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In the morning, before the alarm goes off, I meet Toby and Kovach at the gate. With sleep still in the corners of my eyes and my hair a knotty mess, I wave at them, brushing lint off my uniform. Toby's dressed in his full-out battle gear, his gun strapped on his back.

"You ready, Lieutenant?" Kovach asks, giving my shoulder a squeeze.

"I guess so," I mumble, scooting away from her.

The conversation Toby and I had last night still blares in my ear drums, and I keep looking at Kovach, too afraid to meet his eyes.

"You had better be, kid," Toby says, keeping his distance.

Kovach shoots him a glare, and he shrinks back further away from us.

"Sorry, Lieutenant," he says, in a low tone. There is distaste in his voice, even as he continues, "It's just that it's dangerous out there. You never know what kind of fight you might run into."

I shiver, running a hand through my hair.

"I'm ready."

Kovach pats my shoulder, and I wiggle even further away, passing through the open gate as the guards stare down at me. The gravel road stretched in front of me like a blank roll of paper, towards the white dots of Jaelyn's camp on the horizon.

"Let's go, Lieutenant," Toby barks, giving me a shove. I glare at him, taking a step forward. Sweat beads at the back of my neck, and I look over my shoulder every few seconds, wondering if he's going to jump me.

The road in front of us is clear. Tall, skinny palm trees line the sides, providing little shade from the sun as it rises. The swamp fades away behind us, giving way to flat earth and shorter, thicker trees.

After walking for what feels like forever, a patch of yellow catches my eye. I squint ahead, where two figures stand together by a tree. The blonde one is leaning on the trunk, while the taller one stands beside. Even from here, I recognize Jaelyn with her long braid and small form. The man beside her has to be the same one from the video call.

The sound of laughter fills my ears, shattering the silence between Toby and me. As we approach, Jaelyn is doubled over, laughing from deep within her chest, clutching the man's arm as he smiles back at her. As strong as he looks, there's a gentleness in his smile, a fondness in his eyes.

He sees us, standing upright again. I notice that he favors his right leg, but the limp doesn't make him any less threatening.

"Lieutenant Austin?" Jaelyn calls.

I nod, holding an arm out to keep Toby behind me. He has his gun in his hands, glaring ahead at them.

"We need to talk," I say, watching the man, not Jaelyn. The gun on his back catches the sunlight beaming down, but he doesn't move to touch it. What is he to her? Guard? Friend? More? It's a hard relationship to read.

"Whatever you need to say, you can say it to both of us. If you think I'm meeting with the two of you alone, you're dumber than you look," Jaelyn says, shaking her head.

"You and me," I reply, taking a step forward. "No guards."

Jaelyn smirks at me, crossing her arms.


She turns and whispers something to the man, and he shoots her a concerned look but nods. As I watch, he takes her face in both hands, whispering something and then kissing her between the eyes. With her eyes closed, she nods, pushing him away from her.

It's disgustingly adorable, and watching them makes me miss Lexi. That thought alone confuses me. Shouldn't it be Naomi I miss?

"What do you want me to do, Austin?" Toby hisses in my ear, bringing me back to the real world. I glance over at him.

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