was already impatiently waiting outside. “Come on,” she urged, racing out over the desolate lands. Rowan kept pace easily next to Nyssa and refused to glance at Reese, who was already on the gray she-cat’s left side, not faltering for one step. The way back would take a toll on Reese, but Rowan didn’t say anything.
By the time they reached the border, the sun had risen and sure enough, two cats were sitting at the border, talking softly. Nyssa gestured to Rowan and Reese to scout the area. They fanned out; making sure the border was secure before approaching Skye and Arya.
“You’re late.” Arya said by greeting.
“You’re early.” Nyssa corrected. “That’s not the same thing.”
Skye gazed at us impassively. “Does it matter? Nobody notices if two cats go hunting, even if it’s right before cresimen. The Elites certainly don’t keep tabs on one another. We also secured the area, in case you were worried.”
“We can assess that for ourselves, thank you,” Rowan said coolly.
Nyssa stiffened her back. “What news do you have?”
“The camp is on a ridge just over that hill.” Skye pointed with his tail towards the looming lump on the ground. It took awhile but I managed to stalk one of the overseers to see where their camp is.”
Rowan scanned their surroundings. Reese was no doubt assessing the Elites and any information they decided to keep from the three of them. The border was silent—unnaturally so.
“And the Forgotten prisoner?” Nyssa pressed.
“There’s nothing on him,” Skye shook his head. “Are you sure there’s a Forgotten prisoner?”
Reese was the one who dipped her head in conformation. “I overheard one of your overseers talking about it. There’s definitely a prisoner, or at least there was one. But I don’t think they would kill a cat who could lead them to SwiftClan.”
“SwiftClan hasn’t been seen for the past ten moons,” Skye said sharply.
“And we can see now that the Mistakes are the real rebels,” Arya added, “I think this is a stupid goose chase you guys made up to keep us busy. We know all your tricks, Mistakes; you don’t fool us.”
“You owe us a life debt,” Nyssa said coldly.
“And all of you would be dead if we had turned you in,” Arya snapped back.
A cold, creeping feeling made Rowan suppress a shiver. His eyes darted about, suddenly alert. What was he missing? He turned slowly, eyes roaming the earth, trying to find whatever was making Rowan so unsteady. Reese shifted on her own paws, her blue-green eyes tracking his own eyes.
“Rowan,” Nyssa’s tone was cautious. “What do you see?”
He didn’t reply. The silence that filled the air was pressing and crushing. But nobody else seemed to notice it. Rowan always felt that he had a sixth sense for non-tangible things, a skill that made him the best tracker out of all of them.
“Rowan,” Nyssa pressed.
His eyes searched harder. Other noise was squeezed out as the silence hit Rowan with full force. “Rowan,” Nyssa pleaded, “tell me what’s going on.”
The russet brown tom couldn’t force it out anymore. He struggled to draw breath. Danger, he wanted to say, there’s something dangerous lurking in the woods.
But at that moment, Arya let out a strangled gasp and collapsed to the ground, her eyes rolling back as she fell. The pressing silence eased off Rowan’s chest and then he was gulping down air, panting heavily as he realized that the danger hadn’t been around them, but with the black and white she-cat right in front of them.