I can’t breathe.
The world had flipped over and I was in the water, the cold liquid sluicing over me and holding me down. My hands scrabbled across rock, the freezing creek closing up over me.
As my lungs began to burn, what felt like an iron band wrapped around my chest and held unyielding, and I broke free to the surface.
My throat was raw, aching as I thrashed and gasped for air. My knees connected with something solid, and someone — Charlie —grunted. He heaved under me, hauling me higher up against his chest. It was his arm that had saved me from the frigid creek. It wouldn’t be enough to save us from the fire.
I lifted my head, as a chill passed over me that was totally unrelated to being doused in the creek. The cabin, our cabin, was lit up like a bonfire, smoke shuddering off the flames.
“Darcy,” Charlie’s voice was rough in my ear. “Get up.”
Knees shaking, I pushed away from him and scrambled up the creek bank. A hunk of dirt went from solid to loose under my feet, and I slipped with a gasp.
Charlie was there in an instant.
A sharp pain cracked through my midsection, as he flopped me over his shoulder, his other arm clamped around my legs. He was running, slogging up the bank and onto the dirt shoulder. Red shadows from the fire spiked the ground, highlighting fallen leaves.
My legs were cold, my clothing sticking to my skin every time I moved. The urge to vomit grabbed ahold of me with each bounce of my belly against Charlie’s shoulder. He crested the top of the ridge and paused for a moment.
Flames crackled, streaking across the the grass and running up the sides of trees. Heat flared as a nearby willow exploded into a pillar of fire. Charlie took a few long strides further into the woods, the smoke choking the air and making it hard to see through.
“The guys,” I whisper-screamed, the words hurting my sore throat. I squirmed in his grip. He let me down, my clothes catching and sticking as I slid down his body. My legs buckled when I hit the ground and he grabbed me, holding me close.
We both stared across the creek, squinting to see past the line of flames that climbed higher every minute.
Charlie tensed and shoved me hard to the side as the top of a pine tree came crashing down mere feet from us, its needles cracking and popping like firecrackers. He grabbed me by the wrist and ran, trailing me behind him like a kite as I struggled to keep up.
“Charlie!” The air was hot in my lungs, my jeans chafing against my thighs, my boots sodden. We needed to go back. We needed to find the rest of the pack and make sure they were okay.
The roar of the blaze was deafening, and Charlie turned to stare behind me, the red glow reflecting in his eyes. He grabbed me around the waist.
“No time,” he said, and practically threw me onto his back. I wrapped an arm around his neck out of instinct to keep myself from toppling over, and his arms tucked under my knees. He took off at a flat run, the flex and release of his muscles rough as we skimmed the uneven forest floor.
I gasped as I saw what we were running from. Fire, a wall of it, reached up to the sky, skipping forward several feet at a time, eating the forest up. Dead leaves glowed for brief seconds before they evaporated into the air.
I buried my face in the back of Charlie’s neck, clinging to him tight as he ran faster than any human could’ve. The jarring motion hurt, but not as much as the rip right through my heart at leaving the guys behind. Cracking booms split the air, trees exploding all around us as the flames kept pace with Charlie. I cried out and clung to him. We were going to die, consumed by the flames.
Charlie let out a feral growl and, impossibly, ran faster. The wind whipped at my cold clothes as each step he took launched us down the sloping ground. The trees were a blur when I cracked my eyes open against the smoke. He was fast, faster than any person I’d ever seen,
Then I was inhaling clean air as we broke through to brush that hadn’t caught fire. My heart squeezed and raced in my chest as we escaped, leaving the spreading flames behind.
The heat melted away slowly as Charlie ran, the cool night air sinking through the wet fabric I was wearing. I shivered, hard, and Charlie’s pace dropped down to a skidding trot before he stopped, his chest barely heaving. He turned, and I slipped off of him as he let go of me.
The forest was dark all around us, with not even the glow of fire in the sky. How far had we run? I gulped a lungful of air.
“Shit,” Charlie said, wiping a hand over his face. He looked up through the trees. The stars winked down at us from behind a haze of cloud, or maybe it was smoke.
“Are we —” The words went dry in my mouth. Charlie shook his head. “Where are we?”
Charlie let out a low, humorless chuckle.
“The woods,” he said, and turned back to look in the direction we were headed. “I can still smell the fire though.” His face was pale despite the run and he looked haunted.
“The guys,” I wasn’t able to find the right words, and my eyes watered. They couldn’t really have burned alive, right? I shook that thought right out of my head.
“We have to keep moving,” Charlie took me by the hand and gazed down at me, his lips pressed into a thin line like he was unhappy with that fact. “I don’t think I can outrun a fire twice in one night.”
“Can’t we go around it?” I asked, glancing behind us. Charlie made a noise, like he was in pain.
“I don’t know these woods,” he said, “I don’t want to walk us right back into danger. Plus,” he hesitated for a moment and I forced myself to pull my eyes away from the woods to look at him. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Why?” I asked. “They’re going to be looking for us, they’re going to think that we —”
“I don’t know that they even survived,” his words ripped right through me and I shook my head.
“No, Charlie, no, they had to get out, they’d have had time.” The idea of the fire taking them, running up their skin, turning them to ash, just like the forest that had exploded all around us, made me nauseous and weak. Turning, I took a few steps back in the direction we’d come, then a few more. Charlie wrapped a hand around my wrist and tugged me back.
“We need to get down to the lake, where we’re safe,” he said. “That fire jumped the creek, Darce, and there’s no way we’re surviving something like that if we face it again. I don’t even think the guys…” He swallowed and looked away, but not before I saw the glisten of tears in his lashes. A sob worked its way up my throat. I didn’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe it.
