“Isn’t it amazing how well the Everneath knows what’s inside you? It takes three full days, but my world can transform your Surface heart into something that epitomizes you, right down to your very soul. And when you get your heart, you realize that object is so appropriate—so right—it could never have been anything else. The whole process is quite extraordinary. The power of the Everneath makes it happen, but it’s always seemed magical to me.”
There was a heaviness in my chest that I couldn’t explain. “Why are you telling me this?” I said in a low voice.
He brought his hand forward, showing the metal object he had grabbed from my desk. “You’ve completed your first step to becoming an Everliving. Your Surface heart is a compass. Your Everneath heart is vaulted.”
I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed.
My heart. My heart. It was gone. It wasn’t beating under my hand. That’s what was different.
My mouth dropped open, and I fought for breath. “You did this to me?”
“Actually, you did it to yourself. It was your choice to feed on an Everliving. In the Everneath. Three times, Nik. You chose it. All three times. In fact, that was the hardest part of this whole thing. The rules for creating an Everliving are very specific. The mortal has to ask to be fed by the Everliving. There was no way I could offer to feed you or even suggest that feeding you was a possibility. I have to admit, there were times on our little journey when I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to show you how feeding you would energize you. Was it too much to hope you would initiate a kiss? You gave me mouth-to-mouth, but unfortunately I wasn’t awake for it. I decided to find another chance to drown or get knocked out, but there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities.
“Then I saw you with your Siren. I only caught a glimpse, but I saw you kiss him. I thought, Maybe, just maybe … I ran back to my Siren—yes, Nik, I’d already figured out she wasn’t you—and I waited for you to find us. And voilà. The magical kiss to save me from the Siren.”
“I saved your life,” I said, incredulous.
“Yes. After I put myself in jeopardy. See, once you had a taste of what a kiss from me could do, I finally allowed myself to hope. There had to be at least two more times when you would be weak enough to beg for another kiss.”
I racked my brain, trying to remember.
Cole smiled. “The second time was when the Wanderers attacked you. The third time was in the Tunnels.”
It didn’t make sense. None of it made any sense. Cole had gone to the Everneath to help me, hadn’t he? I thought of the ultimatum I’d given him, when I threatened to ingest his hair and go back by myself.
“I had to beg you to come with me,” I said.
“If I had instigated the whole ‘let’s go to the Everneath and search for Jack’ scenario, you never would’ve trusted me. You would’ve always been looking for my ulterior motives. And I needed your trust. Your unquestioning, implicit trust.”
“But Max warned me to stay away from you! Why would he do that if being with you was part of the plan?”
“We knew if Max looked too eager, you would get suspicious.”
I shook my head. He’d played me. He knew me so well, and he’d played me. That was the real reason Ashe had followed Cole. Why Max had never gotten so frustrated that he abandoned us. They were in on it.
I glanced quickly at Jack and then lowered my voice. “Mrs. Jenkins warned me not to eat.”
Cole frowned. “Yes. Mrs. Jenkins was the wild card. I had no idea how much she really knew. She knew enough to warn you not to eat in the Everneath, but she didn’t know what was really meant by ‘eating.’”
Cole’s face remained blank. “I know.”
“Did you kill her?”
Cole smiled wryly. “No.”
I let out a small sigh of relief.
“Max did. With the help of the rest of the band.”
My mouth dropped open. “But … why?”
“She knew about you. She was a loose end.”
I put my hand on my stomach and sank to the ground. Cole watched, but he didn’t make a move to comfort me. I put my head in my hands. “No. This can’t be right. Tell me this is a dream.”
“It’s a dream come true,” Cole said with a smirk. Then his face became serious. “You’re safe, Nik. Nobody knows about you except the band now. The queen doesn’t know you survived the Feed. She doesn’t know a threat even exists. We’ve made you safe.”
“You’ve made me one of you!” I hissed.
“I know. I’m sorry.” He stood next to the windowsill, knees slightly bent, coiled and ready to spring.
He was leaving. “Wait!”
“Give me my heart. Please. It doesn’t matter if I break it since my second heart is in a vault in the Everneath, right? So give it to me.”
Cole looked from his closed fist to my face. He slipped the compass into his pocket. “Sorry, Nik. I’m really sorry. But there are certain … perks for the Everliving who holds your heart. And I hold yours. Now we’re even.”
His face went soft. “You’ve always held mine.”
He swung one leg over the side of the window.
“I trusted you,” I said, my voice shaky with anger and exhaustion.
“I know,” Cole said simply. He jumped out the window and leaned his head in for one last moment. “And now I have all of eternity to earn your forgiveness.”
When Jack opened his eyes the next morning, I was sitting with my back against the wall, watching him. He looked at the bed next to him, put a hand on the pillow, and turned.
When he caught my gaze, his eyebrows furrowed.
“Becks. Are you okay?”
He stretched his arms above his head. “What time is it?”
“It’s eight thirty.”
He looked at me again. “What’s wrong?”
I tried to smile. “Nothing.”
He grimaced. “Do you honestly think I’m gonna buy that? Tell me what’s going on.”
There was no avoiding it. What I had planned, Jack would find out eventually. It would be better if he knew now. Then maybe he could help me.
I pushed off the floor and returned to sit by him in the bed. I took his hand in both of mine.
“You know the Everneath?”
He smiled and gave a small laugh. “Uh, yeah, I think I’m familiar with it.”
“Good. Because I’m going to destroy it.”
His smile faded.
“I’m taking the whole. Damn. Thing. Down. Are you with me?”
He brought my hand up to his lips and kissed the space between my thumb and fingers. “Always. Forever.”