“If they’re alive, they’ll find us,” Charlie insisted and tugged on my hand. “C’mon. I need to keep you safe.” His voice was hoarse with unshed tears and he pulled again. I let him, my feet heavy as we walked. The woods were sparser here, the ground cover not as thick. I stumbled on a root, and Charlie caught me, holding me close.
“How far to the lake?” I asked. It was hard to see in the night, although the moonlight splashed down patches of silver light here and there, warning me before I tripped on another root. “We’ll just wait there for a bit, right, see if the fire keeps coming or…” I swallowed. “Someone will see it. They’ll send a fire crew out, right?”
Charlie didn’t answer me, only kept up the steady pressure, leading me along after him. The ground sloped down, and it was easier to follow him as he kept an eye out for jutting roots and hidden boulders. He had better night vision than I did, anyway. He warned me with small murmurs, letting me have both my hands free for balance when we walked down precarious ridges and along downed trees.
We walked through the night, the woods crowded in places and spread out in others. In the distance, the sharp booms and cracks of the fire rang out, making me flinch every time. It was like an unspoken agreement between us, that we wouldn’t talk.
It felt like if I said another word I’d break down into panicked tears. He was right in a way. The only option was to get to a place where we knew we’d be safe and wait things out. It felt like a betrayal, but if the guys were alive, and I begged every higher power that they were, they’d have gone in the opposite direction, up the grassy hill that was bare of trees and safer from the fire.
I could only hope that’s what they’d done.
“Ooof, shit!” My boot slipped off a patch of moss on the side of a small rock and I toppled forward. Charlie reached for my arm to pull me upright, but not soon enough. I yelped, sharp pain flashing up my ankle, and went down hard, my free arm flailing outward.
I landed in the dirt and winced. The spiking, stabbing pain in my ankle wasn’t fading. Charlie bent to offer me a hand.
“You okay?” he asked. I took a breath and wrapped my fingers around his, using my other hand to push up off the ground. Pain seized my leg as soon as I put weight on my ankle. I whimpered and sank back down, Charlie following me into a crouch. Gritting my teeth, I reached down for my boot and, wincing, began to work it off slowly. The wet leather was tight, and I gasped, needing to stop several times before I got it off.
“Hurts,” I hissed as he lifted my leg to eye my ankle.
“Looks like some swelling,” he said, running warm fingers along my skin with an unhurried gentleness that made it feel like we weren’t really on the run from a forest fire that may have killed the rest of our pack.
Angry, bitter tears welled up in my eyes and Charlie set my foot down.
“Hey, hey,” he soothed me, “it’s okay.” He wrapped his arms around me and I broke down, sobbing into the collar of his shirt.
“It’s not, it’s not, nothing about this is okay,” I said, before my throat closed up with grief and pain. Everything was wrong. It had all spun out of control so quickly that it was stealing my breath away. The ache in my chest expanded, filling every corner of my body as Charlie held me tight. Even his warmth and closeness wasn’t enough to smooth away the pain, and it was only when I hiccuped from crying so hard that I wiped the back of my hand across my eyes.
“Ugh, fuck,” I said, shivering. Charlie hugged me even closer, until I could barely breathe.
“It’ll be alright,” he promised, his voice edged with anguish. He pulled back to look me right in the eyes. “I’m going to make it alright.”
I knew he was lying to himself so he could lie to me and make me feel better. If the guys were really gone… I pushed the thought away. My fingers wrapped around his shoulders and I tried to pull myself up.
“Darcy, don’t,” he said as a whine of pain escaped the back of my throat. My ankle was throbbing hard. “You’ve twisted it, or sprained it, or worse. Let me.” He got to his feet and reached down to scoop me up. One of his arms slid under the crook of my knees, the other under my back and he held me against his chest. I grabbed my abandoned boot before he could lift me completely.
I’m not saying I haven’t enjoyed my fair share of hamburgers and pie in my life, because I definitely have, but Charlie held me like I weighed no more than a kitten. I guess his strength, so much like Finn’s or Cash’s, shouldn’t have taken me by surprise by then, but it did, a little. I tried not to think about the other guys and let my head slump against his chest.
A wave of uselessness washed over me and I closed my eyes to hide the fresh flood of tears that were threatening to fall.
He started walking, carrying me, and I curled one arm up, resting my hand on the back of his neck to pull myself closer to him.
If only I’d studied healing magic. If only I’d studied water magic. I could have doused those flames with a thought.
If onlys are a good way to second-guess yourself to death, Wolfe’s voice, something he’d said to me, popped up at the back of my head, almost like he was right beside me. I burrowed closer to Charlie and silently agreed with Wolfe’s words. He’d been right then, and he was right now too. We’d get to the lake, and stay safe, and hopefully my ankle would feel better by then.
The guys would find us, and I wouldn’t have to dread never feeling the warmth of their bodies surrounding me again.
Charlie’s gait picked up speed, his long stride swallowing up the ground. I gazed out from under half-opened lids at the silvered leaves and underbrush as we passed by. He wasn’t faltering in the slightest, not one misstep in the dark.
Was he as scared as I was?
Was he terrified the pack was gone?
What was a wolf without his pack, anyway? A pall of dread spread from my heart, outwards, the thought of Charlie, alone, without a pack to keep him warm and safe. I swallowed down a hitch in my breath so he wouldn’t know my thoughts.
I’ll be with you, I promised him, in my mind. No matter what happens, I’ll be right by your side. I closed my eyes, my hand squeezing gently on the back of his neck. The empty feeling of losing the guys lay like a rift inside my mind, waiting to swallow me up. I ignored it. All that I could focus on right now was Charlie, and taking care of him the best that I could.